What regional and global role does China aspire towards? What tactics will China use to pursue its ambitions? And which voices will influence these decisions?
These questions underlie most of the anxiety American observers feel towards China’s rise. Many authors –– including the authors featured in this review –– offer clear predictions for the first two questions. They spell out potential revisionist or status quo goals and the policies China might use to pursue these goals. Yet, authors rarely delve into the third question.
Like most organizations, China’s government is not homogeneous. It has factions (see “The Eighteenth National Congress”) and internal power struggles. Ultimately, the voices of the dominant faction within the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will get to shape China’s future. But what are the ideological differences between factions and which faction is dominant? By predicting China’s future foreign policy, authors implicitly offer their answer. This review examines the answers provided by three influential sets of authors in their recent books on China.
Dr. Michael Pillsbury’s new book provides a cautionary narrative of an aggressive, revisionist China. His book is provocative, filled with anecdotes, and driven by thoughtful (though often questionable) inferences. Dr. Pillsbury focuses his assessment of China’s future trajectory on the goals and preferences of China’s hypernationalists, whom he refers to as “yīngpài” (鹰派) or “hawks.” According to Dr. Pillsbury, the hawks include military elites and hardline government officials. He claims “they [the hawks] represent the real voice of China.” If he is correct, China’s dominant faction envisages China as a global hegemon –– one that displaces a declining United States, wipes away the “century of humiliation,” and imposes new norms on the international system (e.g., sovereignty over human rights, stability over freedom of expression, growth over environmental sustainability). The hawks will guide China down a path of increasingly assertive and competitive foreign policy.
In Dr. Thomas Christensen’s The China Challenge, a milder narrative is described. Dr. Christensen portrays China as an uncertain nation –– while ultranationalists like those described by Dr. Pillsbury advocate for aggressive foreign policy, Christensen emphasizes that moderates are advocating a more reserved foreign policy and a focus on domestic problems. However, he implies that the moderates might ultimately win out.
According to Dr. Christensen, moderates subscribe to Jiang Zemin’s assessment that 2000 – 2020 would provide China with a “strategic opportunity” to focus on much-needed internal development. These moderates “don’t see passivity as a final direction for China as a great power, but as a much more attractive current posture than the one their hypernationalist compatriots demand.” If China’s internal stability improves and the United States postures correctly, pragmatism will hush the voices of revisionist hypernationalists and guide moderates toward a mutually beneficial path of increased Chinese participation in the existing international system. Dr. Christensen reasons:
“Since 1978, there arguably has been no greater beneficiary of the existing international order than China… China has opened itself up to international investment, international trade, and transnational production to such a degree that China is essentially playing by our rules… I have never seen any evidence that Chinese elites have a blueprint for a new international system…”
If Dr. Christensen’s moderates become the dominant faction, they will lead China down a path of stable inter-state relations and a growing role in responsible global governance.
Princelings, the Youth League, and Personal Alliances
Despite these two ideological splits within the CCP, China observers often suggest that the primary divisions within the party are based upon domestic politics and the distribution of party positions. The two primary factions appear to be the “princelings” and the “tuánpài” (团派) or “League faction”). The Princelings refer to party officials who were born into powerful CCP families and groomed for leadership positions, while the League faction consists of officials who developed their careers through the Chinese Communist Youth League. League faction members usually come from average families and govern less-developed, interior regions of China. If these are the defining factions, this complicates foreign policy predictions, because hawks and moderates are interspersed throughout both factions (and within President Xi Jinping’s inner circle).
Another suggested alternative is that factions revolve around personal loyalties. Networks linked to outgoing leaders, current leaders, or upcoming leaders define the main internal divisions. Again, hawks and moderates would be interspersed throughout these factions, making foreign policy difficult to predict from a purely faction-focused assessment.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that the specific decision-makers and influencers will not matter. Given shared cultural, institutional, and geopolitical conditions, ideologically different actors may be led to the same strategic choices. This perspective underpins the China-related essays in Dr. Thomas Mahnken and Dr. Dan Blumenthal’s book.
Mahnken and Blumenthal define elements of  (maritime) geography;  historical and cultural strategic influences;  technology;  military modernization and expansion;  U.S. security partnerships;  economic competition; and  nuclear deterrence as the decisive factors restricting Chinese (and others’) strategic decisions. The book’s objective is to highlight key areas of consideration to kick-start deeper analysis of persistent structural factors. However, even this preliminary analysis of the relative advantages and strategic interests these conditions yield, suggest that the current conditions predispose China to competition and gray zone conflict with its neighbors and the United States. From the outset, an introduction written by Dr. Aaron Friedberg warns that “[m]ilitary competition between China and the United States will not be the only struggle in Asia.”
Predictions abound, China’s future is still uncertain. Until China-watchers succeed in cracking open the dynamics of CCP internal politics, ambiguity will continue. In the face of such uncertainty, it is prudent to prepare for all futures and consider the full range of perspectives. To that end, reading these three books is a fantastic place to start.
Ryan Neuhard is a student at the College of William and Mary and currently works as a research intern at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. He studies international relations with a focus on East Asia and emerging threats. He has studied, traveled, and conducted political science field research in China.