China on the Offensive
How the Ukraine War Has Changed Beijing’s Strategy
In “An Answer to Aggression,” (September/October 2020), Aaron Friedberg argues that the United States and its allies and partners should use aggressive policies to contain China. Friedberg repeatedly offers sweeping, unqualified worst-case statements about China’s views, intentions, and actions—playing loose with the facts and exhibiting a lack of understanding of aspects of the Chinese system—to justify zero-sum policy prescriptions. Coercive “push back” policies alone will not compel Beijing to do the United States’ bidding—as Washington’s Cuba policy demonstrates. To the contrary, such policies would increase the risk of conflict, strengthen chauvinistic nationalism in China, and reduce the chances that the United States can work with China to deal with urgent common problems.
U.S. policymakers must adopt a more careful and considered approach. The United States must coordinate with allies and partners not only to deter and compete with China when needed but also to incentivize Beijing to cooperate in addressing shared concerns such as global warming and current and future pandemics. Washington should aim to diminish the likelihood of nuclear war, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles, a costly arms race, and the spread of terrorism. It should seek a stable power balance in the Asia-Pacific region that respects the interests of all countries—including those of China. And it should revise and expand multilateral trade and investment agreements and foster international efforts to better address natural disasters and human rights abuses in all countries.
Such a strategy requires not belligerence and muscle flexing but vigorous and well-funded diplomacy backed by resilient and strategically deployed military forces designed to reinforce stability, not provoke confrontation. Managing the relationship with Beijing is a long-term project that cannot succeed without domestic revitalization, greater unity of national purpose, and a respect for global opinion. But above all, U.S. leaders have to take a much more realistic view of the United States’ relationship with China than is now common in Washington and avoid sliding into Friedberg’s black-and-white vision of confrontation.
Hawkish positions on China often proceed from flawed presumptions. Friedberg claims that the bulk of Beijing’s policy disagreements with the West arise from its authoritarian political system. He ignores the fact that many of China’s international concerns have grown out of long-standing nationalist beliefs and cultural attitudes that long predate communist rule. These include the resentment produced by over a century of predatory Western behavior in East Asia, a profound and at times bristling pride in China’s rise, and deep-seated fears that a more freewheeling domestic political process could jeopardize the stability that has facilitated greater prosperity. Such nationalist attitudes and concerns would prevail even in a democratic China; there is no reason to believe that China’s system of government is what makes Beijing eager to protect what it regards as its territory and reestablish itself as a major power in Asia and the world.
Friedberg’s overzealous reading of the role of ideology in Chinese policy extends to other areas. He argues that China hopes to “divide, discredit, and weaken” democracies, “leaving the United States at the head of what will be, at best, a diminished and enfeebled coalition.” This line of reasoning sees more deliberate intent in China’s behavior than there actually is. As many scholars, including the political scientist Jessica Chen Weiss, have noted, China’s grand strategy is not designed to force acceptance of its political model or undermine democracies. When China grants loans to other countries, for example, it does not distinguish in any discernable way between democracies and nondemocracies, even if its activities at times exacerbate corruption and indirectly erode democratic norms. Friedberg suggests that the United States and many other countries hold a “heightened awareness of a shared danger” coming from China. But in reality, other countries have mixed perceptions of China; they sometimes view the United States, along with China, as threatening their interests. Many countries now carry on more trade with China than they do with the United States, want better economic ties with both Beijing and Washington, and resist being forced to choose between the two powers.
Friedberg contends that the West’s “wager” that diplomatic and economic engagement with China would eventually liberalize the country has “failed to pay off.” Former U.S. officials and others have rebutted the notion that engagement was ever predicated on the political liberalization of China. Closer ties with Beijing have led to Chinese acceptance of international rules in areas such as nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, arms control, and some aspects of global trade and finance. Engagement also brought China into the global economy and fueled economic growth worldwide.
Hawkish positions on China often proceed from flawed presumptions.
Friedberg sees in China’s national security efforts further evidence of an aggressive, ideological state. He dismisses the possibility that China has legitimate defense concerns. For example, in his view, China’s growing military capabilities in the western Pacific are intended solely “to weaken the credibility of U.S. security guarantees and undermine the network of democratic alliances that rests on them.” Imputing this exclusive and sinister political intent to China’s military strategy obscures the more banal reality that China is using its growing military power in large part to defend against perceived threats in its offshore waters, as any country would do, and to resist challenges to its long-standing but often disputed claims of sovereignty.
As for Beijing’s diplomatic campaigns, Friedberg argues that Chinese advocacy of a “community of common destiny” is a sly ruse to dominate developing nations. He misses what it really is: a simplistic propaganda slogan meant to win foreign friends. China has no strong allies that can provide it with substantive support. Its closest relations are with North Korea and Pakistan, countries that don’t offer much that is useful to Beijing (although Islamabad does give China some leverage in dealing with India).
