In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell moderates a conversation among three top experts on China’s geopolitical ambitions and their implications for the United States. Harvard University Professor Graham Allison, Johns Hopkins Professor Hal brands, and George Mason University Assistant Professor Ketian Zhang discuss President Xi Jinping’s near and long-term political objectives, the domestic challenges he may face, and how the United States should develop its own strategies for confronting or cooperating with Beijing. This episode was produced in partnership with the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
- Hal Brands on Xi’s strategy: “I think Xi Jinping is actually doing grave damage to China’s grand strategy in real time. If you look at the way that global views of China have soured over the past 18 months, if you ask the question, is the world more conducive to China’s continued rise now than it was five years ago or now than it was 10 years ago, I think it gives you a pretty stark picture of how much more concerned the world is about China as a disruptive actor than it once was. And when you add that to the ways in Xi’s political centralization is probably undercutting the prospects for future economic reform, I think the damage could be quite severe.”
- Graham Allison on the Chinese Communist Party: “I think XI and his team think about this as a work in progress with experiments. But the fact that they believe in socialism, maybe even more than Bernie Sanders, shouldn’t be surprising. These are socialists. Therefore, they believe in redistribution of income. They believe in knocking down the billionaires and letting the millionaires have a chance. And these are very popular moves there. Anti-corruption campaigns are extremely popular in China. The moves against the billionaires have been extremely popular in China. So have they made some missteps? Yes. Do they risk strangling some of the geese that have been laying the golden eggs? Yes, they do. They’re intent on party control of everything. But I would say pretty much steady on course.”
- Ketian Zhang on China’s ambitions: “I think it’s really important to remember that China is an authoritarian state, and because of that, it has a lot of internal and domestic issues that it has to care about. And I think that really takes up a lot of the attention of the Chinese Communist Party. So I think at the end of the day, China’s ambition might be grand, but its resources are finite. And its, I think, expansionist capability might not be as large as I think some of us might believe it to be.”
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS: EXPERT PANEL ON CHINA – TRANSCRIPT
Producer: Olivia Gazis
MICHAEL MORELL: All three of you have thought about and written extensively on China, and I’m really looking forward to this conversation, the three of you know, the audience doesn’t know, but the three of you know that I want to ask five basic but very strategic questions see where we get similar views and see where we get differences of opinion.
We will rotate who gets to go first as we go through the questions. For the first three questions, one of our panelists will take the lead, with the other two commenting with a bit more time for the person in the lead. And for the last two questions, everyone will get equal time.
So I want to kick it off here at the first question, which is: what are China’s ambitions in the world and what is the source of those ambitions? In other words, what does China want the world order to look like and what is behind that desire? Graham, we’re going to start with you with this one.
GRAHAM ALLISON: So thank you, Michael, and let me say thank you to the other members of the panel and especially to Mike Hayden; what a great honor to be part of the whole discussion.
So your questions about China’s ambitions, I would say that it could hardly be clearer in one line. What Xi generally wants is to make China great again. Now that banner he unfurled when he became president almost five years before Trump had his analogue about making America great again.
So from a Chinese perspective for Xi and his team, they imagine China in the 21st century, becoming as powerful and influential as America was in the 20th century. Indeed, if the 20th century was an American century, as we often describe it, they imagine the 21st century as China’s century.
What’s the source of this ambition? I would say three: geopolitical, cultural and ideological. The most powerful is geopolitical. They bear the scars of what they call the “century of humiliation.” And they’re determined that China should be so powerful that never again – and they say never again – could it be humiliated, imperialized, exploited the way it was by Westerners with technology in the previous centuries.
Secondly, culturally, China in Mandarin means “center of the universe; between heaven and Earth.” So Chinese, culturally and historically, imagine China as the sun around which all other planets, all other countries revolve. So the proposition that China should be restored to quote, “it’s rightful place at the center of the universe” resonates for Chinese.
Thirdly, ideologically, they want to show that a party led autocracy practicing what Xi calls, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” can govern more successfully than Western models. So in some, Xi is serious about making China great again. He’s on that path in a very rapid upward slope. And he believes that, as he says, China is inexorably rising and the U.S. irreversibly declining. Is that four minutes?
