China has . . . an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world. That is not going to happen on my watch. – President Joseph Biden, March 25, 2021.
Future historians may well consider President Joseph Biden’s recent comments on China as a pivotal moment in the history of American foreign policy. It was not long ago—early in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary process—that Biden dismissed the idea that China was a truly serious competitor, much less a threat, to the United States. His view today represents a 180-degree swing on both counts. It was not long ago when U.S. political leaders, academic experts, and foreign correspondents tended to portray the rapid rise of China as a largely economic phenomenon that was broadly good for the United States and the world. President Bill Clinton spoke confidently of how the internet would inevitably democratize China. Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush emphasized the shared interests of Beijing and Washington. The corporate world put its money behind the same assessment, investing heavily in manufacturing and banking in China. Meanwhile, Chinese students flocked to American universities.
It all added up to a strikingly hopeful expectation that the established superpower and the rapidly rising new power could avoid conflict and work together for mutual benefit. Robert Zoellick, as president of the World Bank, captured it all when he called upon China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs. When General Secretary Xi Jinping met with President Barack Obama, he came with his own catchphrase—China and the United States would build a “new model” of cooperative great power relations. To American ears, it sounded just right.
Whether he realized it or not, Xi was appealing to a tradition rooted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which the United States saw China as a kind of Asian analog to America. After three decades of bitter disillusionment following the communist conquest of China, hopes were rekindled with President Richard Nixon’s famous trip and the emergence of a post-Mao reformist regime under Deng Xiaoping. Deng knew that Chinese students who attended U.S. universities would return with American ideas about politics, society, and economy—but he sent them anyway.
When Xi ascended to the leadership of China in 2012, he faced a fundamental strategic choice. Beijing could choose the “responsible stakeholder” path. This would mean a rapidly growing economy tightly integrated into global markets and supply chains. It would mean a steady growth in Chinese power and influence. This “rising” China would lead, but not dominate, East Asia. It would be a prosperous, powerful, but generally benign presence in the region and the world.
However, there was another, very different path available. This one was rooted in a deeply held and very particular understanding of Chinese history. By this narrative, China is the oldest and greatest civilization in the world. For millennia, China exercised a unique form of preeminence in Asia. China was the “Middle Kingdom,” and all the peoples on China’s periphery were not fully civilized because they were not Chinese; they were “barbarians.” But then, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, first, the Europeans and, then, the Japanese invaded and oppressed China. It was the “century of humiliation”—a time of “eating bitterness”—which was seared into the national collective psyche. When Mao led his victorious army into Beijing in 1949, his first words to the assembled populace were “China has stood up.” The century of humiliation was over.
It soon became evident that Xi had chosen the second path. There would be no responsible stakeholder; there would be China ascendant and dominant, taking its place at the head of the international table. The concrete consequences and manifestations of this attitude soon became clear in the actions and policies that he initiated:
First, American and other Western businesses in China were relentlessly pressured to share or transfer their most advanced technologies with their Chinese counterparts (and competitors). When that was insufficient, the Chinese government engaged in outright theft to obtain what they wanted.
Second, The same economic growth that funded technology acquisition also funded a dramatic buildup of Chinese military power—particularly naval and air forces designed to project power offshore. A priority purpose of that buildup is to compel the U.S. Navy to vacate the Western Pacific. The strategic consequences could hardly be more profound—fully exposing Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and the region’s sea lanes to Chinese power and ambitions.
Third, Beijing asserted that the South China Sea, an international commons throughout history, actually belonged to China. China then began building artificial islands that serve as maritime military outposts. All the while, the number of Chinese naval and armed maritime enforcement vessels deployed in the South China Sea grows exponentially.
Fourth, Xi’s China has demonstrated a growing appetite for coercive behavior from seizing Vietnamese fishing boats to boycotting Australian products when Canberra had the temerity to suggest an international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 virus.
Fifth, China has dammed the upper reaches of the Mekong River giving Beijing near life-and-death power over the economies of the downstream states, including Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Finally, Xi announced a national economic development program, “Made in China 2025,” which is intended to establish China as the global leader in the entire suite of advanced technologies that will determine national power in the future. Chinese officials had already proclaimed that the 20th century may have been America’s, but the 21st will be China’s.
This is only a partial list. On top of it, Xi has centralized totalitarian power within China taking full advantage of artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and other advanced technologies that Stalin could only imagine.
None of this is new; what is new is a long overdue recognition across the U.S. government and expert and corporate communities of what America is up against. If America and its allies are to respond effectively, then they will have to organize a purposeful, long-term, strategically intelligent, and broadly coordinated effort encompassing domestic and foreign policy initiatives pursued across Asia and beyond. The good news is that the Biden administration gives every indication of understanding the generational challenge at hand.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.