What do China’s leaders seek today and how has Beijing’s vision of its own rise changed and adapted to current circumstances? Just how seriously do the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic objectives interact with China’s foreign policy? Can the United States ultimately sustain primacy in Asia despite the seemingly inexorable rise of China? To explore these larger questions and others, The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda spoke to Jonathan Ward, author of China’s Vision of Victory, and the founder of Atlas Organization, a consultancy focused on the rise of India and China, and on US-China global competition.
The Diplomat: We see the analogy of a “new Cold War” between the United States and China used quite freely today. Do you agree with that assessment or is the nature of competition between Beijing and Washington better suited to other precedents?
Jonathan Ward: The U.S.-China contest will be a unique and original competition. Unlike the Cold War which was predominantly an ideological contest, this competition is likely to be an economic contest with military and ideological dimensions coming close behind. U.S.-China competition does have important parallels with the Cold War. First, it is likely to be a long-term, multi-decade, global contest between an authoritarian superpower and a democratic superpower. The goals of the Chinese Communist Party, as described in China’s Vision of Victory, may be even more ambitious than those of the USSR – the CCP envisions a future in which China ascends to the top of every major industry and technology, in which most of the world’s continents and markets are linked together with China as the economic and strategic center, and in which China has built a military that “can effectively secure China’s overseas interests.” The ultimate rise of China, if fully realized, could look more like the British Empire than an economically weak USSR engaged in global ideological struggle with the U.S.
The goals of the Chinese Communist Party present a clear and open challenge for U.S. global leadership. We should also remember that the Cold War is an example of the United States successfully executing a multi-decade competition against a global authoritarian rival, ending in victory for the free and democratic world. We too can think and plan for long-term competition.
There are several indicators of slow economic decoupling between the United States and China — something that appeared nearly unthinkable just years ago. Is this decoupling here to stay or is this largely a consequence of the specific manner in which the Trump administration has chosen to pursue its trade war with Beijing?
This is an economic contest – China’s goal is essentially to surpass the U.S. economically and from there to build long-term advantages over the United States and other nations. On some level decoupling is inevitable, particularly where it can help preserve a competitive edge in critical technologies and industries that are needed for long-term competition. China’s program of harvesting technology from the developed world during the last 20 years of integration has yielded major results, but China still depends on economic engagement in order to build its technological and industrial advantages. Additionally, the Communist Party executes much of its global strategy through its companies and financial institutions, which can act – unlike U.S. companies – as arms of the state. For example, the same state-owned companies that built the artificial islands in the South China Sea are carrying out other infrastructure projects internationally in the Indo-Pacific. CCP initiatives such as civil-military fusion also show us how the Party is exploiting innovation in the private sector for military means, and this gives an entirely new meaning to doing business in China. Providing the Chinese Communist Party with any further advantages through economic integration seems unwise in a long-term competition. Additionally, China’s surveillance state and human rights abuses, especially in Xinjiang, present reputational risks for American investors and corporates that are seeking opportunities in China, and given the role of Chinese companies in creating the surveillance state, human rights abuses will also impact economic engagement with China as long-term competition sets in.
Central to your analysis is the idea of China’s pursuit of the “China dream” and national rejuvenation. Can you explain the ways in which China will set about to accomplish that in the coming years — or by the centennial of the founding of the PRC in 2049?
There are three major strategies that support the end goal of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” – that is China’s goal of becoming the world’s de facto dominant power, by restoring the wealth and power it once held relative to other nations before its “Century of Humiliation.” First, the Belt and Road Initiative, which shows us the geographical ambitions of global Chinese wealth and power – that is an integrated Asian, European, African, Australian continental superstructure with China as the economic and strategic center. Second is “Made in China 2025,” which envisions Chinese dominance in a series of strategic industries from robotics to next generation information technology to high-tech shipping, and also refers, for example, to striving to “transform China into the global manufacturing leader before the centennial of the founding of the New China,” that is 2049. Third is military modernization, which ultimately envisions a Chinese military “second to none” that is able to “effectively secure China’s overseas interests.” CCP goals in space, oceans and emerging technologies are also important pieces of the picture. We have seen what it looks like for China to pursue these goals during a period of open globalization – the question becomes, how successful will the Communist Party be if the world begins to push back, not only the U.S. alone, but in concert with allies around the world.
