How China Sees the World: The Return of the Middle Kingdom

How China Sees the World
(Dean Cheng, October 2, 2020)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Dean Cheng is The Heritage Foundation‘s research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs. He specializes in China’s military and foreign policy, in particular its relationship with the rest of Asia and with the United States. He is fluent in Chinese, and uses Chinese language materials regularly in his work. Prior to joining Heritage, he was a senior analyst with the China Studies Division at Center for Naval Analyses from 2001-2009, where he specialized on Chinese military issues, and authored studies on Chinese military doctrine, Chinese mobilization concepts, and Chinese space capabilities.

Before joining CNA, he was a senior analyst with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). He has also served as an analyst with the US Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment in the International Security and Space Division, where he studied the Chinese defense industrial complex. He is the author of the book Cyber Dragon: Inside China’s Information Warfare and Cyber Operations, as well as a number of papers and book chapters examining various aspects of Chinese security affairs. He has been interviewed by or provided commentary for publications such as Time magazine, The Washington PostFinancial TimesBloomberg NewsJane’s Defense Weekly, and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. Mr. Cheng earned a bachelor’s degree in politics from Princeton University and has done doctoral studies at MIT.

Transcript

Robert R. Reilly:

Introduction

Hello, I am Bob Reilly, the director of the Westminster Institute. I would like to welcome you to our continuing series of Zoom lectures during the time of the virus. I am particularly happy today to have Dean Cheng, who is the Heritage Foundation’s research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs.

He specializes in China’s military and foreign policy, in particular its relationship with the rest of Asia and with the United States. He is fluent in Chinese, and uses Chinese language materials regularly in his work.

Prior to joining Heritage, Mr. Cheng was a senior analyst with the China Studies Division at the. Center for Naval Analyses from 2001-2009, where he specialized on Chinese military doctrine, Chinese mobilization concepts, and Chinese space capabilities.

Before joining CNA, he was a senior analyst with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). He has also served as an analyst with the US Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment in the International Security and Space Division, where he studied the Chinese defense industrial complex.

He is the author of the book Cyber Dragon: Inside China’s Information Warfare and Cyber Operations, as well as a number of papers and book chapters examining various aspects of Chinese security affairs. He has been interviewed by or provided commentary for publications such as Time magazine, The Washington PostFinancial TimesBloomberg NewsJane’s Defense Weekly, and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. Mr. Cheng earned a bachelor’s degree in politics from Princeton University and has done doctoral studies at MIT.

Dean Cheng:

Thank you very much for having me and my appreciation to you and the Westminster Institute for the opportunity to be here. So my comments today are going to try to provide you with some context about both how does China view the world and therefore how should we be thinking about China. Let me begin by what I sometimes term the Three Nots: why Asia is not Europe, why China is not the Soviet Union, and why this is not your father’s People’s Liberation Army.

Why Asia is not Europe

So to begin with why Asia is not Europe. It is important to recognize to begin with that the Cold War has not ended. The Cold War ended in Europe in 1989 when there were those wonderful images from Berlin of young people taking sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall and the ability of East Germans to go to West Germany followed by the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and a couple of years later, the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

But it is important to recognize that that all occurred in Europe and it did not extend to Asia. In fact, if we look at the Cold War, there were four divided countries, three of which were in Asia, so you had China, between China and Taiwan, North and South Korea, North and South Vietnam, and East and West Germany. So the end of the Cold War only saw in the unification of the two Germanys. North Vietnam had conquered South Vietnam ten years earlier, and even today both China and the Korean peninsula remain divided along ideological lines.

It is also important to recognize that the Cold War was an ideological layer applied over a series of fundamental issues in Asia that were also resolved in Europe. The best example of this is the issue of borders. In Europe we had the Helsinki Accords. These among other things basically were signed by all the nations of Europe along with nations such as the United States and Canada to basically say, look, whether you are happy with the results or not, the borders of Europe are as they stand.

And so with the signing of the Helsinki Accords, no one really thought that there would be another war over Alsace and Lorraine (those are now French), or over Silesia (Poland), or the Sudetenland, which was Czechoslovakian, now part of the Czech Republic. In fact, one of the things that is stunning about Mr. Putin was his land-grab of the Crimea, which did in fact overturn established order.

But when we look to Asia, we see a very different situation. In Asia, the borders are not set. There has never been a Helsinki Accord, and indeed from north to south across Asia there are still outstanding territorial problems, and by the way, these do not only apply to China. So, for example, we have the Northern Territories or the Southern Kurils, the group of islands between Japan and Russia. We have Dokdo or Takeshima between South Korea and Japan. We have the Diàoyútái or the Senkakus among Japan, Taiwan, and China. And most in the news has been, of course, the Spratlys or the Nánshādǎo in the South China Sea.

The fact that there are multiple names for every one of these territories reflects the deep-rooted nature of these issues because how you even refer to the islands north of Japan or the island that is in dispute between South Korea and Japan is a political statement. If you go to South Korea, do not refer to the island as Takeshima. You may be asked to step outside because you are making a political statement in South Korea that you support Japan. That may be inadvertent, but that is not necessarily how they will take it.

As a consequence of this, in Asia you do not see overarching regional architectures, economic or security. There is no NATO in Asia because there has never been a consensus on who the bad guys are. NATO was formed against the Soviet Union, but, again, South Korea and Japan are at least as suspicious of each other as they are of even North Korea or Russia or China. Similarly, there has never developed really a regional market such as the European Economic Community, which grew out of the 1958 Coal and Steel Agreement, among Italy, France, and Germany. But also within Asia there is still not really a free trade zone among Asian countries. There are a number of bilateral agreements, but in the main, Asian countries still have tariffs, still have non-tariff barriers to each other.

Another vital difference between Asia and Europe, which really defines how each region looks at itself and also how China looks at itself is the fact that Europe has always had balance of power politics since the Treaty of Westphalia made the nation-state the center piece of European relations, whether it was the rise of Napoleon, the rise of Hitler, the rise of the Kaiser, the rise of the Soviet Union. What you saw was a coalition of other major powers coming together to balance that hegemon, the balance of power politics. Russia, Prussia, France, Spain, Britain, Sweden in some cases; all of these countries were playing in a sense of power politics. Asia never saw balance of power politics.

When we look at five thousand years of Asian history, we never see a Japan, allying with a Vietnam against the Han Dynasty, or Koreans and Khmers coming together to face the Qin Dynasty. Instead, you had a single, dominant hegemon, a central kingdom, if you will, which really is what zhongguo is. Zhongguo is how China refers to itself. It typically is translated as Middle Kingdom, but it also can be translated as the Central Kingdom.

