China's leader is determined to turn his country into 'the biggest player in the history of the world.' Can he do it while avoiding a dangerous collision with America?
What does China’s President Xi Jinping want? Four years before Donald Trump became president, Xi became the leader of China and announced an epic vision to, in effect, “make China great again”—calling for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Xi is so convinced he will succeed in this quest that he has blatantly flouted a cardinal rule for political survival: Never state a target objective and a specific date in the same sentence. Within a month of becoming China’s leader in 2012, Xi specified deadlines for meeting each of his “Two Centennial Goals.” First, China will build a “moderately prosperous society” by doubling its 2010 per capita GDP to $10,000 by 2021, when it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Second, it will become a “fully developed, rich, and powerful” nation by the 100th anniversary of the People's Republic in 2049. If China reaches the first goal— which it is on course to do—the IMF estimates that its economy will be 40 percent larger than that of the U.S. (measured in terms of purchasing power parity). If China meets the second target by 2049, its economy will be triple America's.
What does China’s dramatic transformation mean for the United States and the global balance of power? Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who before his death in 2015 was the world’s premier China-watcher, had a pointed answer about China’s stunning trajectory over the past 40 years: “The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”
Lee’s analysis of what was happening in China, as well as the wider world, made him a sought-after strategic counselor to presidents and prime ministers on every continent—including every American head of state from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. Lee spent thousands of hours in direct conversations with Chinese presidents, prime ministers, cabinet officers, and rising leaders of his “neighbor to the North.” Every Chinese leader from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping has called him “mentor,” a term of ultimate respect in Chinese culture. And Lee, who shared his insights with me for a book I co-authored in 2013, had seen up close China’s convulsions from the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in the 1960s to Deng’s capitalist pivot in the 1980s. Indeed, he had established serious working relationships with many of the people who governed China, including China’s future president, Xi Jinping.
Lee foresaw the 21st century as a “contest for supremacy in Asia.” And as Xi rose to the presidency in 2012, Lee announced to the world that this competition was accelerating. Among all foreign observers, Lee was the first to say of this largely unknown technocrat, “Watch this man.”
Many politicians and officials in Washington still pretend that China is just another big player. Lee knew Xi well, however, and understood that China’s unbounded aspiration was driven by an indomitable determination to reclaim past greatness. Ask most China scholars whether Xi and his colleagues seriously believe that China can displace the United States as the predominant power in Asia in the foreseeable future. They will duck the question with phrases like “It’s complicated ... on the one hand ... but on the other ...” When I put this question to Lee during a meeting shortly before his death, his eyes widened with incredulity, as if to ask, “Are you kidding?” He answered directly: “Of course. Why not? How could they not aspire to be number one in Asia and in time the world?”
The structural stress between a rising China and a ruling America is already severe. Decreasing the risk of a catastrophic collision neither side wants begins with a clear assessment of Beijing’s ends and means. When he took office, Xi Jinping declared his overarching ambition for China in a single phrase: “The greatest Chinese dream is the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” His “China Dream” combines prosperity and power — equal parts Theodore Roosevelt’s muscular vision of an American century and Franklin Roosevelt’s dynamic New Deal. It captures the intense yearning of a billion Chinese: to be rich, to be powerful, and to be respected. Xi exudes confidence that in his lifetime China can realize all three by sustaining its economic miracle, fostering a patriotic citizenry, and bowing to no other power in world affairs.
How will Xi “make China great again”? After studying the man, listening to his words, and speaking to those who understand him best, I believe for Xi this means:
- Returning China to the predominance it enjoyed in Asia before the West intruded;
- Reestablishing control over the territories the Communist Party considers to be “greater China,” including not just Xinjiang and Tibet on the mainland, but Hong Kong and Taiwan;
- Recovering its historic sphere of influence along its borders and in the adjacent seas so that others give it the deference great nations have always demanded;
- Commanding the respect of other great powers in the councils of the world.
At the core of these national goals is a civilizational creed that sees China as the center of the universe. In the Chinese language, the word for China, zhong guo (中国), means “Middle Kingdom.” “Middle” refers not to the space between other, rival kingdoms, but to all that lies between heaven and earth. As Lee summarized the worldview shared by hundreds of Chinese officials who sought his advice, they “recall a world in which China was dominant and other states related to them as supplicants to a superior, as vassals that came to Beijing bearing tribute.” In this narrative, the rise of the West in recent centuries is a historical anomaly, reflecting China’s technological and military weakness when it faced dominant imperial powers during a “century of humiliation” from roughly 1839 to 1949. Xi Jinping has promised his fellow citizens: no more.