MICHAEL MORELL: That’s yes, that is less than four minutes, that’s excellent, Graham. Ketian, can you comment?
KETIAN ZHANG: Sure. And first off, it’s really an honor to be part of this conversation, and I’ll be just very quick. And I agree with Graham that obviously China has ambitions that’s more external, including sort of having the status as a rising power as well as exerting influence around the globe.
But I also wanted to scale back sort of the conversation a little bit to sort of emphasize that a lot of China’s core concerns are still relatively internal, as well as be close to sort of a region, especially in regard to East Asia and Southeast Asia. So China does want a stable, external environment for its economic growth, as well as its sovereignty, including Taiwan and developing its core interests.
So I would say its ambitions are there, but it’s relatively limited, and the sort of source behind the ambition were the sources for China’s concerns, I would say, is really internal, that is, the security of the Chinese Communist Party. And I believe that’s sort of a rational calculation is at the core of the Chinese Communist Party decision making.
MICHAEL MORELL: Hal?
HAL BRANDS: I agree with much of what my co-panelists have said, the way I think about it is that you can conceive of China’s interests or goals making up four concentric circles of progressively greater ambition as you move outward. And at the center is preserving the rule and the political monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party, which is really at the center of everything the regime does. But that doesn’t mean it has limited geopolitical goals. Its geopolitical goals are quite expansive.
I think the second concentric circle might be thought of as making China whole again, basically reclaiming or claiming pieces of China that Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials argue are integral parts of China, whether that’s Taiwan or the nine-dash line of the South China Sea or other things, but that actually have pretty disruptive regional implications.
And that leads to the third concentric circle, which has sometimes been referred to as Asia for Asia. So, basically a regional sphere of influence in which China is dominant because the United States has been kicked to the margins.
And then I think the fourth circle is is probably the most contentious one. And this may go to what Graham was saying about “Make China Great Again.” I think at the very least, it’s clear that the Chinese Communist Party is aiming to give China global parity with the United States by 2035 or 2050, or whatever the timeline is, and perhaps even global primacy, perhaps in becoming the most powerful country in the world, which, as our panelists have noted, is sort of the historical norm which China sees itself occupying. It’s only in the past 150 years that China has really been a second or third tier power in the world.
MICHAEL MORELL: Great. Second question. Does China have a well-developed strategy for achieving its ambition? And if so, what is it?
And importantly, is Xi Jinping’s approach to domestic politics and the greater grip on power that he is exhibiting and the reversal of economic reforms, is that putting this strategy, this ambition at any risk? Ketian, let’s start with you.
MICHAEL MORELL: Sure. So I would first sort of reiterate how I read I China now. I think you’re asking China’s sort of grand strategy in terms of means and ends and whether the current strategy in terms of means is actually successful in the long term or not.
So the first part of question, I think I’ll sort of characterize China’s main goals as, for example, ensuring regional security, economic growth and sovereignty. And in order to achieve these goals I think China is using a carrots and sticks strategy in combination. By carrots I really mean a combination of the use of, say, economic statecraft with the BRI, Belt and Road Initiative being one example of that, as well as diplomatic sort of statecraft.
But I think as of now, we’re increasingly seeing China using those sticks as well, including coercive measures. I think in particular, the use of economic coercion or diplomatic coercion, as well as a coercion which often manifests itself in the South and East China Sea. I just think that that China actually has.
When it comes to sort of the effectiveness of this and carrot and stick strategy, I would say it might be effective in the short term by sort of the growing use of these coercive measures might be counter, might be ineffective in the long term, but it also demonstrates the tension in China’s overall goals.
So on one hand, China wants to ensure a stable external environment for its economic growth. So there needs to be carrots and a sort of positive means of statecraft. But on the other hand, China wants to signal resolve to ensure a territorial sovereignty and integrity of that, which means that China will need to use coercive actions and deeds.
I would say the two sets of goals are in tension with one another, which I think inherently limits the effectiveness of China to its long term goals in order to give them a hand in hand.