And then, along its periphery were tributary states, nations that did not balance against China, but bandwagoned with China or were at least as suspicious of each other as they ever were of China, and they gave tribute to that central hegemon. And that is a fundamentally different perspective about how international relations is supposed to work at all. It is not multiple major powers balancing against each other, it is smaller countries in a sense deferring to the single, big country.

China is not the Soviet Union

So if Asia is not Europe, China is not the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was in many ways our evil twin. If you are a Star Trek fan, you may recognize the following reference: it was Spock with a beard. The Soviet Union, like the United States, was a global power and we each had a messianic ideology. We wanted to bring the benefits of capitalist democracy to the rest of the world. The Soviets wanted to bring the benefits of centralized economic planning, socialism, and authoritarian government under a Leninist, vanguard party to the rest of the world. Each felt that the entire planet was part of the battleground, but also was suitable. You wanted to make other countries, whether they were Brazil or Bangladesh, like us, and the Soviets wanted to make, whether it was Sudan or Saudi Arabia, like them.

Military Power

Another important characteristic of the Soviet Union was that it was a military power and it prioritized military capability over all else, and it was a global military power. There were Soviet forces in Angola, in Cuba, in Vietnam. The Soviet Navy had bases across Africa and the Mediterranean. It was a very military-heavy focus. It was very econ-lite. The Soviet Union did not trade with many other countries, and frankly it did not have to. It traded with Eastern Europe for political reasons, to keep the East Germans and Czechoslovakians tied to Moscow, much more than to derive economic benefit.

China is Different in Every Way

China is different in every one of these characteristics. To begin with, while it has a large military and it is steadily modernizing, it is still a regional military. The focus of the Chinese military, which we will get to in a little bit, is on local contingencies, those very close to China’s borders.

China is Not Messianic

Second of all, China today does not really have that much of an ideology. Certainly, it is not messianic. The People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party, are not trying to remake the world into little CCPs. China will trade with any country. China will have diplomatic relations with any other country. Its conditions are much more political, things like you cannot recognize Taiwan, than they are ideological.

You want to be capitalist? We will sell you the tools to be a successful, capitalist country. If you want to be socialist, we will see you the tools to be a socialist country. You want to be a single dictatorship? We will trade with you there, as well. China is not interested so much in exporting dialectics as it is in exporting t-shirts, washing machines, and computers. Again, a fundamental difference from the Soviet Union, and that last aspect there is, of course, most important of all.

China is an economic superpower. As it turns out, the Soviet Union’s economy was actually never as large as we thought it was. China’s economy is probably about where we estimate it to be, about 60-75% of the American economy at this point. It is a huge trading nation in a way that the Soviets were not. So in every one of these aspects then, China really is not simply another large communist country that does not use the English alphabet.

It is instead a major power coming from a fundamentally different tradition, and that tradition again is in part as I said not European, but also it is marked by thousands of years of being the central power of Asia, but is marked by the Century of Humiliation when it was subjugated and nearly colonized by a largely European-dominated international system, and here the Century of Humiliation is the second major characteristic that helps define how China looks at the world.

The Century of Humiliation

From 1839 to 1949 China went from being the top dog, if you will, to the sick man of Asia. And what happened during that century? Well, in 1839, China fought the First Opium War against Great Britain, and by the way, this is where the whole issue of Hong Kong comes from because the British Empire fought a war to force China to accept opium, its sale and its use in the streets of China.

Imagine if we had fought a war with the Medellín or Cali cartels in the 1990s and had lost. And today, when you go to McDonald’s and order your Big Mac and fries, and you want a coke with that, they ask five grams or ten. That is what happened in the wake of the Opium War. China was not allowed to prohibit the sale of opium in China because Great Britain was exporting opium from India to China, and was therefore reaping huge amounts of silver and some gold in the process. So that is the beginning of the century of humiliation.

Over that period from 1839 to 1949, China fought a Second Opium War and lost to Britain and France. It fought two wars with Japan, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894 to 1895) is where Taiwan becomes an issue because China lost that war also, and had to cede Taiwan to Japan. The Second Sino-Japanese War overlapped, but is not quite the same as the Second World War because it began in 1937 when the Japanese started pushing deeper into China, and some would even date it all the way back to 1931, when Japan detached all of Manchuria and made it into a puppet kingdom part of the Japanese Empire.

To give you a sense of scale: imagine if somebody had detached all of New England down to essentially the Hudson, and made it into the Republic of New England, and attached it to Great Britain or Nazi Germany. That is the kind of embarrassment and humiliation that China was subjected to, and of course, the Second World War, where you had things like the Rape of Nanking and Japan’s bombing of Chungking.

So this was a tumultuous century. It was a horrible century in terms of Chinese pride. It was a period when China frankly lost control of its own destiny, over its own people, over its own territories, so for China, this is something to be avoided. This is a major defining element of what drives people like Xi Jinping because they have been taught never again will we allow a repetition of this century of humiliation.

No Rule of Law

A third characteristic that feeds into China’s view and why China is not the Soviet Union is that there is no real rule of law. And again, this is something that dates back thousands of years. It is now new to China or because of the Chinese Communist Party. Throughout thousands of years of Chinese history there has never evolved the rule of law, the idea that the law is its own institution, the idea of a separate judiciary as a co-equal branch of government.

In imperial China, magistrates were appointed by the emperor, and served as prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge, and would hand down sentences. So this is a very different model of how you go about settling disputes, of the role of law, of the role of courts as an arbiter. The Chinese people do not particularly trust court systems, especially because in today’s China every judge is a member of the Chinese Communist Party, and it is very clear that given a choice between findings under the law, and findings in accordance with the CCP, China’s Communist Party, you had best decide in favor of the CCP.

A Lack of Civil Society

And then finally, you have a lack of civil society. And this is perhaps in some ways the hardest thing for Americans to understand. We live in a society where there are vast parts of our lives that are beyond the reach and scope of government, and we like it that way. These days it is a little harder to find something that is beyond the realm of politics, but even there, too, under more normal circumstances, where you eat, what you eat is a personal decision. It is not a political decision.

And in China, nothing is beyond the reach of the Chinese Communist Party: no company, no religious organization, no sports league, no non-governmental organization. The Chinese Communist Party itself will often say if there are three people, there should be a Party member present. And so we see efforts to insert the CCP into the functioning of churches, the Catholic Church has been fighting this battle now for quite some time.

The Chinese dangle the idea of well, maybe we will let you do a little more proselytizing – even as they also make clear that what you proselytize, what your message is must be acceptable to the Party. And this is also why Chinese companies, Chinese students, Chinese academics, Chinese businessmen can (and under Chinese law can be made to) provide information about their customers, about their contracts, about the data that sits on their servers, can be held even if that is not what they were when they first showed up at your business or at your university.