It is true, as Friedberg asserts, that China’s leaders seek to harness economic growth to boost the nation’s international stature and power. But Friedberg insists that this goal overrides all other purposes, ignoring the very real ways in which growth has benefited huge numbers of Chinese citizens. And by characterizing Chinese leaders as purely mercantilist, he also ignores the reality that China’s most productive and successful sectors, such as technology innovation, continue to be driven primarily by capitalist incentives.
Friedberg insists that Chinese diplomacy is bent on prying open Western markets and gaining access to advanced technologies. He dismisses Beijing’s loan policies through the Belt and Road Initiative as nothing more than cunning strategies designed to subjugate and control others. But the scholar Deborah Brautigam has found little evidence that Chinese banks are intentionally structuring foreign deals “to secure strategic advantages for China.” In fact, recipient countries often actively court Chinese investment projects. Numerous academic studies show that Chinese economic aid can have positive effects and in many cases doesn’t appear to be any more motivated by geopolitical designs than comparable Western aid.
Friedberg and other China hawks argue that the West must actively work to slow China’s growth and influence. By doing so, he claims, Washington could force the Chinese leadership to accept “deeper reforms that will someday change the fundamental character of the regime.” Such an outlook channels the same regime-change impulses that have led the United States down disastrous paths in recent decades. It is also likely to increase domestic Chinese support for the Communist Party. In recent years, antagonistic U.S. actions have turned many people in China against the United States, weakening U.S. influence in the country.
For Friedberg, the “alluring” prospect of cooperation with China must never take precedence over “the urgent necessity of competition.” Yet he calls not for mere competition but for an antagonistic rivalry that minimizes any attempt at cooperation. He contends, for example, that the United States should reestablish military predominance right up to China’s borders and prevent China from controlling the waters along its coasts. Such an effort is nearly certain to result in a destabilizing and prohibitively expensive arms race. A more realistic—and far cheaper—goal would be for the United States and its allies to ensure that neither side can dominate the air and water space along China’s maritime periphery. This would require a more defense-oriented force structure that focuses on ensuring the ability to inflict unacceptable damage to Chinese air and naval assets in an offshore conflict rather than on carrying out escalatory attacks on Chinese territory.
Friedberg troublingly suggests that the United States should jettison fundamental aspects of its long-standing one-China policy (in which Washington remains open to any peaceful, mutually agreed upon resolution of the Beijing-Taipei imbroglio) that has kept a lid on tensions in the Taiwan Strait. By asserting that China cannot be allowed to absorb Taiwan because doing so would give it control over some of the island’s high-tech capabilities, Friedberg in effect rejects this long-standing policy in favor of preventing any reconciliation of cross-strait differences that would include a Chinese role in Taiwan’s economy. Such a shift in policy would be a highly risky gamble, making conflict more—not less—likely. Public opinion polling in Taiwan, moreover, has shown strong public support for maintaining the current status quo rather than incurring the risks of a dangerous U.S.-backed attempt to block any type of unification.
In considering the economic and technological disagreements between the United States and China, Friedberg offers a number of sensible solutions but then proposes to exclude China from global trading and technology systems. He wants to keep China—one of the world’s leading trading countries—outside the rules-based order rather than develop responsible common guidelines among as many countries as possible. In any case, this proposal is unlikely to gain sufficient traction to make it viable, since most East Asian countries conduct more trade with China than with the United States. The United States will only isolate itself if it attempts to decouple entirely from technology-related interactions with China, as Friedberg seems to want, given the strong and likely enduring technology ties between China and many other countries, including many democracies.
With regard to Chinese industrial espionage and influence operations in the United States, Friedberg sensibly calls for prudent limits on Chinese scholars associated with the Chinese military and security bodies. But he fails to mention that policies to enforce those limits need to be carefully crafted to avoid feeding into broader anti-Asian discrimination, committing gross abuses against innocent researchers, and discouraging talented Chinese from studying in the United States and applying their knowledge to the benefit of American society.
Friedberg concludes with the hope that “sustained resistance” will force China’s leaders to reconsider their present path, but his recommended pushback amounts to a concerted effort to undermine the Chinese regime and impede China’s economic and technological development. This outright hostility will make the practical necessity of cooperation with Beijing in the coming years impossible.
U.S. policymakers would err greatly in accepting Friedberg’s view that China is dedicated to undermining democracies worldwide and deterred only by displays of superior force. That conviction will impede diplomacy and isolate the United States, leaving Washington with only costly and dangerous military options and increasing the likelihood of conflict. A more realistic and effective approach would eschew demonizing rhetoric and apocalyptic speculation and seek to strike an appropriate balance between deterrence and cooperation, while making common cause with like-minded countries that share U.S. goals.
