The May 2020 issue of The Atlantic headlines an article entitled “How China Sees the World” written by retired U.S. General and former Trump National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. The article is an excerpt from McMaster’s new book, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World. The article could have been entitled “The Sources of Chinese Conduct,” because it is so reminiscent of George F. Kennan’s famous 1947 article in Foreign Affairs, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which Kennan penned under the pseudonym “X.”
Kennan’s article, which appeared in the early stages of America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, looked to history, ideology, and geopolitics to discern the roots of Soviet foreign policy, and recommended that the United States implement a strategy of firm and vigilant containment. It was a policy that the United States followed, in one form or another, for the next 40 years until, as Kennan foreshadowed, the Soviet Union mellowed and disintegrated.
McMaster today, like Kennan did in 1947, looks to history, ideology, and geopolitics to explain how a U.S. rival – in this case, China’s Communist leadership – sees the world. China’s history, McMaster notes, combines periods of greatness and confidence with times of trouble and domestic turmoil. When McMaster visited China in November 2017, he sensed among Chinese leaders a colossal ambition fueled in part by insecurity. The Forbidden City and the images of China broadcast to its people and the world, he writes, reflected “that contrast between outward confidence and inner apprehension.”
The combination of outward confidence and domestic political insecurity among Chinese leaders has produced a rigid authoritarianism at home and an increasingly assertive foreign policy. President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders envision a new “golden age” of Chinese history, reminiscent of China during the Ming dynasty between 1368 and 1644, a period, McMaster explains, of immense economic, territorial, and cultural achievements. Significantly, that period included the first age of Chinese sea power, when Admiral Zheng He “embarked on seven voyages around the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans.” This is Xi’s so-called “China Dream.”
Part of China’s insecurity stems from what Chinese Communist Party officials call the “century of humiliation,” when from the mid-19th century until the victory of the Chinese communists in October 1949, China lost a succession of wars, became internally weak and divided, and was preyed upon by Western colonial powers. Part of China’s ambition, on the other hand, can be traced to its long history and civilization in the heart of Asia and the ideology of Maoism-Leninism, which still influences and sustains the Party leadership. “The fears and ambitions are inseparable,” McMaster writes. “They explain why the Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with control — both internally and externally.”
Worse, McMaster writes, the Party’s leaders see the early 21st century as a “narrow window of strategic opportunity” to overtake the United States as the world’s preeminent power and the provider of international order — an order that would be based not on Western liberal values, but rather a more authoritarian Chinese model. To that end, the Chinese Communist Party has integrated its efforts “across government, industry, academia, and the military.”
McMaster identifies three prongs of Chinese strategy: “co-option, coercion, and concealment.” It involves what McMaster calls “an unprecedented surveillance state,” a citizenry deluged with Party propaganda, and a harsh crackdown on internal dissent, including in Hong Kong.
Those prongs are also evident in Chinese foreign policy where, according to McMaster, current Chinese leaders “aim to put in place a modern-day version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states.” A key part of the effort is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which McMaster views as a geopolitical grand strategy to extend China’s influence to Central Asia, Europe, Africa, and beyond. He writes: “The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ calls for more than $1 trillion in new infrastructure investments across the Indo-Pacific region, Eurasia, and beyond. Its true purpose is to place China at the hub of trade routes and communications networks.”
He describes the BRI as a form of economic colonialism that creates a “ruthless debt trap” for developing countries who then become beholden to China. “China trades debt for equity,” McMaster explains, “to gain control of … ports, airports, dams, power plants, and communications networks.” Moreover, China’s civilian companies that operate in the rest of the world are fused with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Ministry of State Security to ensure control by the Communist Party leadership. And the BRI has both a land and maritime component, making China both a continental land power and a growing sea power, as evidenced by its aggressive moves in the east China and South China Seas and its increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean.
There was a time, McMaster writes, when U.S. policymakers believed that China’s liberalizing economic policies, which produced such dramatic economic growth, would inevitably lead to political liberalization. McMaster calls this mistaken view “strategic narcissism,” and warns that it must be replaced by what he calls “strategic empathy.” Strategic empathy, he writes, “involves trying to understand how the world looks to others, and how those perceptions, as well as emotions and aspirations, influence their policies and actions.”
Such a view — based on a careful study of history and experience — teaches that the Chinese Communist Party will not liberalize internally and will not act abroad according to U.S.-led international rules. Instead, McMaster writes, China’s goal is to replace the current international order with one led by the CCP. China will continue to engage in “economic aggression” and seek to exert control of “strategic geographic locations and establish exclusionary areas of primacy.” In other words, China’s immediate goal is to reduce, then eliminate, U.S. influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Like George Kennan in his “X” article in 1947, McMaster concludes his article in The Atlantic with recommendations for U.S. foreign policy to meet China’s challenge. But this is where McMaster comes up short. Kennan in his famous “X” article proposed a grand strategy of containment of Soviet-communist expansionist tendencies by the application of “counterforce” at shifting geographic areas corresponding to Soviet aggressive moves. McMaster recommends penalizing companies that collaborate with China’s repressive domestic policies; developing a communications infrastructure to protect sensitive U.S data from Chinese pilfering; providing stronger security measures against Chinese agents of influence in the U.S.; and strengthening ties to Chinese expatriates in the United States. The U.S. must “compete aggressively” with China, he writes.
Aggressive competition is a far cry from firm and vigilant containment, yet McMaster’s analysis points to the latter policy. McMaster, like Kennan, recognizes U.S. strengths in this competition. “The free exchange of information and ideas,” McMaster writes, “is an extraordinary competitive advantage, a great engine of innovation and prosperity.” He recognizes that freedom of expression, a free press, diversity and tolerance, and the rule of law are qualities that strengthen the United States in this geopolitical competition with an increasingly authoritarian regime that survives by vigorously repressing those very qualities.
McMaster’s timid policy recommendations will not lead to the gradual break-up or mellowing of Chinese Communist power. A policy of firm and vigilant containment based on an understanding of Chinese history and Indo-Pacific geography would be more effective and more consistent with the traditions of U.S. foreign policy that recognize the need to prevent a hostile power from controlling the key power centers of the Eurasian landmass. In his 1947 “X” article, Kennan welcomed the challenge posed by Soviet communism which, he wrote, made Americans’ security “dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.”
Francis P. Sempa is the author of the books “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century” and “America’s Global Role,” and has written frequently on history and foreign policy for the Asian Review of Books, the University Bookman, the Claremont Review of Books, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, Orbis, Joint Force Quarterly, Strategic Review, the New York Journal of Books, and other publications. He is a federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.