The People’s Liberation Army

So all of this is to indicate how fundamentally different China looks at the world, different from us, even from the Soviet Union, certainly different from Russia. A lot of this is encapsulated in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This is the Chinese military. Even though it is the People’s Liberation Army, think of it more as the People’s Liberation military because it encompasses the ground forces, the air forces, the navy, and the missile units.

So two things to keep in mind about today’s PLA. The first is that this is not a national military. The People’s Liberation Army is a Party army. It is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party. And every officer in the PLA is a member of the CCP. For those of you who have served in our armed forces, I am sure you remember your oath is to uphold, defend, and protect the Constitution of the United States, without regard to party, without regard to who is president, that is what you are to uphold. And your lawful orders are that they be consistent with our Constitution and the laws.

Your Chinese counterparts swear an oath to uphold the rule of the CCP. And so in 1989, when the Chinese military was ordered to roll into the streets of Beijing and we had the Tiananmen massacre, that was a lawful order in the Chinese context because it was an order that went to Party members of the armed wing of the CCP to suppress a threat to CCP rule.

The PLA Has Changed

The other thing to keep in mind is that this is not your father’s People’s Liberation Army. This is no longer a military that believes that you will run out of bullets or AMRAAMs or Harpoons or Mark 48 torpedoes before they run out of bombs. Instead, this is a military that has paid very close attention to other people’s wars and has come to the conclusion that future wars will be based not on quantity, although quantity matters, but as much on quality, quality of personnel and level of sophistication of their equipment and weapons.

And this is an enormous shift from the PLA that went to war in Korea or against India in 1962 or even against Vietnam in 1979, which is the last time the Chinese military fought a war at all. This is a military that instead has basically been saying we need to become more sophisticated, we need to incorporate more technology, and its doctrine has evolved.

PLA Joint Operations

Its doctrine has gone from, again, mass quantities of poorly armed troops to what they term joint operations. Their version of joint operations is different from ours. When we think about joint operations, we tend to think about different services operating together; the army and the air force, the navy and the army, the air force and the Marines.

For the People’s Liberation Army, joint operations is about operating across multiple domains: land, sea, and air, outer space, and the electromagnetic domain, which includes but is not limited to cyberspace. This is a very different approach. It comes out of watching how we, the United States, have fought most of our wars. They consider our military to be the gold standard, and so they see how we are able to operate across vast distances, hundreds of thousands of square miles, coordinating carrier task forces, submarines launching cruise missiles, special operations forces, armored divisions, and their conclusion from watching this is that the key to future warfare is the ability to create shared situational awareness, to have the various participating forces know where each other are, where the enemy is, and how to bring kinetic force but also electromagnetic force, electronic warfare, cyber warfare, to bear against an adversary. And so this is a very different approach.

The PLA has not fought a war since 1979, but it has been slowly evolving its military forces in this direction. At the end of 2015, the People’s Liberation Army underwent a massive evolution, huge changes, changes we have not seen frankly since the founding of the PLA back in 1927.

PLA Strategic Support Forces: Pursuing Information Dominance

One of those changes was the creation of a new service, what is termed the PLA Strategic Support Forces, and what it did was it brought together China’s electronic warfare forces, who do things like jam radars, network warfare forces, which includes cyber warfare capabilities, hacking, but is more than that. They can also disrupt other networks, power networks, energy networks, transportation networks. And there are space forces.

They brought them all into a single service because to the PLA, all of these are capabilities that really revolve around information: the ability to gather information, the ability to transmit information, the ability to exploit because for the PLA, the ability to establish what they term information dominance, the ability to gather, to transmit, and to exploit more rapidly and more accurately than your adversary while also preventing your adversary from doing all of those things is the key to winning future war.

So the Chinese basically have organizationally put their money where their mouth is. They said, you know what, winning the next war is going to require information dominance, and we are going to create a service whose job is to go after achieving information dominance. So looking at this very different regional context, this very different national context, with this evolving military, what is it that China wants?

Comprehensive National Power

I would suggest that when we look at how China is thinking about strategy and its future requirements, we see several things. First off, we need to recognize that the Chinese do engage in a very holistic approach towards its strategy and towards its power. The Chinese are not pursuing a military strategy. They are not pursuing an economic strategy. They are not pursuing a diplomatic strategy. They are pursuing all of these.

This is part of what the Chinese term comprehensive national power. Comprehensive national power basically is how do nations rack and stack, how do you compare a Brazil, a France, a Colombia, with a China, a Thailand, an United States? And the answer is all of these pieces matter. Military capability is very self-evident. If you cannot defend yourself, you are not a great power, but military power by itself is insufficient.

What happened in the Soviet Union? It collapsed by spending huge amounts of money. Economic power is therefore important, but economic power by itself does not necessarily get you respect. So what else do you need? You need to be politically unified, and this is one of the reasons why Taiwan is such an issue. If you are not politically unified, you cannot be strong. If part of your country is constantly trying to break away, and from China’s perspective Taiwan is part of China, then how can you be strong? That also is why Tibet is an issue, why the South China Sea is an issue, why Xinjiang with the Uyghurs is an issue.

You have to have diplomatic respect. That century of humiliation was all about China not being shown respect, so China wants that respect. Being a member of the UN permanent five is an example. Science and technology: you do not want to be making other people’s washing machines forever. You want them to be running your operating system, buying your computers, designing the microprocessors that power those computers. You want to define space exploration, so you might land on the far side of the moon, something no other country has done, but which China did in 2019.

And then you have cultural security. Cultural security is something Americans do not tend to think about all that much. We go around the world and we expect one to find people who speak English, to find Coca-Cola available pretty much at every convenience store and every restaurant, McDonald’s on most street corners, people wearing blue jeans and listening to Taylor Swift.

For China this is very irksome. To their mind, ‘We are five thousand years of history. We invented paper. We invented paper money. We invented gunpowder, and yet people go around speaking English and eating McDonald’s, why aren’t they going around speaking Chinese and eating kung pao chicken?’ And as important people in China people are eating McDonald’s and drinking Coca-Cola, so for the Chinese cultural security is part of that broader context of comprehensive national power and national security.

China Dream

And so China’s strategy is to evolve the world towards a situation where China resumes its more rightful place as the middle kingdom, as the central kingdom, and this is part of what Xi Jinping has called the China Dream. When you read what Xi Jinping says in Chinese, the China Dream is also termed the Great Revival of the Chinese People. Maybe that is the single biggest, most important takeaway.

