The Evolution of China’s Grand Strategy as it Applies to Today
(Prof. Andrew Latham, August 16, 2022)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Andrew Latham is a professor of International Relations specializing in the politics of international conflict and security. He teaches courses on international security, Chinese foreign policy, war and peace in the Middle East, Regional Security in the Indo-Pacific Region, and the World Wars. He was formerly the Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament Fellow at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and a lecturer at the Canadian Armed Forces School of Aerospace Studies. Professor Latham regularly writes — and speaks to the media and community groups — about war, disarmament, and strategic affairs, with a special focus on issues related to arms control and weapons of mass destruction (North Korea), great power rivalries (U.S. vs. China; U.S. vs. Russia), conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the transformation of war (cybersecurity, space, hybrid war), and U.S. defense policy.
He previously addressed The Westminster Institute on: “The War in Ukraine: How Will it End?“
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. Today we are very pleased to welcome back to the Westminster Institute, Dr. Andrew Latham, who is a professor of International Relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota where he specializes in the politics of international conflict and security. He teaches courses on Chinese foreign policy, war and peace in the Middle East, regional security in the Indo-Pacific Region, and the World Wars. He was formerly the non-proliferation arms control and disarmament fellow at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and a lecturer at the Canadian Armed Forces School of Aerospace Studies.
Professor Latham regularly writes about strategic affairs with a special focus on great power rivalries, such as U.S. versus China, U.S. versus Russia, the transformation of war in U.S. defense policy. Dr. Latham received his Ph.D. in International Relations and Strategic Studies from York University in Toronto. He has published articles in a variety of academic journals, including the European Journal of International Relations, International Studies Quarterly, and Contemporary Security Policy. He is the author of Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades and he has also written a novel about the third crusade titled The Holy Lance. Professor Latham’s prior talk to the Westminster Institute was on the topic: The War in Ukraine: How Will It End? Today, he will address the subject: The Evolution of China’s Grand Strategy as it Applies to Today. Welcome back, Professor Latham.
It is nice to be back. With a topic like this, it is actually easy to know where to begin, 1949, 1950. We could go back, of course, much, much farther and some scholars have, looking at the evolution of what we now call grand strategy, the way in which a political unit, a state, an empire, a kingdom uses the full range of its resources to advance and defend its perceived interests, but I am taking 1949, the successful conclusion of the Chinese revolution, as my point of departure, my jumping off point for the talk today.
And the upshot of this talk is that if we want to understand the way China acts on the international stage, if we want to understand its grand strategy in action, there are two things we need to focus on. Now, we could complexify, if I can use that neologism, we can complexify the picture infinitely if we want, and I will mention some scholars who in fact do that, but really, if we want to understand the past from 1949 until today, and if we want to project modestly into the future, there are really only two things we need to know.
What is the geopolitical configuration at any particular moment, so where does the People’s Republic of China find itself in terms of the polarity of the international system, is it bipolar, is it unipolar, is it multi-polar, and some of the specifics about polarity, which I will come back to in a moment? The other thing that we always need to bear in mind is where is China in terms of its relative position of power in the international system. Another way of expressing this language, which the Chinese state sometimes uses, is what is its comprehensive national power? And that is, of course, tied to its state of economic development, and so we have got these two factors, and if we have a clear sense of these two factors, we can retrospectively project what China would do. And the upshot of my own research these days is we can modestly project out 15 or 20 years to define the broad contours of PRC’s grand strategy going forward.
Now, let me put some flesh on the bones then, so I will cover some of the history of the historical evolution as it were of China’s grand strategy, using these two variables to explain everything, and then I will do a little bit of forecasting, a little bit of futurology, science fiction maybe some would call it, but looking into the future just a little bit.
The First Phase of Chinese Grand Strategy
This first phase, roughly from 1949, 1950 to 1989, 1990, we can and some scholars – I am appropriating some language from other scholarship, but this was an era when Chinese grand strategy was really focused on survival, the survival of the revolution, the survival of the Chinese Communist Party, the survival of China.
