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China’s ‘Great Wall of Steel’ Isn’t Just Idle Talk

China’s ‘Great Wall of Steel’ Isn’t Just Idle Talk

Wednesday, 28 July, 2021 - 04:45
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."

What would it sound like if a country were getting ready to shatter the long period of great-power peace humanity has enjoyed since 1945? It might sound a lot like the ominous noises coming from Beijing today.

Recent pronouncements by the Chinese Communist Party have had a distinctly martial character. At the party’s centennial, President Xi Jinping warned that anyone who obstructs China’s “national rejuvenation” — a euphemism for its rise to the top of the global hierarchy — will “have their heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel.” In mid-July, commentators from the People’s Liberation Army released a video promising to incinerate Japan with nuclear weapons if it interfered with a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Other Chinese outlets have produced video simulations showing devastating missile barrages against Taiwan and US military bases in the Western Pacific. All of this comes amid the ongoing stream of invective from China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats directed toward nearly any country that crosses it.

China was once known, to paraphrase former Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping, for hiding its capabilities and biding its time. Now it is brandishing the fruits of its decades-long military buildup and advertising its revanchist ambitions.

What to make of this saber-rattling? There are many possible explanations.

The regime may be posturing for domestic purposes; Xi regularly uses nationalism as an ideological buttress for his repressive, personalized rule. It could be psychological warfare, meant to intimidate rivals by making China look fierce and unpredictable. There could also be a perverse feedback loop at work: Perhaps CCP officials and media outlets are emulating the themes they hear from Xi and the bellicose leadership in Beijing.

It is hard to say, because Washington doesn’t know much about Chinese decision-making these days. Xi has “almost completely disassembled nearly 40 years of … collective leadership,” said Kurt Campbell, the Asia policy chief of President Joe Biden’s administration. The US has little insight into who Xi talks to, let alone what he really thinks. Which makes it prudent to consider a more troubling possibility — that Beijing may mean what it says.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, if not longer, China has had the swagger of a country looking for a fight. A high-altitude brawl in the Himalayas last June killed 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops. Over the past year, the People’s Liberation Army has carried out its most extensive military exercises around Taiwan since a major crisis in the mid-1990s.

Xi has tied his own prestige to projects, such as reclaiming that island, that cannot be accomplished without coercion and force. And Beijing has been working rapidly to complete military reforms meant to allow the People’s Liberation Army to prevail in a high-tech fight with its adversaries. Chinese forces, Xi says, must be “ready for the fight, capable of combat, and sure to win.”

As Michael Beckley, a professor of international relations at Tufts University, and I have written, Xi’s China seems to be driven by a combustible mix of confidence and insecurity. When it comes to military might, China isn’t so much a rising power as a risen power. It has, or will very soon have, the ability to mount a serious attack on Taiwan and violently challenge the existing order in East Asia.

But it is also facing a possible future of economic stagnation and strategic blowback, as its growth slows and the repercussions from its global assertiveness mount. This week, Xie Feng, Beijing’s vice foreign minister, complained to US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman that “a whole-of-government and whole-of-society campaign is being waged to bring China down.”

Historically, revisionist powers often become most aggressive when they start to worry that their window of geopolitical opportunity has opened but won't remain open forever. That’s the position Xi’s China occupies today.

It’s also a challenge for which the US is not prepared. Americans have belatedly awoken to the reality of rivalry with China; the policy community endlessly debates whether Washington and Beijing are contesting a cold war. But outside the Pentagon, Americans have hardly considered a more sobering question: What if a cold war with China is actually the best-case scenario, because the danger of a devastating hot war is far greater than we realize?

War games by the Rand Corporation and others show that the US military would have great difficulty defending Taiwan from a Chinese assault. The US model of power projection — centered on the use of aircraft carriers and a few large, vulnerable overseas bases in the Western Pacific — is severely threatened by China’s plentiful anti-ship missiles, advanced air defenses and sophisticated cyber weapons.

The Pentagon is putting a higher priority on the defense of Taiwan and US allies in the Western Pacific. But it isn’t reorienting its budget, protecting its forward-deployed forces, or buying the long-range weapons it needs quickly enough.

In the late 1940s, the Soviet Union didn’t make a principled decision never to use force against the Western world. It accepted that constraint over time, as it became clear that Moscow could not win a violent conflict at an acceptable cost. The US must quickly relearn a lesson that a previous generation of policy makers knew well: Only by deterring a hot war can you wage a cold one.


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