What is China’s strategic goal? China is not imperial Germany. China is not some new country, arriving on the scene from out of nowhere, working its way up. China is talking about its return, its revival. We were gone for a hundred years, but we are back, more powerful than ever, richer than ever, more scientifically capable than ever, and with a military that is now unlike one hundred, one-hundred and fifty years ago, able to defend China itself and China’s interests.

And in fact, this is part of the mission of the Chinese military. It is stated: to keep the CCP in power, to keep the country unified, which is another way of saying to be able to take Taiwan if necessary, but to defend China’s interests, defined partly in economic terms, access to resources, but in key domains because that is how the Chinese think about joint operations (the maritime domain, the outer space domain, the electromagnetic domain).

So in practical terms we see in this time of COVID-19 that China has made pretty clear what it wants to see the world look like after COVID-19. It wants a world where Taiwan is kept in a box, where organizations like the WHO do not listen to Taiwan, no matter how urgently it might say we think there is a new disease breaking out in China. It will not seat Taiwan within the World Health Assembly. It is a global economy, where China maintains key roles in global supply chains, where countries look at China and see a fuzzy, warm panda, not a fearsome dragon, and so this is why we saw Chinese aid in the form of personal protective equipment, and why China has pushed even in the time of COVID-19 that Huawei should play a role in your 5G network.

But at the same time it is a China that is increasingly prepared to pound on the doors and pound on the table if its way is not had. And so with Chinese aid it turned out a lot of this aid was not aid at all, it was actually bought and paid for. China was merely delivering. In other cases it was equipment that did not work, a shockingly high percentage. One report estimates something like 70% of Chinese PPE did not work, but when you brought this to light, the Chinese started basically saying, well, you are not being very friendly. Such wild accusations will hurt your country’s relations with China. We are going to remember that in future economic contexts. So this is a China that is increasingly trying to shift global standards and norms in its own favor.

China poses a fundamentally different standard to the United States as a result. This is a country that frankly has more resources than the Soviet Union did. It has also spent a lot more time developing ties to the rest of the world, so it is going to be a lot harder to isolate them, and because they trade with everyone else, they have – whether deliberately or accidentally – stumbled onto one of the keys that make democracies work, which is interesting.

In every country where China is a major trading partner, there are interest groups of both those who export to China, and those who import from China, who look at China, and they do not see a threat. They see a customer. They see an economic partner. They see part of their own well-being, and so figuring out how to work with a country that is intermittently tied up our supply chains and everyone else’s, that is diplomatically well-connected, that is not trying to push an ideology, it is not trying to remake other countries into China’s own likeness, but will differ to China’s key interests is going to be the challenge of the coming decade, and is going to require a lot smarter, well-rounded, holistic thinking than we had to bring to bear when we fought and won the Cold War. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak.

Q&A

What American Policymakers Missed

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you so much for that very interesting presentation. What was missing in the U.S. expectation that subsidizing Chinese economic transformation, inviting it into the World Trade Organization or voting for its membership there, willingly transferring our own technology to China, sometimes giving it to them, acceding to American corporations doing business there on the terms that they turn over their proprietary technology to China all in the hope that this would somehow transform China itself into our own self-image? What was it that American policymakers did not know that led to this enormous miscalculation?

Dean Cheng:

It was not anything that they did not know, but it was the circumstances. When we won the Cold War, and I said earlier we only won it in Europe, we assumed that from there the rest of the world would naturally follow, and it was that hyper-optimism that said, well, look at Eastern Europe. No one fought, no shots were fired, and they became democracies. Boris Yeltsin, kind of, sort of thought might be a democratic leader and he did jump on the back of a tank to stop the coup in 1991, which broke up the Soviet Union.

So I think a huge piece of this was the enormous optimism. I mean remember Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History. History was done. We had won. And so all of the other countries of the world would see that obviously democratic capitalism was the right answer. And so if we made some concessions, if we allowed the Chinese to access intellectual property, if we brought them into the World Trade Organization and promoted free trade, then naturally China would one, see the wrongness of its dictatorial ways, and two, would seek to evolve.

And if they did not, well, there would come a Chinese middle class, and every middle class around the world no matter what nationality, what ethnic origin you are, all believe the same things. This is in many ways the charm and the goodness of the American system because we believe anyone can become an American. That is good. But it is failing to recognize that yes, but you have to come here, and you have to buy into the Constitution. And just because you have a middle class in a China does not mean that they will immediately subscribe to Jefferson and Rousseau, and quote the Federalist Papers. And so that was one huge piece of this.

Changes in Chinese Leadership

The second piece of this it is important to recognize that the Chinese leadership in the 1980s and 1990s was very different from the Chinese leadership of the 21st century. Jiang Zemin, who came to power in 1992 under the direction of and with the blessing of Deng Xiaoping, did want to push Chinese economic reform. And in fact, his premier, Zhu Rongji, was described by Deng Xiaoping as the smartest man in China. And he was a genuine reformer.

We have seen the Chinese economy, and China’s politics, frankly, evolve away from its Mao totalitarian state. It is authoritarian, but it is far, far more relaxed than it was in the bad old days under Mao were, in comparison to the Soviet Union. For example, if you go to – we are here in Washington, DC – if you go to the Mall, when it is not a period of COVID, and you go to the Smithsonian’s, you will see thousands of Chinese tourists. If you go to the Louvre in Paris, if you go to the British Museum in London, if you go to Hermitage in St. Petersburg, you will see thousands of Chinese tourists.

You know what, not one of those people has a hostage back home. Those people, if they wanted suddenly to make a dash and try to defect, no one is going to stop them. There is no mother, daughter, brother, son who is locked up. [The government is not] saying if you do not come back, they will suffer. This is very different from the Soviet Union. It is different from China in the 1960s because the Chinese attitude is you know what, go ahead, leave. We have got 1.3 billion other of you. This is a very different model of authoritarianism, and it is in part what makes it harder for us to figure out how to counter.

So we basically were in the 1990s working with a China that politically and economically more liberal than it had been, which is not to say they were free because they were not free, and we were drunk with our own success. And we thought everyone was going to become like us. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and two things happen: one is that the Chinese leadership changes. Hu Jintao came to power in 2002 and he was far less interested in both economic and political reform. He had no interest in political reform and frankly no interest in economic reform.

We are seeing the Chinese economy slow down today in part because for ten years and now under Xi Jinping another ten years where China is no longer economically, but I think we also realize maybe because of 9/11, maybe because of the rise of Vladimir Putin, maybe because of the failure of the Arab Spring and the Jasmine Revolution, the Color Revolutions, that maybe democracy takes more than just one election or what is the phrase, democracy is not one man, one vote, one time, and realizing that China is not about to become democratic and you can have a middle class live better, who can go and be tourists and have nice homes with central air conditioning.