What is Xi Jinping’s program of action for restoring China to this lost position of grandeur? According to Xi’s political mentor Lee, a nation’s leader must “paint his vision of their future to his people, translate that vision into policies which he must convince the people are worth supporting, and finally galvanize them to help him in their implementation.” Having painted a bold vision of the China Dream, Xi is aggressively mobilizing supporters to execute a hugely ambitious agenda of action advancing on four related fronts.
As the primary driver of the entire venture, Xi’s first imperative in realizing the China Dream is to re-legitimize a strong Chinese Communist Party to serve as the vanguard and guardian of the Chinese state. Shortly after taking office, Xi told his Politburo colleagues that “winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the CCP’s survival or extinction.” And he bluntly warned them: “Corruption could kill the party.” Quoting Confucius, he vowed to “govern with virtue and keep order through punishments.” This was not an idle threat. Xi launched an anticorruption campaign of unprecedented scale led by his closest associate, Wang Qishan. The effort was dubbed the “tigers and flies” campaign since it promised to ensnare corrupt officials whether they were mere low-level “flies” or high-ranking “tigers.” Under Wang, 18 task forces headed by trusted lieutenants report directly to Xi. Since 2012, more than 900,000 party members have been disciplined and 42,000 expelled and prosecuted in criminal courts. Among those have been 170 high-level “tigers,” including dozens of high-ranking military officers, 18 sitting or former members of the 150-person Central Committee, and even former members of the Standing Committee.
And in contrast to Gorbachev’s glasnost—openness to ideas—Xi has demanded ideological conformity, tightening control over political discourse. At the same time, Xi has moved to cement the party’s centrality in China’s governance. Deng sought to separate party from government, and strengthen China’s state bureaucracy vis-à-vis the party. Xi has flatly rejected that idea. Shortly after Xi took power, an op-ed in the state-run People’s Daily crystallized his position: “The key to running things well in China and realizing the China Dream lies in the party.”
Second, Xi must continue to make China wealthy again. He knows the Chinese people’s support for CCP rule still depends largely on its ability to deliver levels of economic growth no other nation has achieved. But continuing China’s extraordinary economic performance will require perpetuating a unique high-wire act. Xi is acutely wary of the middle-income trap that has ensnared many developing countries as rising wages erase their competitive edge in manufacturing, and his unambiguous promise of 6.5 percent growth per year through 2021 demands what some have described as “sustaining the unsustainable.”
However, there is general agreement about what China must do to continue growing at that pace for many years to come. The key elements are stated in China’s most recent five-year economic plan, including: accelerating the transition to domestic consumption-driven demand; restructuring or closing inefficient state-owned enterprises; strengthening the base of science and technology to advance innovation; promoting Chinese entrepreneurship; and avoiding unsustainable levels of debt.
Given the scope and ambition of Xi’s plan, most Western economists and many investors are bearish that he can deliver. But many of these economists and investors have lost money betting against China for the past 30 years. As the former chair of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, Martin Feldstein, puts it: “Not all of these policies have to succeed. ... If enough of them succeed well enough, 6.5 percent growth over the next few years might not be out of reach.”
Third, Xi is making China proud again. Economic growth alone is not enough: Even as Deng’s market reforms broadened rapid economic growth after 1989, the party struggled to articulate its raison d’être when its titular communism was in name only. Why should the Chinese people allow it to govern them? The party’s answer is a renewed sense of national identity that can be widely embraced with pride among a billion Chinese.
Where once Mao’s Cultural Revolution tried to wipe out China’s ancient past and replace it with communism’s “new socialist man,” Xi has increasingly portrayed the party as the inheritor and successor to a 5,000-year-old Chinese empire brought low only by the marauding West. The phrase wuwang guochi (勿忘国耻), or “never forget our national humiliation,” has become a mantra that nurtures a patriotism grounded in victimhood and infused with a demand for payback. As the Financial Times’s former Beijing bureau chief Geoff Dyer has explained, “The Communist Party has faced a slow-burning threat to its legitimacy ever since it dumped Marx for the market.” Thus the party has evoked past humiliations at the hands of Japan and the West “to create a sense of unity that had been fracturing, and to define a Chinese identity fundamentally at odds with American modernity.”
This approach is working. During the 1990s when many Western intellectuals were celebrating the “end of history” with the apparent triumph of market-based democracies, a number of observers believed that China, too, was on a path to democratic government. Today, few in China would say that political freedoms are more important than reclaiming China’s international standing and national pride. As Lee put it pointedly, “If you believe that there is going to be a revolution of some sort in China for democracy, you are wrong. Where are the students of Tiananmen now?” He answered bluntly: “They are irrelevant. The Chinese people want a revived China.”