And what was the geopolitical context?
Well, obviously, we had a bipolar struggle for global supremacy. We call it the Cold War. And we had two camps or two blocs. One, organized around the Soviet Union was, let’s call it the Eastern Bloc or the Soviet Bloc or the Communist Bloc, and the other, of course, went by a variety of monikers, the free world, the West, the American Bloc, etc., and this was a defining characteristic of international politics from the end of the Second World War through to the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. And it was defined by this titanic existential struggle between two ideological visions of how political life should be organized, but really, two military alliances and military blocs.
The People’s Republic of China, of course, emerges in 1949 and consolidates in 1950 against the backdrop of this titanic struggle. China is poor at this particular point. I refer to this as ‘flailing China.’ The Chinese Communist Party has all kinds of visions, which take a variety of very different and incompatible forms, embracing capitalism and embracing central planning and collectivization. It is all over the place, but whatever the aspiration, whatever the hope, the reality is that China was not only poor, but it was also devastated by the Second World War and by a decades-long social struggle revolution.
It was very poor and very vulnerable in the context of this titanic struggle, so the rational – and I assume minimal rationality. I assume that with my undergraduate students, just minimal rationality, and I assume that with statesman as well, that the minimally rational course of action in that context was for Beijing, that is the shorthand I will use sometimes for the People’s Republic of China, that Beijing looked toward Moscow, and entered into an alliance, which made a great deal of sense in that context, although in the long run history of Chinese-Russian relations, it made no sense at all, but in that particular context, given China’s level of underdevelopment and the success of the revolution, in the context of the Cold War, it naturally gravitated towards the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Bloc.
And indeed, that was sustained for quite some time, but it came under pressure because the ideological evolution of the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union eventually especially after Stalin’s death took them in very different directions. There were also some historical tensions around borders that had not been resolved, and the result of this was a long-term corrosion of the relationship, culminating in a falling out, ideological but also geopolitical falling out, between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.
This is all taking place under Mao Zedong’s leadership, and he is looking around as this relationship frays and begins to fall apart, and ultimately falls apart. But before that there is a shift in Chinese grand strategy from still within this overall context of survival. How can the regime survive this set of circumstances, the slightly changed international environment? And Mao begins to pursue a grand strategy of exporting the revolution to his immediate neighborhood.
The Second Phase of Chinese Grand Strategy
This phase of Chinese grand strategy, it is a variant on that survival strategy, really does not last very long, but this is a time when, for example, the PRC is supporting various national liberation movements in Vietnam, and Laos, and Cambodia, and Indonesia, and elsewhere. It is an attempt on the part of China in this particular historical context. China is still weak, still poor, now finds itself without a superpower patron, is trying to shape its local neighborhood in ways that make it less vulnerable and less susceptible to what is always feared to be a predatory United States, lurking just beyond their borders, not without some justification, of course.
This lasts for a while, but then 50 years ago this year, famously, infamously perhaps, first Henry Kissinger and then Richard Nixon go to China as the phrase would have it. And the Americans, Kissinger in particular, sense an opportunity against the backdrop of this Cold War. How can we separate these two communist behemoths from each other? And the idea is, and it works, it is consummated, it works out, is that the United States can offer China the superpower patronage that it could not get from the Soviet Union given their falling out, and manages to lure it, in increments, lure it out of the Soviet camp, out of its grand strategy of exporting the revolution, and into a grand strategy. This is under Mao but also under Deng Xiaoping, his successor, one of his immediate successors.[Kissinger] manages to lure it into an increasingly close relationship with the United States, so we are still in an era of survival, but Chinese grand strategy is focused on creating a relationship with the U.S. in order to counterbalance the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union, and that persists under Deng Xiaoping right up until what Rush Doshi, a scholar who is now fairly senior in the [Biden] administration on the China desk at the National Security Council, I believe, refers to as the trif, the traumatic trifecta.