They are not necessarily going to go and agitate for democracy, especially if the price of agitating for democracy might be your life or might simply be that your children will not have that opportunity to go and study abroad and have a shot at a good job. So I think it is sort of easy to say, look, what were the one or two big mistakes we made? It was a lot of mistakes by a lot of people, understandable in many cases. That is what makes this a Greek tragedy in many, many ways because it could have been different, maybe, but it would have required us to understand where things really were and not how we wanted them to be.

Marxism-Leninism in China Today

Robert Reilly:

In the way in which you describe China today, how do you account for President Xi’s renewed emphasis on Marxism-Leninism as the animating ideology and special instruction to CCP members to ensure that they are indoctrinated with this ideology, and along with it, of course, a rather active repression of religious groups? This all seems to cohere with what we normally understand as Marxist-Leninist Party behavior.

Dean Cheng:

Well, I think part of that unfortunate hyper-optimism that we saw in the ’90s and early 2000s was also this idea, and you saw this in places like The New York Times, that, ‘Oh, the Chinese Communist Party today is a lot like private clubs. It is really where businessmen get together to cut deals.’ And that was a fundamental misunderstanding of the role and reality of the CCP. The CCP in China may not be messianic, they may not be trying to spread this ideology outside of China’s borders, but it has never ever stopped being a Marxist-Leninist Party at home.

The CCP is a Marxist-Leninist Party

First off, there are no other parties in China. The thing to keep in mind here is that the Chinese Communist Party today is not so much Marxist, by which I mean for each according to their ability to each according to their needs, let us not have much in the way of separation, sort of financial inequality. China has several hundred billionaires, several thousand millionaires, and three to four hundred million people living on roughly three dollars a day. This is not an equal society.

So the CCP is a Marxist-Leninist Party. What was it that makes it Leninist? It is a vanguard party. It is what will lead the Chinese people into the future. It is the only source of political legitimacy and authority and that has never ever changed, not Mao, not Deng, not Jiang Zemin, not Hu Jintao, not Xi Jinping. It is just that under Jiang Zemin they talk less about it, and Jiang Zemin said, ‘By the way, if you are a businessman, come on into the Party. We welcome you into the Party. Bring your stuff, bring your money, we are not going to take it from you.’ And they did not. They said, ‘You know what, you can be a millionaire and be a member of the Party. Great.’

And that was, again, part of our miscalculation. We saw that and we said, ‘Oh, you know what is going to happen?’ Those business people will change the Party. They will make the Party more open because they are going to want to protect their resources. They will get the CCP to help invest in places. What actually happened is the CCP brought them into the Party and said, ‘Now that you are a member of the Party, we are going to watch you because that is what we do.’

An End to Economic Reform

And so under Hu Jintao as I said we have seen a slowdown, frankly an end, to economic reform, and the business people were allowed to keep on making money as long as they understood where the political power was and that, again, was sort of a salami slice. It is like, ‘Alright, I can understand that.’

And under Xi Jinping what we have seen is an open set of attacks upon businessmen. Anbang Insurance, Dalian Wanda Industries, these are major conglomerates in China, whose leaders have either been replaced, been encouraged to retire, or it has otherwise been made very clear to them you are a potential challenge to the power of the Party. It is time for you to step aside for your industrial, economic conglomerate to be broken up.

Suppressing Challenges to Xi’s Authority

Now, Xi is doing this partly out of his own personal authority. He is probably the single most powerful leader in China since Deng Xiaoping. He uses the context of Marxism-Leninism, but above all Leninism, the only source of political power to then crack down on all of the other potential places of dissent within China. So there have been regulations going out to the military, saying, remember the Party has absolute leadership over you, the military.

It cracks down on religion because as I said earlier, there is no room for civil society, there is no room for a sphere beyond the reach of the Party. Your conscience is not your own. Your conscience or at least your loyalty belongs to the Party. It says, of course, in the Bible to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. In Xi Jinping’s China, there is no separation, there is no realm that is beyond the reach of Caesar or Xi Jinping.

Weakness and Suspicion

What is this about? Ironically, I think some of this is actually a sign of weakness. It is a sign of weakness because we have an economic system that is slowing down, partly because of COVID-19 and everyone’s economy is slowing down, but even before COVID-19 because of the U.S.-China trade war, because of increasing questions about Chinese disrespect for intellectual property, because of questions about China’s debt trap behavior, because of questions about how China basically is engaged in broad theft of intellectual property and other things.

There has been more and more suspicion about China. Donald Trump has amplified this. Without him, frankly, you would probably see 5G networks being built by Huawei across Europe. You don’t because in no small part this White House has said, you will not, you cannot cut a deal with the Chinese and expect close ties with us. We are still the largest economy and we are for better or worse still, frankly, more transparent and far more democratic than China is. We pay attention to the law, we have respect for the law, we have rule of law and those are things that are very important.

A Delicate Moment

So China finds itself economically weaker, politically more troubled, whether it is Hong Kong or Taiwan or Uyghurs. COVID-19 occurred in the middle of a key moment in the Chinese calendar year, the Chinese Lunar New Year. There is a reason why the Chinese did not quarantine. The economic hit alone had they quarantined before this would have been the equivalent of canceling Thanksgiving and Christmas. Think about what that would have done economically. Think about what that would have done just politically.

So Xi is at a fairly delicate moment. This should not be interpreted to mean that China is on the verge of collapse or Xi Jinping is on the verge of losing power. All it is to say is that in any authoritarian system, uneasy rests the head upon which lies the crown. Xi Jinping always has to worry about who might have their knives out for him, in a way that not even Donald Trump has to worry because at the end of the day, we have an orderly succession system. They do not.

Mao’s Three Bases of Support

Robert R. Reilly:

How accurate would you say is the idea that many people have concerning China that there are not many real communists left in the country, they do not believe in this ideology, and the deal between the people and the Party is you can keep your power as long as their is still a growing economy? If we get richer, you can get more powerful or keep the power you have, but if you cannot keep your side of the bargain, that undermines this arrangement and then your power is vulnerable. Do you think that is true?

Dean Cheng:

I think that it is true. I think it is somewhat simplified because there are multiple things that keep any group in power, including the Chinese Communist Party, but what I have said in the past elsewhere is that in a sense, the CCP is experiencing what it is like to go from a tricycle to a bicycle to a unicycle.

In 1949, when Mao Zedong stands atop Tiananmen Square and waves his hands, announcing the creation of the People’s Republic of China, there were three things that he could point to to say, ‘This is why we are in charge.’ One, ‘We are communists.’ It is the Marxist part of Marxist-Leninism. ‘We will end landlords, we will make people more equal, we will redistribute. Second, you will live better. Just regardless of the economic system, you will live better. And third, we drove the foreigners out,’ especially the Japanese, but also all those colonialists, and all of those Brits, and Americans, and so on.