Finally, Xi has pledged to make China strong again. He believes that a military that is “able to fight and win wars” is essential to realizing every other component of the China Dream. “To achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation,” he has argued, “we must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and strong military.” While all great powers build strong militaries, this “Strong Army Dream” is especially important to China as it seeks to overcome its humiliation at the hands of foreign powers.
Despite all the other challenges on his agenda, Xi is simultaneously reorganizing and rebuilding China’s armed forces in a manner that Russia’s foremost expert on the Chinese military, Andrei Kokoshin, calls “unprecedented in scale and depth.” He has cracked down on graft in the military and overhauled its internally focused organization to focus on joint warfighting operations against external enemies.
Such bureaucratic reshuffling is not usually a portentous event. But in Xi’s case it underscores Beijing’s deadly serious commitment to building a modern military that can take on and defeat all adversaries—in particular the United States. While Chinese military planners are not forecasting war, the war for which they are preparing pits China against the U.S. at sea. Xi has strengthened the naval, air, and missile forces of the People’s Liberation Army crucial to controlling the seas, while cutting 300,000 army troops and reducing the ground forces’ traditional dominance within the military.
Chinese military strategists, meanwhile, are preparing for maritime conflict with a “forward defense” strategy based on controlling the seas near China within the “first island chain,” which runs from Japan, through Taiwan, to the Philippines and the South China Sea. Fielding “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) military capabilities that threaten U.S. carriers and other capital ships, China has been steadily pushing the U.S. Navy out of its adjacent seas in case of conflict. An authoritative 2015 RAND study found that by the end of 2017 China will have an “advantage” or “approximate parity” in six of the nine areas of conventional capability that are critical in a showdown over Taiwan, and four of nine in a South China Sea conflict. It concludes that over the next five to 15 years, “Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of U.S. dominance.”
As it slowly muscles the United States out of these waters, China is also absorbing the nations of Southeast Asia into its economic orbit and pulling in Japan and Australia as well. It has so far succeeded without a fight. But if fight it must, Xi intends China to win.
Will Xi succeed in growing China sufficiently to displace the U.S. as the world’s top economy and most powerful actor in the Western Pacific? Can he make China great again? It is obvious that there are many ways things could go badly wrong, and these extraordinary ambitions engender skepticism among most observers. But, when the question was put to Lee Kuan Yew, he assessed the odds of success as four chances in five. Neither Lee nor I would bet against Xi. As Lee said, China’s “reawakened sense of destiny is an overpowering force.”
Yet many Americans are still in denial about what China’s transformation from agrarian backwater to “the biggest player in the history of the world” means for the United States.
As a rapidly ascending China challenges America’s accustomed predominance, these two nations risk falling into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. Writing about a war that devastated the two leading city-states of classical Greece two and a half millennia ago, he explained: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
In 2015, The Atlantic published “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” In that essay I argued that this historical metaphor provides the best lens available for illuminating relations between China and the U.S. today. Since then, the concept has ignited considerable debate. Rather than face the evidence and reflect on the uncomfortable but necessary adjustments both sides might make, policy wonks and presidents alike have constructed a straw man around Thucydides’s claim about “inevitability” and then put a torch to it — arguing that war between Washington and Beijing is not predetermined. At their 2015 summit, Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping discussed the trap at length. Obama emphasized that despite the structural stress created by China’s rise, “the two countries are capable of managing their disagreements.” At the same time, they acknowledged that, in Xi’s words, “should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”
I concur: War between the U.S. and China is not inevitable. Indeed, Thucydides would agree that neither was war between Athens and Sparta. Read in context, it is clear that he meant his claim about inevitability as hyperbole: exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis. The point of Thucydides’s trap is neither fatalism nor pessimism. Instead, it points us beyond the headlines and regime rhetoric to recognize the tectonic structural stress that Beijing and Washington must master to construct a peaceful relationship.
Will the impending clash between these two great nations lead to war? Will Presidents Trump and Xi, or their successors, follow in the tragic footsteps of the leaders of Athens and Sparta or Britain and Germany? Or will they find a way to avoid war as effectively as Britain and the U.S. did a century ago, or the U.S. and the Soviet Union did through four decades of Cold War? Obviously, no one knows. We can be certain, however, that the dynamic Thucydides identified will intensify in the years ahead.
Denying Thucydides’s trap does not make it less real. Recognizing it does not mean just accepting whatever happens. We owe it to future generations to face one of history’s most brutal tendencies head on and then do everything we can to defy the odds.
This article has been adapted from Graham Allison's new book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
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