Which means that I don’t think that this is a sustainable grand strategy in the long term. But at the same time, because the goals that China has in the first place are in tension with one another. So it’s really difficult to see the potential effect in the future.
And as for Xi’s domestic politics, and I think this reflects the tension in China’s overall goals and China, where Xi has been increasingly sort of repressive domestically and including scaling back some of the economic reforms, which I believe might not be conducive to the sustainability of China’s overall growth in the future.
But at the same time, there might be some indications that Xi is aware of the issue with scaling back economic reforms, and he’s sort of emphasizing China being open in more of the recent remarks. So I think remains to be seen whether he’s going to be changing the direction or not.
MICHAEL MORELL: Hal, how do you think about the second question?
HAL BRANDS: So I think that the goals of China’s grand strategy, which we all discussed in one way or another in the first segment have remained relatively constant over time. It’s China’s approach to achieving them that has shifted.
And so for about, you know, 30 years after the beginning of the reform and opening period under Deng Xiaoping, the strategy was essentially one that is commonly characterized as ‘hide your capabilities and bide your time.’ Basically, don’t give other countries, particularly the United States, any pretext to prematurely gang up on China, limit its economic growth, limit its accumulation of economic and other forms of power on the international stage.
I think looking back, we would have to say that that was one of the most successful grand strategies in history. If you look not simply at the trajectory of China’s growth from the late 70s to to the early 2000s, but the way in which that growth, the way in which the emergence of a really formidable rival was actually assisted and facilitated by the United States and Japan and other countries that had a great deal to lose from that emergence. It’s really quite an impressive performance.
I think that strategy however started to change really around 2008 2009. It dates back. It predates Xi, it goes back to the financial crisis. There’s a debate over whether the financial crisis made China overconfident or made it insecure or some mixture of the two. But since then, and particularly since Xi Jinping announced his striving for achievement motto and 2012, I believe it was, you’ve seen a China that is much more willing to act coercively, to act abrasive and to actually incur the hostility of the United States. And that’s gone into overdrive in the past year and a half during COVID.
And this brings me to the second part of your question. I think Xi Jinping is actually doing grave damage to China’s grand strategy in real time. If you look at the way that global views of China have soured over the past 18 months, if you ask the question, is the world more conducive to China’s continued rise now than it was five years ago or now than it was 10 years ago, I think it gives you a pretty stark picture of how much more concerned the world is about China as a disruptive actor than it once was. And when you add that to the ways in Xi’s political centralization is probably undercutting the prospects for future economic reform, I think the damage could be quite severe.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. Let me just footstomp your point, Hal, about the change in approach beginning before Xi. Because I think a lot of people, when they talk about this, you know, put this fully with XI and it really began under Hu Jintao. That’s absolutely right. Graham, how do you think about this question?
GRAHAM ALLISON: Well, it’s a deep question. Let me just try to be brief. I’d say I largely agree, but somewhat disagree with what’s been said. I would say that on the first proposition, Xi puts the home front first. So this is mainly about making China successful. And I actually have a chapter in my book on this called ‘What Xi says China wants,’ and I describe in detail four revolutions that he’s running simultaneously.
First, he’s re-validating the party as the vanguard in the leadership of the Chinese people. Second, he’s reviving Chinese nationalism and patriotism to make Chinese proud of being Chinese again. Third, he’s re-engineering an economic revolution to try to sustain unsustainably high levels of economic growth. And finally, he’s rebuilding a military that, in his words, he says, can fight and win.
Doing any one of these would be an amazing thing to be trying to do in any society; four at one time is huge. He believes he needs to do all of these at the same time. He laid these out very carefully with actually benchmarks, target dates, KPIs, people responsible for them. So this is not simply an abstract strategy. This is a specific plan of action. And you could watch and see what he’s doing and seeing how close it comes to this marker.
Internationally, well, I think in terms of his international strategy, it’s first, make China, everything it can be, powerfully, economically, at home, in the first instance,. So China today has about one quarter of the U.S. per capita GDP. He doesn’t see any reason why by 2035, his target, should be half the U.S. GDP. And by 2049, the 100th anniversary, should be equal to the U.S. Well, with four times as many people, we don’t have to work very hard with the arithmetic to see how big the GDP would be relative to the U.S. and all the other dimensions of power follow, from his perspective, from that structure.