So that is 1949. Fast forward about seventy years and what do we see? Well, first off as I said earlier inequality is through the roof. It is probably as bad if not in some ways worse than it was back in 1949, so it went from three wheels, three bases of support, a tricycle, to bicycle.

Successes and Failures

Will your children live better than you did? The CCP actually delivered on that relative to 1949. In 1949, the estimate is that eighty percent of Chinese people were illiterate, eighty percent. Today, I think most people would agree that China is like ninety-five percent literate. And in a society and a culture that values education, that is huge. Where the path to advancement is through education, that is huge.

But in today’s China, if you live in the wrong place, you are breathing air – I had a colleague who was stationed in China for two years. After six months he came back to the United States for a medical checkup and his doctor looked at him and said, “You know, Bill, I am really disappointed in you.” “Why?” “I would think you are smart enough not to take up smoking, a man of your age.” He said, “Doctor, I am not smoking.” He said, “Looking at your lungs, you look like a one to two pack-a-day smoker. That is the quality of the air in China.

So are you living better? Well, maybe, but maybe your children have emphysema. Maybe you are eating food that has high mercury and heavy metal content. Maybe you are living in substandard housing, where your chances of improving are very limited. So let us say that that front wheel of that bicycle is often soft and leaky.

Eroding Legitimacy

Now, this is why the third part is important, why Taiwan cannot ever be allowed to go independent, why you have suppressed the Uyghurs in Xijiang and elsewhere is yes, well, but we drove the foreigners out, we made China strong, and China is strong because of we, the CCP. And we land people on the far side of the Moon, and we have naval exercises in the Mediterranean and the Baltic, which has never occurred in human history before because we are strong.

So there are attacks, there are erosions on the legitimacy of the CCP across all three wheels, one of which is thoroughly flat and one of which is pretty soft and wobbly. Are there people who believe? Yes, I think there are. I think there and people who believe and I think there are Party members who believe, but belief only gets you so far. It has been said that no country is more than three meals away from revolution. One of the really interesting things right now in China is food prices are going up because there are a number of pests and diseases that are affecting food prices in China.

So even if people who believe if they cannot get pork, which is the staple meat, they cannot get vegetables, which is the centerpiece of Chinese food, because of diseases and things that are affecting China’s pig herds and vegetable gardens, that faith and belief will only get you so far, and that is absolutely something that the CCP is terrified of.

Aggression or National Restoration

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, Dean, how powerful a glue is nationalism today in China and is it strong enough that President Xi’s program to restore China [will succeed]? It is more than a restoration when you claim sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, that is an extraordinarily aggressive act, plus the armed conflict on the border with India, and you mentioned the crack down in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Is this all playing to a strong sense of nationalism in the Chinese people or at least the Han Chinese?

Dean Cheng:

In the Chinese people, not just the Han Chinese people, yes, absolutely. So to begin with are the Chinese people nationalistic? Absolutely, partly because of their own education, partly because it has been drummed into them, that Century of Humiliation is all about building up that sense of we were kicked around, we were taken advantage of, but no more and by the way, that is because of us, the Chinese Communist Party. As Mao said, China has stood up. China is off its knees.

Restoring Historic Borders

When we look at all of the various regions that you ticked off, as an American, as an outsider, we look at this and we say how in the world do they claim the South China Sea, which is 1500 miles from your shore? The Chinese say it has always been China. How do you lay claim to the border with India?

Well, if you look back (and the reality is that if you look back far enough, borders change) so if you look back (and China is part of an Asia that has five thousand years of history), there was a time when Tibet extended further than its current border, when the borders of China extended into the steppe that is today part of Kazakhstan or part of Russia or part of Outer Mongolia.

So from the Chinese perspective, this is not a land grab à la Adolph Hitler. This is not Lebensraum. This is not ‘my final territorial demand.’ This is restoring China’s historic border. I am not saying that is a correct interpretation, but I am saying from the Chinese perspective it is not an incorrect view, and that is part of the problem here, it is that China’s claims are expansive but they are at the same time strangely limited. So, for example, they do not necessarily claim that the Korean peninsula is Chinese, and they certainly do not think that Japan is part of China.

China’s Claim in the South China Sea

Now, the problem is for the South China Sea, as an example, $5.3 trillion dollars worth of trade transits through there. Taiwan, South Korea, Japan; their food and their oil transits through the South China Sea. So China’s claim is well, this has always been ours, and the funny thing is there is a little bit of truth to that because three thousand years ago nobody set out boundaries at sea.

It was simply areas that got transited, but in a world where there are treaties and delineations, borders, and therefore economic rights within those borders, now people do delineate, and the Chinese attitude is fine, if you are going to say we have to delineate, I am going to delineate it all. And the fact that this leaves Vietnam with literally no territorial seas, if you look at where the Chinese claim that their Nine Dash Line goes in the South China Sea, it goes about three miles off of Vietnam’s coast.

According to the Chinese, anything beyond three miles is Chinese, and they get to do things like run over Vietnamese fishing boats. There are videos of this, of Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels literally running over the Vietnamese boats and ships. We have a right to do that because it is our territory. Well, okay, that is not how the rest of the world works. And this, again, is where China now says that that is how I work. We need to figure out how to say to them, no, it is not, and if that is what you are going to do, there will be consequences.

Can China Tolerate American Pacific Power?

Robert R. Reilly:

Does the idea of a restoration of China as a middle kingdom necessitate the elimination of the United States as a Pacific power?

Dean Cheng:

So the story goes – I do not know if this is true – that Xi Jinping supposedly said to President Obama, I tell you what, we will draw a line at Guam. And you can have everything east of Guam and we will have everything west of Guam, so you get to be a Pacific power, you just do not get to be a western Pacific power. You have hit the question on the head. The U.S. has very few direct, territorial or other issues with China. We have them in space, we have them in cyberspace, but physically, on the ground, we do not touch China.

But the problem is our key allies do, and that is Japan, and that is the Philippines, and that is South Korea, and that is to a lesser extent Australia, New Zealand, because while they do not touch China, China’s actions very clearly affect their sovereignty, and Thailand, which again does not touch China, but their interests brush up against it.

The History of Sino-American Relations

And a China that dominates Asia is fundamentally against America’s interests and has been since the founding of the republic. The very first ship flying an American flag to leave an American port was a U.S. merchant ship on its way to China as part of the tea trade. I believe in fact it was called the Empress of China. It left Baltimore harbor.

