by Mackubin Owens
It has been clear for some time that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) seeks to displace the United States not only as a regional but also as a global hegemonic power. Indeed, we are now in the midst of a new “cold war,” not unlike its predecessor that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union. In the service of its goals, Beijing has pursued a coherent grand strategy. Although China seems to be effectively executing its grand strategy, its success is not foreordained. But countering it must be the strategic priority of the United States.
“Strategy” describes the employment of limited means to achieve the goals of national policy. In general, strategy provides a conceptual link between national ends and scarce resources, both the transformation of those resources into means during peacetime and the application of those means during war.
In the words of Edward Mead Earle:
strategy is the art of controlling and utilizing the resources of a nation—or a coalition of nations—including its armed forces, to the end that its vital interests shall be effectively promoted and secured against enemies, actual, potential, or merely presumed. The highest type of strategy—sometimes called grand strategy—is that which so integrates the policies and armaments of the nation that resort to war is either rendered unnecessary or is undertaken with the maximum chance of victory. (emphasis added)
Properly understood, grand strategy integrates all the instruments of national power—military, economic, political, technological, and psychological—in a concerted effort to achieve the goal of a state in the international system.
China’s Grand Strategy
If China seeks to become the global hegemonic power, it must first secure its geographic heartland. It is clear that Chinese strategists have read their Mackinder and Mahan. Accordingly, China has worked assiduously to undermine the U.S.-led alliance system along the Asian rimland and invested heavily in naval, missile, and other military capabilities. Recent decades have seen the PRC pursue a massive military buildup, including an ambitious maritime modernization program. Today, the size of its navy rivals that of the U.S. Navy. Although still qualitatively inferior to its American counterpart, the PRC Navy boasts more hulls, and its shipyards are churning out modern ships at breakneck rates that far outstrip U.S. naval output.
Aided by the “tyranny of distance,” it seeks to deny the United States unfettered access to the Western Pacific by means of an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy featuring the deployment of a layered cruise and ballistic missile system that threatens the United States and allied forces operating in the Western Pacific. The ultimate goal of the PRC is to deny the ability of the United States to operate west of the “second island chain,” the series of islands running from Japan’s Bonin and Volcano Islands, through the Marianas and western Caroline Islands to western New Guinea and the eastern maritime boundary of the Philippine Sea.
In particular, Beijing—defying international norms—has attempted to establish sovereignty over the South China Sea and has continued to threaten the independence of Taiwan. In addition to embarking on a major buildup of its naval forces, Beijing also has carried out numerous maritime provocations against its neighbors as well as the United States, in the South China Sea, which Robert Kaplan has called “Asia’s cauldron,” a “nervous region, crowded with warships and commercial vessels . . .” Such a region is particularly vulnerable to miscalculation or miscommunication.
In seeking to dominate this vitally important maritime region, Beijing has quashed the competing claims of smaller and weaker powers: Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, and Singapore. Starting with its seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, China has illegally claimed features in the South China Sea, building and militarizing numerous artificial islands. In doing so, China undermined international law and norms.
To supplement its A2/AD strategy in the Western Pacific, Beijing has employed maritime “gray zone” operations: provocative actions short of war, which seek to assert and expand Chinese control over a large area of disputed and artificial islands and reefs in the South China Sea. The main instrument for executing its gray zone operations is the PRC’s irregular “maritime militia,” comprising numerous ostensibly civilian vessels, which operate from Chinese-held islands in the South China Sea, harassing the vessels of countries with rival territorial claims. They also interfere with freedom of navigation (FON), which undermines U.S. security commitments in the region. Although occurring below the threshold of direct military confrontation, such operations employ coercive elements that undermine existing rules and norms.
Economically, China pursues a grand strategy of predatory capitalism. The PRC refuses to adhere to the norms of liberal internationalism by employing massive government support for Chinese firms and ignoring environmental and labor standards, thereby upending global markets. Accordingly, it has pulled one key American industry and supply chain after another into its orbit, eliminating millions of U.S. jobs along the way.
Beijing also has employed its “belt and road initiative” (BRI) to advance its geopolitical situation. For instance, China has invested in lucrative railway and pipeline projects in Malaysia and has attempted to establish a naval base in Cambodia. But for those countries that have been ensnared in Beijing’s infrastructure ambitions, the BRI—a neo-colonial approach focused on resource extraction and debt as a means of control—has proven to be a debt trap.
Technologically, China seeks to exploit the “fourth industrial revolution,” based on artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, and the leveraging of 5G networks. Psychologically, China has sought to exploit divisions in American society. Beijing may very well have engaged in biological warfare by unleashing—intentionally or not—the Wuhan virus that has ravaged the economies of the liberal states.