Secondly, the international component of this is to make China the indispensable economic relationship for every major economy. Today, China is the major trading partner of 130 countries, including all of the big ones. So basically, China – more, as Lee Kuan Yew explained, a geo economics rather than the military security emphasis that the U.S. has given in the recent period.
I think that’s the strategy, and I would say pretty much on course. In terms of the recent course corrections, I think XI and his team think about this as a work in progress with experiments. But the fact that they believe in socialism maybe even more than Bernie Sanders shouldn’t be surprising. These are socialists. Therefore, they believe in redistribution of income. They believe in knocking down the billionaires and letting the millionaires have a chance. And these are very popular moves there. Anti-corruption campaigns are extremely popular in China. The moves against the billionaires have been extremely popular in China.
So have they made some missteps? Yes. Do they risk strangling some of the geese that have been laying the golden eggs? Yes, they do. They’re intent on party control of everything. But I would say pretty much steady on course.
MICHAEL MORELL: OK, so this brings us to what I think is a very important question, which is, in what ways does this matter to the United States of America? And I think when people talk about this, you get a lot of vagueness. And so I’m going to push you guys to be specific.
Does China reaching its ambitions, does China achieving the world order that it wants to achieve, does that lower our standard of living below what it would otherwise be? Does that put our privacy and civil liberties at risk here any more than they would be without China reaching its ambitions? Is the world a less stable place? In what ways does this really matter to the United States? In what way is this a threat and/or challenge? Hal?
HAL BRANDS: So I think this is the central question, and as you indicated, it’s also the most elided question in discussions of China. And let’s leave aside for a moment the question of the possibility of a war between the United States and China, which is possible, but obviously would have directly disruptive effects for the United States. But put that aside for a second.
So I think that if you’re thinking about the challenge that China poses the United States, you should think about it geopolitically, economically and ideologically. And so geopolitically, the United States, for about 125 years, has said that we have a vital national interest in preventing any other power, particularly a hostile power, particularly an authoritarian power, from dominating a region of the world that we think is essential to our own security and prosperity. And we have typically defined those regions outside the Western Hemisphere as Europe, East Asia, and, after 1945, the Middle East.
And what we worry about is that if a country, whether it was Japan in the 1930s and early 1940s or the Soviet Union or China today came to dominate one of the world’s critical regions, it would become so strong that it could potentially coerce other countries on a global scale and that it would be able to basically displace the United States as the world’s leading power and potentially could develop the wherewithal, even the military wherewithal, to pose a direct threat to the United States. So that’s one.
Economically that the reason we have worried about this sort of thing in the past, and I think I think it’s valid when we think about China today, us we were always concerned that if a country that was hostile to us again became preeminent in one way or another in a region like East Asia, it would alter that region’s terms of trade. Basically, it would turn the economies of the region towards itself and away from the United States in a way the great powers have traditionally done in their spheres of influence. And so we would see a decrement in our own prosperity because we would have less access to the most economically dynamic region of the world. And so that’s the economic piece of it.
And I think the ideological or the values piece of it is perhaps the least understood, but is actually quite important, One of the most worrying things about Chinese conduct, from my perspective, is the way that China has basically tried to export its free speech restrictions to the world. And so when the Australian government asked for an impartial international inquiry into the origins of COVID about a year ago, the Chinese not only slapped economic sanctions on the Australians and said, “You have to stop,” they said, “By the way, you need to shut down these newspapers and these think tanks that publish anti-China material,” basically saying, ‘You must neuter your own civil society if you want to maintain good relations with China.”
This is a part of a larger pattern where when actors in Norway or in Lithuania or whatever the country may be criticizing Chinese foreign policy or Chinese domestic practices in particular, China will use economic sanctions to basically try to penalise that sort of speech. This would have a profoundly corrosive impact on the quality of democratic societies worldwide if China were able to do this successfully on a regular basis. And so I think that’s the third, but in some ways the most important challenge that it poses.
MICHAEL MORELL: Graham, comments.