Chinese leaders, for their part, have made clear that they foresee an extended period of both “struggle and cooperation” with the United States. From a strategic standpoint, therefore, U.S. policymakers should be willing to settle in for the long haul. To do well in this competition, Washington must concentrate on domestic revitalization. It should craft policies that boost U.S. technological innovation, rebuild infrastructure, invest in education and health care, restructure the military to deal with future threats in a restrained way, and protect workers from the most adverse effects of globalization.
On that stronger footing, Washington should foster a bilateral trade, investment, and technology relationship with Beijing based on realistic expectations and reciprocity, not worst-case assumptions and speculations. A pragmatic policy would recognize the value of economic ties with China and encourage continued Sino-U.S. cooperation in many critical areas, including technology.
That doesn’t mean that U.S. leaders should give up pressing China on issues of human rights and political expression. Washington must work with other countries to counter repressive Chinese policies, including in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. That said, the United States best advances the human and political rights of other nations by serving as a model of decency, morality, and justice at home.
U.S. leaders can work with Beijing and other nations to address current and future issues of mutual concern, including climate change, pandemics, and creating a stable power balance in Asia. Washington has a global network of allies and partners who look for wise U.S. leadership when it comes to China, an advantage it should not squander. Friedberg’s bluntly confrontational, zero-sum approach would make it very hard to build this more workable policy. The United States can do better.
Michael D. Swaine, Ezra F. Vogel, Paul Heer, J. Stapleton Roy, Rachel Esplin Odell, Mike Mochizuki, Avery Goldstein, and Alice Miller
Perhaps it should come as no surprise in the current climate, but this multiauthored letter reads more like another overwrought political statement than an attempt at reasoned debate on complex issues. Like many such documents, it is replete with intemperate, derogatory, and dismissive language intended to discredit and marginalize rather than engage with an opponent’s views. (Thus, I am an “overzealous,” “hawkish” “hawk” who plays “loose with the facts,” has a “black-and-white vision,” engages in “demonizing rhetoric and apocalyptic speculation” and advocates a policy of “belligerence and muscle flexing.”)
Worse, the letter is filled with distortions designed to make my arguments appear extreme and thus easier to refute. Because space does not permit a full recitation of these mischaracterizations, a small selection will have to suffice: the authors claim that I support a policy aimed at excluding China from the global economy, when I say explicitly that what is required is “not total decoupling but partial disengagement.” The authors suggest that I harbor “regime-change impulses” despite the fact that I state clearly that the United States and its allies must acknowledge that “China’s future is not theirs to decide.” From the factual observation that China’s power would be enhanced if it took control of Taiwan, the authors infer that I advocate independence for the island. There are people who hold such views, but I am not one of them. To suggest otherwise is not to argue in good faith.
I believe that the authors misunderstand the threat China now poses and understate its severity. That threat is a product of China’s growing material power coupled with the distinctive character of its domestic regime. Whatever else they may believe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his colleagues are fervent Leninists. They regard all politics as a zero-sum, “you die, I live” struggle. They are determined to crush dissent and to retain the Communist Party’s monopoly on political authority at home, whatever the cost, and to overawe potential opponents and demonstrate the superiority of China’s system by transforming it into the world’s strongest state.
The authors misunderstand the threat China now poses and understate its severity.
As their capabilities and confidence have grown, China’s rulers have started to push back against both the material strength and physical presence of the United States and its democratic allies, as well as the subversive appeal of their liberal democratic ideals. Beijing seeks to undermine the credibility of U.S. security guarantees and to divide democracies from one another while continuing to penetrate and exploit their societies, economies, and information spheres. It has become more open in trying to use economic leverage to pressure the United States’ Asian allies and has recently stepped up the use of force and threats of force against several of its democratic neighbors. At Xi’s direction, the party has intensified its use of covert “united front” political influence operations to try to shape the perceptions and policies of other countries. Beijing is employing a variety of “sharp power” tactics to expand its influence in developing countries and through them in international organizations. And it seeks to redefine existing norms in ways that deny the existence of “so-called Western universal values” and assert the moral equivalence of regimes based on unchecked state power. China may not be trying to force others to adopt its model, but its actions and example are reinforcing trends toward authoritarianism in places where democracy has not yet taken firm root.
The aggressive turn in China’s policies began to emerge during a period in which the United States and other democracies were doing everything possible to accommodate China’s rise. These troubling tendencies have been clearly evident since at least the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008 and have grown more obvious since Xi’s rise to power in 2012. Yet the authors seem not to have updated their assessments of the regime’s intentions and capabilities, nor their prescriptions for how best to respond to its actions. Recent analyses suggest that China’s leaders believe their policies are working and that the tides of history are flowing in their favor. Achieving a more stable relationship will require first persuading them that they are mistaken. Attempting to reassure Beijing or to appease its “legitimate . . . concerns” by adopting a purely defensive posture will have the opposite effect, with potentially disastrous consequences.