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What Does China Really Want?

What Does China Really Want?

Wednesday, 27 May, 2020 - 05:30
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

Can we pay the Chinese Communist Party the compliment of acknowledging that it means what it says and knows what it wants? That may be the key to understanding Beijing’s strategic ambitions in the coming decades.

A long-standing trope in the US debate on that subject is that China itself doesn’t know what it seeks to achieve, that its leaders haven’t yet worked out how far Beijing’s influence should reach. Yet there is a growing body of evidence, assembled and interpreted by talented China experts, that the Chinese government is indeed aiming for global power and perhaps global primacy over the next generation — that it seeks to upend the American-led international system and create at least a competing, quasi-world order of its own.

It doesn’t take unparalleled powers of deduction to reach this conclusion. Top Chinese officials and members of the country’s foreign policy community are becoming increasingly explicit in saying so themselves.

President Xi Jinping more than hinted at this goal in his landmark address to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017. That speech represents one of the most authoritative statements of the party’s policy and aims; it reflects Xi’s understanding of what China has accomplished under Communist rule and how it must advance in the future.

Xi declared that China “has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong,” and that it was now “blazing a new trail for other developing countries” and offering “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.” By 2049, Xi promised, China would “become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence” and would build a “stable international order” in which China’s “national rejuvenation” could be fully achieved.

This was the statement of a leader who sees his country not just participating in global affairs but setting the terms, and it testifies to two core themes in China’s foreign policy discourse.

The first is a deeply skeptical view of the existing international system. Chinese leaders recognize that the global trade regime has been indispensable to the country’s economic and military rise. Yet when they look at the key features of the world Washington and its allies have made, they see mostly threats.

In their view, American alliances do not preserve peace and stability; they stunt China’s potential and prevent Asian nations from giving Beijing its due. Seen through that lens, promoting democracy and human rights is neither moral nor benign, but propaganda supporting a dangerous doctrine that threatens to delegitimize the Communist government and energize its domestic enemies. US-led international institutions appear as tools for imposing America’s will on weaker states. The Communist Party recognizes that the liberal international order has brought benefits, writes Nadege Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, but “the party abhors and dreads” the principles on which it is based.

The second theme is that the international order must change — not a little, but a lot — for China to become fully prosperous and secure. Chinese leaders have, understandably, been somewhat opaque in describing the world they want, but the outlines are becoming easier to discern.

If one studies the statements of Xi and other top officials, China expert Liza Tobin concludes, what emerges is a vision in which “a global network of partnerships centered on China would replace the US system of treaty alliances” and the world would view Chinese authoritarianism as preferable to Western democracy.

Based on a similar analysis, Rolland agrees that China has “a yearning for partial hegemony,” a loose dominance over large swaths of the global south. When it comes to global governance, still other examinations show, Beijing wants a system in which international institutions buttress rather than batter repressive regimes. Meanwhile, Chinese strategists and academics are talking openly about building a “new China-centric global economic order.”

There is little indication, in any of this, that Beijing’s strategic horizon is limited to the Western Pacific or even Asia. Xi’s invocation of a “community with a shared future for humanity” indicates a global tableau for Chinese influence. One hardly has to read between the lines to understand that this agenda will require fundamentally resetting the current geopolitical balance. As Xi remarked several years ago, China must work resolutely toward “a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.”

Of course, there’s not need to take literally everything national leaders say, or even everything that makes it into official speeches. In Beijing’s case, however, Chinese leaders are actually saying less than what the country is doing.


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