GRAHAM ALLISON: Well, I like what Hal said, but I’d say this is a very, very Michael Morell question. I remember you asking questions like this in government, and I’ve thought hard about this question before, even before you pressed it. And I’ve yet to find a answer that I can read that I find satisfactory. So that’s an uncomfortable conclusion.
But of course, it’s very disruptive for the U.S. to have China displacing us as the manufacturing workshop of the world, or as the major trading partner of everybody, or as the leader of 5G. I mean, as an American, I hate this. I think we should win the gold medals in every Olympic race. Okay. And the idea that there’s now this rival that actually is overtaking us in many ways and that’s giving us a run for our money and in others, I find it stressful.
I think the question, though, is if America’s vital national interest, if we go back to the Cold War, and to the mantra that we all said over and over, is to quote, “To ensure the survival of the U.S. as a free nation with our fundamental institutions and values intact,” then is the China we’re seeing with its current ambitions in the foreseeable future, a serious threat to that? I think the answer is not clear.
So, Lee Kuan Yew imagined, that it may be possible for the U.S. and China, to quote, “share” the Pacific in the 21st century. Well, what would be the terms of that sharing? So when I think about it, I think, “Well, OK, if China became as predominant in western Asia as the US is in our hemisphere or was in the 20th century in the western hemisphere? Well, so what?” OK, so how does this likely impact the terms of economic development and trade? How severe would the tilt in the balance that Hal talked about be?
I would think then secondly, what would happen to the Asian balance of power? Between China, Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, would this end up being a stable or unstable, and if unstable, war? And if so, how would it impact us? What would happen to the nuclear order if the U.S. were withdrawing in effect from west of Hawaii or something? Does Japan become a nuclear weapons state? I think probably. Or South Korea? Probably. And then? Well, we thought the world will come to an end when India and Pakistan became nuclear weapons states. It didn’t. But nonetheless, if you imagine some version – so I have more questions here than answers. And I think that I haven’t seen anybody write down for debate a clear account of why this impacts American vital national interests.
MICHAEL MORELL: Ketian?
KETIAN ZHANG: So I actually agree with Graham here, and I sort of disagree with Hal a little bit in the sense that I agree with Hal that China and the United States are trying to pose this threat in terms of economic competition, human rights issues, as well as U.S. hegemony or status in the Asia Pacific.
But at the same time, I think the threats are not as significant as some of the media sort of made it out to be. First, because I don’t think that China poses a significant ideological threat to the United States in the sense that, at least studies have shown, especially by Chinese scholars, Jessica Weiss, for example, that China was not intended to export authoritarian models to or across the world, even though domestically China is an authoritarian and repressive state. And China is not a communist country either, if we’re really talking about communism as an ideology. I think it’s more of a single party authoritarian state that wants to develop the economy.
So, for example, MIT tries to coined the model as a capitalism with Chinese characteristics. So I don’t think there is too much of an ideological component here.
And despite secondly, despite that, there is economic competition between China and the United States. There’s also, I would say, a high degree of economic interdependence that China benefits from. In other words, if China wants to develop the economy continuously in the future, I don’t think it can survive without the supply and production chain. So even if we’re talking about Huawei, well, we still need Taiwan, South Korea, for example, for critical parts of this component, especially some of the conductor industry, for example.
And I don’t think that China can really survive or develop its economy without this sort of supply and production chain globally, which the United States and its allies in the region are a part of. I think that sort of acts as a restraining factor and reduces the the level of threat that China poses to the United States at the economic level.
MICHAEL MORELL: This is the first disagreement we’ve had, which is fantastic. I have to tell you that I asked the question because I’m I’m intellectually sort of where Graham is. I really have a hard time answering the question, and I haven’t seen anybody provide an answer that satisfactory to me. But I have to say that Hal’s answer tonight was compelling. So with this first disagreement, I’m going to give Hal the last word on this.
HAL BRANDS: So let me continue the theme of disagreement and pick up on on the point about ideological challenges and with all respect to, you know, scholars who’ve written on this issue and come out with a different place, I think it’s just manifestly evident that, while China may not be sort of a messianic communist regime – and I don’t know any serious commentators who make that argument – many of the things that does have the effect of strengthening autocratic regimes in the world.