We have always seen Asia as a region that we could not afford to allow a single country to dominate. Now, the unfortunate reality is American history is about two hundred and twenty years old, and that mostly overlaps with China’s century of humiliation. So our normal setting for Asia is an Asia that did not have a single dominant power, there was a rivalry there, and we actually wanted to keep China intact. This was the Open Door Policy of John Hay.

China says yes, but that is the exception. For four thousand nine hundred years we were the top dog, we were the dominant power, the central kingdom, the middle kingdom, and your normal is our abnormal, so this again is a friction because in all of that time that China was dominant, countries like Japan and Korea were weak and either isolated, Japan isolated itself, or subservient.

And in today’s world, we believe in this system where countries have their own voice. They are not always equal, but they have their own voice and their own sovereignty, and China’s behavior very clearly is ‘until that sovereignty interferes with what I want, and then you should defer.’ And our allies, Japan and South Korea and others, are saying why should we do that? And that is a very reasonable question. And so, yes, I think as time goes on, as China finds itself increasingly restrained, it does more and more see the U.S. as the problem to restoring China.

China’s Model is Not 20th Century Imperialism

Robert R. Reilly:

To what extent would it be helpful to see the plan on the Chinese part in some ways as a parallel to the Japanese-Asian Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere that they tried to develop in the ’30s?

Dean Cheng:

Not very useful at all, and the reason for that is because the Japanese modeled their empire on European form. When we look at European empires and Japan’s empire, it meant physical occupation. It meant Japanese troops in the streets of Seoul and Pyongyang, and after World War II began in the streets of Manila and the streets of Saigon, and the streets of Phnom Penh, just like there were British troops in the streets of Calcutta and Cairo, New York, and Boston in 1700.

So the Chinese are not pursuing a European model of imperialism. So for example, Japan took what it wanted from Manchuria, then called Manchukuo, and Korea. It was a very, very one-way colonial, imperial system that said raw materials will be basically shipped where we need it, and you will buy and take our finished goods.

China buys the raw material at world market prices, whether it is copper and lithium or oil and soybeans, and it wll buy them from whoever is selling them, including America, including Brazil, including South Sudan, including Angola. It is not trying to make an Angola or a South Sudan or even an Indonesia somehow part of a Chinese economic closed machine. In fact, if anything, the closed machine part is China itself. But if Indonesia wants to sell oil or soybeans or anything else to the United States, go ahead, whereas in the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere, that was not going to be allowed.

And again, are the Chinese hoping to put troops on the borders on the streets? No. What they want is in some ways far more insidious. They want a chair in every Prime Minister’s office, in every cabinet office, in every Parliament with a label on the back: “China.” And most of the time there will never be anyone in that chair, but they want self-censorship. They want the Prime Minister and the cabinet and the Parliament on every decision to look at that chair and think to themselves, ‘Would China be okay with this?’

And if the answer is no, then you yourself will self-censor, you will say, ‘I do not think we should invite the Americans to hold exercises. I do not think we should grant Microsoft that contract. We should give that to Huawei. We should give that to the Chinese Navy.’ But not because there are Chinese troops, jackboots, goosestepping down the central avenue, but because it is in your economic interest, because it is in your political interest, because you do not want to make me angry. It is a very different model.

BRI and Energy Resources

Robert R. Reilly:

To what extent ought the Belt and Road Initiative be understood as a way of overcoming China’s vulnerability on energy resources as it looks at the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca? Its sea lanes are vulnerable, the United States is a great naval power, so we had better secure our sources by land.

Dean Cheng:

For the Chinese, they almost always have multiple different motivations and multiple different strategies, so the Belt and Road Initiative is partly an effort to secure resources. Hydrocarbons is one, oil, natural gas. It is also an attempt to secure raw materials from places like Central Asia. Food; China is a net importer of food, do not forget that.

It is also a jobs program for the Chinese. At one point China had enough manufactured steel just sitting in stockpiles that if the entire rest of the planet had shut down all of its steel mills, I am talking about steel mills in Austria, in Brazil, in Alabama had all shut down, China could have supplied the entire planetary demand for steel for over a year, so the Belt and Road Initiative is partly a jobs program for China’s steel mills and cement plants because it has huge overcapacity and that is a lot of good jobs, and China has built most of the stuff that it wants to build at home.

Central Asia

It is partly competition, especially in Central Asia, with Russia. Central Asia used to be part of the Soviet Union. These republics still have political ties back in Moscow. There is significant political penetration, but these are raw materials that Beijing wants, so we have this asymmetric competition, Russia playing politics, China playing economics as they each try to influence Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan.

We also have, as you say, building out separate lines of communication that are not maritime, so eventually you will be able to ship goods to Europe, and raw materials from Central Asia, but also raw materials and component parts from Europe by train, entirely, without ever having to put them on board a merchant ship. So it is multiple different pieces, factoring into this. Absolutely, raw materials are par of it, but it is not the only thing.

Vulnerabilities in the Chinese Approach

Robert R. Reilly:

You mentioned the overcapacity that China has developed, which speaks to some extraordinary misallocation of capital. You also referred to a debt trap. How vulnerable is China in these respects? State-directed capitalism can produce quick results, but it also has some terrific vulnerabilities because it is not a market allocation of or an efficient use of capital.

Dean Cheng:

Absolutely. The Chinese themselves recognize that top-down socialism the way the Soviets practiced it was a bad idea. This is one of the many reasons why China is not the Soviet Union, so the Chinese really hope to marry the two systems or perhaps create a Frankenstein creation, depending on your preferred analogy. The Chinese want the state to provide broad direction and create state champions in key industrial sectors; shipbuilding, aerospace, petrochemicals, petroleum.

But it recognizes that markets are the most efficient way of allocating resources, so it says, okay, but we want to rely on markets, not top-down direction on supply chain, on how much of something you buy, and the further you get from strategic industries, the fewer state enterprises there are. So clothing, consumer goods, pots and pans, food, etc., make it, grow it, can it, sell it, the state basically takes very little role. The closer it is to a military or a defense industry, the closer it is to, ‘We are going to tell you how this is going to work.’

Ghost Cities

Now, as you said earlier: resource misallocation. A good example of how we in the West often fail to understand both China’s strength and weakness is that at one point China was building what were termed ghost cities, cities that could handle three to five million people that had maybe a couple hundred thousand people living there, Detroit in reverse.

And Western news sources talked about how this was a great idea, this shows China’s ability to think ahead. They are building these cities, they are going to be ready to go when people start moving out of the bigger cities, they will all just be waiting, ready to start up, and those cities will have factories ready to go at a moment’s notice. Is this not so much better than Western capitalism?

