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The Stealth Superpower

How China Hid Its Global Ambitions

Containing a superpower: at the Port of Shanghai, January 2011 Aly Song/REUTERS

“China will not, repeat, not repeat the old practice of a strong country seeking hegemony,” Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, said last September. It was a message that Chinese officials have been pushing ever since their country’s spectacular rise began. For decades, they have been at pains to downplay China’s power and reassure other countries—especially the United States—of its benign intentions. Jiang Zemin, China’s leader in the 1990s, called for mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, and cooperation in the country’s foreign relations. Under Hu Jintao, who took the reins of power in 2002, “peaceful development” became the phrase of the moment. The current president, Xi Jinping, insisted in September 2017 that China “lacks the gene” that drives great powers to seek hegemony.

It is easy to dismiss such protestations as simple deceit. In fact, however, Chinese leaders are telling the truth: Beijing truly does not want to replace Washington at the top of the international system. China has no interest in establishing a web of global alliances, sustaining a far-flung global military presence, sending troops thousands of miles from its borders, leading international institutions that would constrain its own behavior, or spreading its system of government abroad.

But to focus on this reluctance, and the reassuring Chinese statements reflecting it, is a mistake. Although China does not want to usurp the United States’ position as the leader of a global order, its actual aim is nearly as consequential. In the Indo-Pacific region, China wants complete dominance; it wants to force the United States out and become the region’s unchallenged political, economic, and military hegemon. And globally, even though it is happy to leave the United States in the driver’s seat, it wants to be powerful enough to counter Washington when needed. As one Chinese official put it to me, “Being a great power means you get to do what you want, and no one can say anything about it.” In other words, China is

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