And so when China runs interference at the United Nations for countries that are committing human rights abuses at home, when it exports surveillance equipment to autocratic regimes in Southeast Asia or sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America or a variety of other places, when it basically tries to establish the norm that what a country does to its own citizens is none of the business of the rest of the world, that is something that has a direct, tangible impact on the balance of democracy and authoritarianism worldwide.
We can debate what the causes of that behavior are, whether the Chinese Communist Party just thinks that selling smart city technology to kleptocrats is good business, or whether it thinks that there is an ideological or a geopolitical component to it. But what’s really important is that China’s actions have this impact on the international stage, and we can argue about how much of a direct threat that poses to America. I will simply say that it has been a guiding principle of American statecraft dating back to World War I, if not before, that American democracy and American security will be in a better place in a world where democracy is not universal, but is relatively strong relative to ideological competitors. And so if you if you buy that argument, then there is some degree of challenge that Chinese behavior poses in this ideological realm as well.
MICHAEL MORELL: OK, so our fourth question – which is not about China, it’s about the United States’ response to everything we’ve just talked about. So does the United States have a strategy for dealing with China’s ambitions in the world? If so, what is it? If so, what do you think of it as a strategy?
If we don’t, why don’t we have one? Is our approach to China driven more by politics than by our own domestic politics, rather than by a rigorous assessment of our national interests? How do you think about how the U.S. is coming at this? Ketian.
KETIAN ZHANG: So obviously, I’m not an expert on US foreign policy or grand strategy, but I’ll just pretend to be one here. I think the United States has been sort of practicing for a long time a combination of the engagement and the containment, especially through engagement, through economic growth and more. So continuing in, for example, the military realm.
I think the strategy itself, from my perspective, does not have an issue per se, but sometimes it’s really more the implementation of the strategy and the domestic politics behind the implementation of the strategy that can make the signals being sent to China be ambiguous.
And I think what I mean by that is that at times domestic politics in the US and I would say in China as well made it difficult for, I think, both sides, to be honest and transparent about their intentions and it sometimes gets in the way of direct channels of communication or the further institutionalization of a direct channel, et cetera. I think the more recent Xi-Biden, for example, meeting is kind of an indicator of the high levels of direct channels of communication, but it’s hard to see where this might go based off of the current sort of climate, political climate here in D.C., as well as in Beijing, which sometimes makes it much more difficult to just set clear our red lines, as well as to send reassuring signals to avoid, say, conflict, or escalation.
And the other issue I want to point out would be sort of, I think, was one existing gap between academia and the policy community, especially with the policy community not sometimes relying on the academia, especially regional experts. I think the Biden administration is doing much better job now, but I think there are still a lot of a gap in this regard which might reduce your understanding about, for example, the peer competitor that is China.
MICHAEL MORELL: Graham?
GRAHAM ALLISON: Oh – a big question. So I think, no, we don’t have a strategy. I think mainly what’s happening is a kind of a rolling wake up to the realities of the China challenge. This became more intense under the Trump administration, which I think had more of a say, I would say an attitude than a strategy, had some slogans about ‘compete and confront,’ but not necessarily to what end or how.
And I think the Biden administration, at least so far, is being dragged around by the politics in which the fever about China is increasingly rising on a bipartisan basis in the Washington crowd, both and across the political spectrum and in lots of the blob as it’s been trying to formulate a strategy for dealing with China.
I think so far it’s beginning to recognize the challenge. And then Biden would say the strategy consists of three elements. First, the home front, first. So unless you can rebuild American confidence, you can overcome what, as he likes to say, Lincoln’s lied about a house divided against itself can’t stand. So unless we can reunify the country and unless we can restore our competitiveness, then we lose.
Secondly, to rebuild relationships with allies because recognizing that the fundamental tectonics of power have been shifting dramatically as China has risen, means that unless we get some out of this. Compare that with the so-called seesaw of power, unless we get some more allies with weight on our side of the seesaw, we’ll have both feet off the ground.
And then finally, I think what they expect is that if one could build or create enough of a level playing field or a correlation of forces that require China to compete fairly, that over time in a longer run competition, they believe and I believe that a liberty-based democracy will more successfully deliver what citizens want than a party-led autocracy.