Countering China’s Grand Strategy
Two factors have contributed to China’s success in implementing its grand strategy. The first has been the conceit that the fall of the Soviet Union heralded the triumph of a liberal world order of free trade and interdependence. Seduced by this conceit, the United States and other liberal countries opened their markets to China, believing that Beijing would happily accept the tenets of a liberal economic order and “play by the rules” of that order. But despite the fatuous optimism of market fundamentalists, China remains unwaveringly committed to authoritarianism and to exploiting the system to improve its position at the expense of liberal states.
The second has been the post 9/11 wars that have diverted attention and resources away from China’s rise. Indeed, for a period, U.S. policy experts contended that the threat of great-power conflict was a thing of the past. The Trump Administration belatedly corrected this focus by issuing a U.S. National Strategy document that refocused attention and resources on China and the Indo-Pacific. There is some question as to whether the Biden Administration has continued to give China the strategic attention it deserves.
A successful U.S. grand strategy must pit U.S. strengths against China’s weaknesses, which include reliance on imports for foodstuffs and oil/gas, and demographics. Although China possesses vast coal reserves, it lacks oil and natural gas. In addition, China’s population is aging and thanks to the “one child per family” policy from the Mao era, there is a serious imbalance between the sexes, with men outnumbering women by a substantial margin.
A key to countering China’s grand strategy is to revitalize the U.S.-led Asia-Pacific alliance system that includes not only Japan, Australia, and the Republic of Korea but also those countries that have claims to the South China Sea. Since China’s regional tactics are most effective when it can take advantage of the highly asymmetrical power differential between Beijing and each of its neighbors, the United States can effectively counter this strategy by creating and strengthening a network of capable allies that are unified in their opposition to the PRC’s aggression. In other words, Washington should seek to make the competition multilateral wherever possible.
The United States needs to make its commitment to the defense of Taiwan clear. Deterrence works only if the power to be deterred takes the commitment seriously. The problem with ambiguity is that it can lead to miscalculation. Of course, effective deterrence requires prudence. The United States must recognize the relative “value of the objective” and avoid provocation. But it must also understand that Beijing only responds to power.
An overlooked—but critical—Chinese weakness is that, like France during its centuries-long struggle with Britain, China has a continental frontier that can be exploited strategically. France had the power and resources to challenge Britain at sea, but by means of adroit diplomacy and finance, Great Britain was able to divert France’s attention away from the maritime realm by creating evolving continental coalitions funded by British money and supported by limited military resources. The foremost examples of British strategy against France are the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).
China faces unrest on its western frontier as well as a hostile India to the south. A little-appreciated diplomatic triumph of the Bush Administration was increased cooperation with India that can be leveraged against Beijing. If China is strong in the Western Pacific, it is weak in the Indian Ocean. This weakness can be leveraged to the advantage of the United States and its allies.
Although the United States should continue to counter the Chinese A2/AD strategy in the Western Pacific, it should also make it clear to China that the United States and its allies will respond to its aggression by threatening, on the one hand, its ability to operate beyond the first island chain and, on the other, the Indian Ocean. If the PRC seeks to deny access to the Western Pacific, the United States and its allies can return the favor by making it clear to the PRC that in the event of a conflict, the United States is capable of denying China’s access to the wider Pacific and the Indian Ocean, threatening the vital sea-lanes that run through the Strait of Malacca and other maritime choke points. This “distant blockade” has the potential to deny Beijing access to the Middle Eastern oil upon which it desperately depends
In the technological arena, the United States should make maintaining an edge over China in the development of AI and 5G a priority. The United States cannot cede leadership in the fourth industrial revolution to China. In military terms, the Pentagon must prioritize developing technologies and systems that will be pivotal to U.S. and allied military supremacy in the Western Pacific. These include hypersonic weapons, stealth bombers, ground-mobile missile delivery systems, long-range anti-ship missiles, improved ballistic missile defenses and underwater unmanned vehicles. These systems will depend on cutting-edge, artificial intelligence-enabled software and innovative warfighting doctrines.
In economic terms, the United States can use financial leverage to counter Beijing’s BRI by stressing that it seeks independent and prosperous partners while China seeks dependent and indebted vassals for exploitation. Washington can thereby undercut Beijing’s ability to utilize debt to coerce, control, or intimidate other countries in the region.
The threat that China poses illustrates that liberal institutions are not sufficient to maintain a liberal international order. As the late Donald Kagan observed, a peaceful, prosperous international system requires “the possession by those states who wish to preserve peace of the preponderant power and of the will to accept the burdens of and responsibilities required to achieve that power.”
Does it matter if China supplants the United States? Only if we desire a more or less liberal international order. In the words of Samuel Huntington:
A world without U.S. primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.
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Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.