No, it is not. This is called stupidity because all of that concrete and steel, all of those stores and whatever inventory was in them, was wasted sitting there rather than being put to more productive use in a better allocated structure, which would have been under capitalism. And you know what? Some of those cities are still sitting there years later. You can only imagine how mildewed the apartments are and how rotted the inventory of the stores might be if nobody has lived in a building designed for five thousand people for ten or fifteen or twenty years.

Outsmarting Capitalism

So absolutely, the Chinese approach is in their mind, ‘We can be smarter than capitalism.’ Maybe in the short run, maybe for a few months or even a few years, but then, this is part of the problem of the lack of economic reform. Under Jiang Zemin, under Zhu Rongji, you really did see the Chinese shift to a more heavily capitalist system. They said, ‘Okay, for a very small number of industries that are militarily-focused we will have the state. Everything else we will be liberal on.’

Instead what we have seen is for a whole lot of industries the state plays a key role. The state picks its winners and losers. The state says, ‘At the end of the day, you will be our preferred choice,’ usually not for economic reasons. And more efficient producers, private companies, get swallowed up or get denied capital and go bankrupt. And by the way, their intellectual property is handed back to the state or are otherwise unable to really flourish. Now, the Soviet Union survived with even more incompetent economic planning for seventy plus years, so people should not be expecting that China is about to economically collapse. That is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that China could be more efficient. That is scary. In some ways we are lucky they are not being as liberal.

Chinese Military Modernization

Robert R. Reilly:

Could we talk for just a moment about Chinese military modernization and what it is for? You seem to be saying that the principal objective of China is economic dominance, which can be expressed in a number of other ways, diplomatically, culturally, etc. Within that perspective is the modernized military simply a shield behind which this economic dominance will develop or is there some other way in which we should be thinking of it?

Dean Cheng:

Well, if you are Taiwan, it is is not a shield, it is absolutely a sword and a spear. If you are Indian, you are increasingly seeing it as a sword, and a spear, and a set of arrows. If you are Japan, you have always thought of it as a spear and a sword, dating back to the Mongols. What I would say is that the Chinese see their military as defending China’s interests, whether it is territorial interests in places like Taiwan and the South China Sea and the border with India or its interests in outer space or its interests in the cyber domain or the electromagnetic domain.

What Protecting Interests Means

Now, protecting those interests however means, for example, being able to drive everybody else out of the South China Sea, so they may think of it as a shield because this is not just Chinese territory that we are defending, but to everybody else, including the United States, that is an awfully offensive approach here. Again, if you are India, you are watching China steadily nibble away, salami slice away at the border, moving it toward where China thinks it should be, which means losing multiple pieces of key Indian states to Chinese claims.

If you are the Russians, you look at China with some nervousness because large chunks of Siberia were once part of China. If you are Central Asia, large chunks of your country, which did not really exist before 1989 or 1991, and for a long time were part of the Russian Empire, before that may have been part of the Chinese Empire. So is this defensive? Absolutely, from China’s perspective this is all defensive. This is all defending what was China.

Internet Interceptions

But let me just note in the two key domains of outer space and the electromagnetic realm, including cyberspace, domains that have never existed before, we see a very, very offensively-oriented China. We saw a China that in 2007 did an ASAT test that generated thousands of pieces of debris, a China that makes it very clear that it has the right to determine what appears on the internet around the world, that has redirected portions of the internet to China that had no business going to China.

Imagine if back in the days when there was still airplane travel, when you flew to London or you flew to Rome, your baggage would be redirected to Beijing. That is what the Chinese have done with the internet. They have redirected portions of global internet traffic through the equivalent of the air traffic control system, the internet traffic control system, to shunt information flow to China for days, for an hour.

Think about how much information, ranging from your dog or cat’s veterinarian report to your company’s top marketing plans to blueprints for new equipment to military transport schedules, redirected through Chinese manipulation of the internet traffic control system to China. That is remarkably offensive. First off, they would deny they had anything to do with it, but second, they would then say, ‘Well, we are just making sure we are okay.’ Oh, okay, you have crossed some lines here. That is what China has done.

What Should We Do

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, in light of all of this, what do you think the United States ought to do? China has not been shy in saying things like our development of hyper-sonic missiles makes your, the United States’, carrier task force obsolete because they can be taken out in the wink of an eye, and since those are your principal means of projection of power in the South China Seas and the western Pacific, you are finished here.

Dean Cheng:

We need to know what it is that we want. One of the things that is central to Chinese success is they know what they want. We seem to be having a lot of trouble deciding, for example, do we think that is a threat at all. You and your audience may be surprised at the number of people who say, ‘We should not call China a threat. We should not call China an adversary. That is just a self-fulfilling prophecy.’ [These are] people who think that the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy of the Trump administration is one of the stupidest set of documents ever produced because we have said, ‘We are back in a period of great power competition and China and Russia are the threats.’ ‘That is nonsense because that just makes China our enemy. China does not want to be our enemy.’

What is the Greatest National Security Threat?

Well, okay, alright, if that is what you believe, what is the greatest national security threat? And if your belief as in the previous administration is global climate change, you will view China very differently. When the admiral in charge of our Pacific forces said three times to Congress and to the press, “The greatest threat that I face is climate change,” you are going to view those Chinese hyper-sonic missiles and submarines very differently than you will if you say the greatest threat I have right now is the fact that China’s navy is larger than the entire U.S. Navy, China’s air force is the world’s largest air force, China is developing space and cyber capabilities that are on par or ahead of where we are.

How China Saw Obama

We did not conduct freedom of navigation operations at all, zero, for three years in the South China Sea. What do you think Beijing took away? What the American administration wanted China to take away from that was work with us on climate change, come to Paris, say nice things about how you will not emit carbon dioxide and methane and things in the future. You can have the South China Sea because really does that matter when we are all in this together about climate change?

Okay, you know as they say, elections have consequences. The American people chose Barack Obama to be our president. He put forth that policy. He had every right to put forth that policy. If you think China is a problem, you should be thinking about how we would counter that. If you think China is not a problem or China is less of a problem than global climate change, you should vote accordingly.

But understand that the China that is building these weapons and all of these is also a country that does not show much interest or readiness to cooperate on global climate change where it matters. If it affects Chinese jobs because that touches legitimacy, if it affects Chinese industrial capacity because that touches on military, economic, or if it means that they would have to cut back on cyber attacks because that is a key part of not just modern warfare, but modern power.

Robert R. Reilly:

Dean Cheng, thank you very much for this illuminating presentation. I greatly appreciate your joining us at the Westminster Institute and I invite our audience to share this video, and also to go to the Westminster website, where you will see the other videos concerning various other foreign policy issues, as well as some on China itself. So thank you very much for joining us.

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