So the longer term picture of this would be a competition between the U.S. and China with guardrails, on a relatively level playing field ensured by a correlation of forces or balance of power. That myth that China would have to essentially play by the rules; whether they’re going to get there with a strategy, particularly since the country is willing to explain to this group, so deeply divided, the politics is so deeply divided and in this area, they’ve been following the politics more than the strategy.
MICHAEL MORELL: Hal?
HAL BRANDS: I’m afraid we’re back to a love fest in the sense that I think that Graham and Ketian described it quite nicely. I think Trump Trump had a theme of competition, which was an overdue corrective but had wildly inconsistent policies on everything from, did the president want to treat China as a strategic competitor or did he just want a really good trade deal with China that would actually deepen American economic integration with Beijing, to questions of human rights, to the issue of, you know, we are going to start this fight with China, but at the same time, we are going to start fights with many of our democratic allies as well.
I think what the Biden administration has tried to do is basically adopt the frame of competition while pursuing it in what they would see as sort of a more sophisticated, more multilateral way, sort of rounding up the posse of allies and partners, as Graham might have put it, to bring greater leverage to bear in dealing with China.
I think that in many ways, the what the Biden administration describes its strategy as being makes a lot of sense. That said I think there are still some pretty big question marks that are sufficient that we would not say the administration has a fully fleshed out strategy and there is nothing resembling an economic component of the strategy, particularly when it comes to trade and making the United States a factor in the trade relations of the Asia-Pacific in this century.
There really hasn’t been a whole lot of clarity with respect to what this strategy is ultimately meant to produce or achieve. Is it meant to produce some sort of stable coexistence between the United States and China? Is it meant to produce some grand bargain? Is it meant to produce something else?
I think that question is yet to be answered, and I think we’re also sort of struggling to answer the question of, you know, on what timeline do we think the China challenge will become most severe? I think everybody assumes this is going to get worse before it gets better. But are we thinking about this as a 2025 problem when we might have to face a Taiwan crisis that forces the U.S. president to make some really tough decisions about the use of force? Is it a 2035 problem, a 2045 problem, and so on and so forth? Because that has huge implications for the military investments you make and just generally how you think about your China strategy.
MICHAEL MORELL: Which is a great transition to the last question, which is, where does all this leave us? What does the future look like? Is it a new Cold War that looks quite different from the old Cold War, but still a Cold War? Is there a real risk of a hot war? Is the future going to look like something else? How do you all think about that? Hal, Let’s start with you.
HAL BRANDS: So I think it’s not the Cold War, but it is a Cold War, and so obviously the differences between the U.S.-Soviet contest and the US-China competition are significant, and I don’t think they require a lot of elaboration. Economically, geographically, ideologically as the relationship is just different than it was during the Cold War. And I think that, you know, sophisticated observers understand that.
That said, I think that the US-China competition is one of a number of great power competitions going back hundreds or even thousands of years. It is going to be a contest that involves all forms of national power. It is going to be conducted under the shadow of military power and under the threat or at least the danger of war and certain scenarios. And I think that qualifies as a Cold War, if not the Cold War.
But what I really worry about is not the Cold War scenario. I think that’s actually kind of the best case scenario at the moment. It’s the hot war scenario. And tensions have obviously ratcheted up considerably in the Taiwan Strait over the past couple of years. You’ve had senior U.S. military officials say that they think China could try to forcibly unify with Taiwan by 2025 or 2027, depending on who is doing the talking. There are a variety of other scenarios that Michael Beckley, a co-author and I described in a recent piece about how you could plausibly get conflict in the South China Sea or the East China Sea, or even in places like along the Himalayan border with with India.
And so I think what we have to remember is that at the beginning of the Cold War, nobody made a principled decision that this was going to be a Cold War for the next 45 years, and both sides would abstain from using force against each other. That was something that worked itself out through a pattern of deterrence and crisis and hard work. And I think we should assume that to keep the US-China competition cold, it’s going to require all of that again, in addition to some of the hard diplomatic work of trying to ease tensions where it’s possible and where that’s consistent with American interests.
