In recent years, China has started throwing its weight around. It has defied international law and risked violent clashes in the East China and South China Seas. It has bent trade rules by discriminating against foreign businesses to help its own. It has tried to shut out foreign influences while promoting its own propaganda abroad. And it has resisted Western demands that it put more pressure on its ally North Korea. China’s new assertiveness stems, in part, from its growing power; the country now boasts the world’s second-largest economy and its second-largest military budget. But domestic insecurities have also played a role. Slowing growth in an economy burdened by high levels of debt and accelerating capital flight have made Chinese President Xi Jinping increasingly anxious about internal threats, from popular protest to splits in the ruling Communist Party. In response, he has flexed the country’s muscles abroad to play to nationalist fervor at home, while cracking down on any hint of domestic dissent.
China’s ambition and insecure nationalism are here to stay, so long as unelected Communist Party leaders remain in power. The United States must figure out how to channel the ambition in a positive direction while respecting China’s nationalist pride and protecting the United States’ own interests. Doing so does not mean Washington should abandon the prudent approach that has served it well since Richard Nixon was president. Both countries would lose if it provoked a trade war, an arms race, or a military confrontation. But the United States can and should stand up to China more often, by pushing back when Beijing violates international rules and harms U.S. interests. The aim of such responses should be not to contain China but to get it to act as a responsible stakeholder in the international system. The United States should welcome a more influential China, so long as it respects other countries’ interests, contributes to the common good, and adheres to international laws