Inside Story

Jostling giants

Does America really need a novel strategy to counter China’s rise?

John Edwards 30 November 2021 1079 words

Whose world order? Chinese staffers adjust US and Chinese flags before negotiations between US and Chinese trade representatives in Beijing in 2019. Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo

In his recent book The Long Game, White House national security staffer Rush Doshi argues that China has a “grand strategy” for world domination. He urges a counter-strategy for the United States, one in which Australia and other American allies would be expected to participate. Since Doshi is now the China desk officer on Joe Biden’s National Security Council staff, we should pay attention.

Doshi makes much of what he describes as a “social science” approach to analysing China’s plans, drawing on Chinese Communist Party documents published over many decades. He cites documents identifying the United States as China’s principal opponent in world affairs, and others urging that China should “become a leading country in comprehensive national strength and international influence.”

China’s grand strategy, Doshi infers, is to replace the United States as the dominant world power and create a world order more congenial to its interests. I say infers because, on my reading and for all his effort, Doshi has not found a Chinese Communist Party leadership document that actually says so.

Let’s accept for a moment that China does indeed plan to supplant the United States as the dominant world power, and this intent can be ascertained by a reading of Communist Party documents. If true, what should the Americans do about it? What should Australia do about it? And can China achieve the global dominance Doshi says is its grand strategy?

Doshi recommends a strategy that (as he says) largely replicates China’s. China has blunted American naval power in its region by erecting missile defences, laying mines, deploying submarines and creating military facilities on islands. Doshi suggests the US counter-blunt by deploying carrier-based unmanned aircraft, hardening air and sea facilities on Okinawa to resist Chinese missiles, and developing greater mine-laying capacity to increase the cost of amphibious operations across the Taiwan Strait.

On the economic side, Doshi wants the United States to make it harder for Chinese businesses to acquire Western technologies. The United States should also crack down on China’s participation in US research projects. And he argues the United States should thwart China’s use of new multilateral institutions such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank by joining them and diluting Chinese control.

These suggestions would surely be unlikely to stop a truly determined China from ousting the United States as top dog, assuming that’s what it wants to do. Doshi’s is a program for a second-rate power to annoy a first-rate power.

If China really was planning to supplant the United States as the dominant global power, the most important part of the American response is not what Doshi suggests it do now, but what it has been doing for decades.

The United States spends three times as much on its military as China (and more than the combined total of the next twelve countries, China included). It has 750 military bases abroad in eighty countries, compared with China’s one (in Djibouti, jostling side by side with French, Italian, Japanese and US military bases). It has more than 5000 nuclear warheads to China’s 350. With its allies (Western Europe, Japan, Korea, Australia, and so on), it has long banned weapons sales to China and long maintained a policy of doing what it can to keep China one or two techno-generations behind the leaders. The United States has formal military alliances with many powerful countries; China has none.

By contrast with what the United States already does, the striking thing about Doshi’s program is its marginality. It is an implicit recognition that China’s size, success, strategic gains and integration in the global economy cannot now be undone. It cannot be bombed, invaded or disarmed — or not without the corresponding destruction of the United States. China’s biggest “blunting” of US strategic advantages occurred sixty years ago when it developed nuclear weapons.

China could conceivably be isolated economically through import and export bans and financial sanctions. But America can’t do that alone, and who else would support it? The disruption to the world economy doesn’t bear thinking about. China is now one-tenth of the global economy. It is the world’s biggest exporter of goods and services. Its household consumer market is considerably smaller than that of the United States, but much bigger than any other country’s.

Decoupling? Rightly, Doshi doesn’t recommend it. Last year US goods exports to China were higher than they had ever been, 2017 excepted. So far this year US goods exports to China are even higher than over the same period last year. While foreign direct investment around the world tumbled last year, foreign direct investment in China actually rose.

And is China’s threat to the world order one that now requires a novel response? China’s rise relative to the United States won’t continue inexorably. At market exchange rates China’s GDP is two-thirds of the United States’ GDP. It may well surpass the United States in economic size in a decade or two, though it may not. With all its troubles the US economy has done quite well overall, while China’s “miracle economy” phase is long over. Its workforce is declining, and productivity gains are harder to find. By the time it matches the United States in economic weight its growth rate will highly likely have slipped towards that of the United States. They will be roughly evenly matched in economic weight and in growth rate. China’s income per head will be one-quarter of the United States’.

Doshi has gone to immense trouble to collect and translate documents. But it should surely come as no surprise that China finds US global dominance unsatisfactory. This is how great powers behave, and always have. Whether or not China has a grand strategy, we can infer from its conduct that it seeks to exert its weight in regional and world affairs. It would be a historical exception if it did not. No surprise either that this pressure should grate against America, the current top dog.

Yet given that China’s immense economic success has occurred within what Doshi describes as the US-led liberal world order, and given it is very heavily invested in a world economy not unlike the one we have today, is a fundamental change in the global order in China’s interests? If an American-led world order exists, is not China its greatest economic success? •