MICHAEL MORELL: Graham.
Well, I think I agree, so I think the I thought the piece that Hal and Gaddis wrote reminding us that this is not the Cold War, and actually, I argue a lot with people about this, that the analogy since people capture the Cold War, misleads more than it clarifies.
On the other hand, as they say in the piece, if all we mean by “Cold War” is not hot but a protracted conflict, then of course there’s many cold wars going on at the same time. Do we have a Cold War with Iran or Cold War with North Korea? Or does Israel? So I think that if if we’re just talking about a protracted conflict, will this be a protracted conflict on all dimensions? And we hope not – the dimension of hot, which would be bombs and bullets with uniforms, combatants. I think that will be the challenge. I think that’s the problem.
Now what, then, could it be? I think the picture of a long term competition in which a liberty-based democracy seeks to show that it can work better for people and for what human beings want than a party-led autocracy, is a race I’m perfectly happy to run.
I fear in some part of the American conversation now, people who’ve either come to despair about the U.S. are defeatist, who fear such a race. I would say if we could have a balance of power or correlation of forces that provided a level enough playing field to let the parties continue to show what they can do.
I’ve been over 10, 20, 30, 40 years; we’ll have to work hard to prevent it becoming hot. But I would run that race, and I would say that’s a pretty good vision of a future in which then, if we fail, well, we fail. But if China continues to – and I think the basic proposition, it’s a naive Western proposition, perhaps, but I think it is my conviction and yours, that in every heart, in every breast is a heart beating to be free.
So human beings will want freedom if and as they have other things. So I think that’s the picture I would do that would look for. And I think trying to manage it, I think, as Hal said, a version of a protracted conflict that does not turn hot, but in which the systems have a chance to show how well they can work – if we manage that for another 30 or 40 years, I think that would be a good outcome.
MICHAEL MORELL: Ketian, you get the last word here.
KETIAN ZHANG: I’ll try to be brief, and I think I might of term the future is more either competition or a cold peace as opposed to a more Cold War, because I’m more on the optimistic side in the sense that there are, I think, restraining factors that reduce the potential for a conflict.
Of course, Taiwan is a scenario that is probably the most important scenario which the United States and China might be directed into a conflict. But I think barring that, there are a lot of other factors that can reduce the potential of conflict.
And the first one is that I think there are a lot of common interests that the United States and China share, despite the many conflictual and probably irreconcilable conflicts of interest regarding sovereignty, freedom, human rights, et cetera.
But if we’re talking about climate change or non-traditional security and those kind of themes which Xi and Biden actually talked about in their virtual meeting last Monday, I think there is a ground for cooperation between the two sides.
And secondly, I think even on the economic front, China and the United States, I think it’s really difficult for China to thrive without the United States or, as I’ve mentioned earlier, the supply and production chain. So I think the even in the economic realm, there are things that in this day, for example, can do to, I would say, restrain China. And there are studies done, I think, by scholars that would characterize the U.S. leverage as weaponized interdependence. That is, United State can use financial leverage over China to even to potentially coerce China in national security aspects.
And I think, finally, although we know we observe a lot of coercive behavior that China has been, I think, engaging in the past, say, three decades or so. But I wanted to sort of scale it back in the sense that China is a cautious bully and it has always been making a Goldilocks kind of choice in the sense that because it is concerned about military escalation into conflict with the United States, it tends to use coercion that is a little bit more gray zone or has a little bit more plausible deniability.
And because of this Goldilocks choice – and I think we tend to, it might have a in effect of reducing the potential for a major escalation, although we might be seeing skirmishes and sort of lower level conflicts with the skirmishes in maritime disputes and the land border disputes. But I don’t think China intentionally, it’s out there to start a conflict.
And maybe just very last, and finally, I think it’s really important to remember that China is an authoritarian state, and because of that, it has a lot of internal and domestic issues that it has to care about. And I think that really takes up a lot of the attention of the Chinese Communist Party. So I think at the end of the day, China’s ambition might be grand, but its resources are finite. And its, I think, expansionist capability might not be as large as I think some of us might believe it to be.