The United States has a major asymmetrical advantage against China, which is its vast network of allies and partners. The Trump administration’s policy documents acknowledge the importance of allies and partners, but the president’s own rhetoric chips away at these advantages. How do you assess the future of U.S. alliances in this great power contest?
U.S. alliances will be vital to this contest but we will have to be thinking globally as allies where we are now thinking regionally. This is where Cold War origins serve us badly, I think. Our alliance structures were arguably built around the geography of the Cold War world – that is, NATO to defend Europe and Allied Asia to defend the Asia-Pacific. In today’s global contest, however, we will need our allies to think and act globally – better integration between Europe, Asia, and the United States is essential. It won’t work for Europe to view China as an economic partner, while thinking only about European regional security, for example. There is a huge opportunity for European allies to become important Indo-Pacific actors, and for the U.S. to lead on European-Asian integration which, for the moment, is only being expressed in China’s “Belt and Road.”
If I had to pick six major actors to lead a new democratic era, it would be the U.S., India, Britain, France, Japan, and Australia, and of course there are many other important players too. However, the level of strategic, economic, and military coordination between these actors is still very limited on challenges coming from both Russia and China. The world’s democracies are still about 65 percent of the global economy and if we work together and find alternatives to China, we are going to be successful at preserving a world order in which democratic norms and freedoms continue to prevail. If we fail to do this, however, China may enjoy a relatively unimpeded rise to power – and let’s not forget that China has quite a range of adherents too, from Russia to Pakistan, all of which have important strategic value in helping China distract its adversaries and achieve its goals.
How much of what has happened in Chinese foreign policy specifically since 2013 can be attributed to the personal leadership of Xi Jinping? The 19th Party Congress vindicated longstanding views that Xi was bent on consolidating power in a way unlike any party leader since Deng Xiaoping, but I sense that sometimes narratives about China’s foreign policy behavior over-attribute certain developments to Xi and understates trends that had been underway under Hu Jintao and even perhaps Jiang Zemin.
If there were a Mount Rushmore in Chinese Communist Party lineage, it would include Sun Yatsen, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping. Jiang Zemin called them the “three great men” of modern China. Chairman Xi wants to become the fourth. Xi’s goal is to convert China’s wealth into military power, and to build and consolidate China’s role as a global player. We see this in the scope and scale of China’s major strategies, many of which were underway before him, but which now have come together as global grand strategy that we can all observe. I think his personal ambition is a factor in Chinese foreign policy today – but we should remember that Xi stands in a long line of leaders who have each envisioned the restoration of China’s wealth and power. From Mao’s “New China,” and the idea that “the Chinese people have stood up,” to “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which both Jiang and Hu used in their speeches, to Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” this is all part of the same long-term vision of national restoration. However, the level of confrontation that each leader has been comfortable with has fluctuated over time: Mao was willing to take on both superpowers, make light of nuclear war, and use China’s military everywhere from the Himalayas to Taiwan to Korea and Southeast Asia. We haven’t seen a leader like that in quite some time, but today Xi speaks frequently of “preparing to fight and win wars,” and he is focused on openly building military power – he seems to have a greater appetite for confrontation and control than any leader since Mao Zedong.
In assessing great power competition with China, how seriously should American policymakers think about systemic vulnerabilities that the Chinese Communist Party might face in the coming years?
This is going to be a very important subject. We should understand this all as well as possible, but I believe that we would do best to focus on winning the economic competition, working together to integrate our democratic friends and allies around the world, and maintaining our military and technological edge over both China and Russia. We should focus on our own vision of the future, and on beginning to rebuild a world that is less dependent on authoritarian China – a place which economic engagement has failed to change. China has systemic issues to be sure, but we must work to build our own strengths if we are going to win the long-term competition.
This interview has been edited for clarity.