The Traumatic Trifecta
Between 1989 and 1991, there are three international developments which shock the leadership of the People’s Republic of China in ways that give rise to a new grand strategy, and those three events are Tiananmen Square, which scared the regime thoroughly, that what had happened in Central and Eastern Europe to the communist regimes might happen to the Chinese Communist Party.
The First Gulf War
The second element of that trifecta, that traumatic trifecta, was the very successful American blitzkrieg against Iraq in the First Gulf War. This suggested that Soviet style military technology, tactics, and operational concepts, all of which were focused on mass, which the Chinese still sort of employed, did not fare well against American technological superiority and all of the operational tactical concepts that flowed from that, so those are two elements of the trifecta.
The Collapse of the Soviet Union
And the third one, of course, was in 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union. The once upon a time patron, then bogeyman, but still communist power simply evanesced and went away, and according to Doshi – and I find this aspect of his work to be very persuasive – this was a trauma for the Chinese Communist Party, and it drove them in the context of the end of the Cold War in a different strategic direction.
The Third Phase of Chinese Grand Strategy
Now, the idea was not so much simply to consolidate the Communist Party and its regime, not merely to survive as it had been, but here is where we begin to hear the language of rejuvenation, and there is a reorientation, a grand strategic reorientation around this idea of rejuvenation, rebuilding the economic fundamentals, the economic substructure of communist China, the PRC, in order, ultimately and eventually, to restore it to the ranks of the great powers where, in the imagination, the geopolitical imagination of the Chinese Communist Party and its leadership, where China rightly belongs, where it had always been historically in the imperial era going back to time immemorial, and so we have this trifecta, this traumatic trifecta, which launches the regime on a different grand strategic track.
Rejuvenation: how do you do that? Well, remember this is the so-called unipolar moment, the Cold War is over, neoliberalism is in the ascendance. The United States is, as Madeleine Albright famously put it, the indispensable power. There really is as Fukuyama put it the end of history. [The] Chinese Communist Party, and I want to underscore that, communist party because it still is communist, is looking at this and saying, okay, what do we need to do to flourish, to rejuvenate China, to reclaim our historical position as a great power? Well, we need economic development.
The Soviet model with all of its Maoist inflections failed, and was understood to have failed, and the only other model that was on offer in that international marketplace of ideas was that of neoliberalism, globalization, opening up the economy to inward investment from the West, exporting as much as possible to the West, adopting a very Western, non-centrally planned, market-oriented economic model, and this was Deng Xiaoping’s breakthrough, and quickly it began to pay dividends. And over time, of course, it paid enormous dividends. China is now, depending on how you measure it, either the first or second largest economy in the world.
But I am getting ahead of myself just a little bit.
What does this mean in terms of grand strategy? How should China act on the international stage given the unipolar moment, given the need for this economic rejuvenation, how should China act? And we see three iterations or three variations on the theme of rejuvenation. And the first of those, of course, is hide and bide, under Deng Xiaoping initially. And the idea here is let us keep our heads down, let us not draw attention to ourselves on the world stage. Let us do a few things, it is almost a direct quote, here and there. Let us actually work quietly to blunt, again, I am using Rush Doshi’s language, to blunt some of the American globalizing initiatives, especially the American initiatives in the region, the Indo-Pacific or as it was then called Asia Pacific region. But let us keep our heads down, and not draw attention, and get on with the business of economic development Western style.
Now, this is incredibly successful, right, nobody is fearful of China. In fact, the prevailing wisdom in the West, and especially in DC, Washington, DC, is that, ah, if we can build China into a globalized and globalizing economy, if we can build it into the institutions that order, regulate, and organize that economy, the World Trade Organization, for example, eventually we will draw China in. It will develop, it will generate a middle class, that middle class will insist on the kind of fundamental rights and liberties that the Western middle classes seized for themselves decades or even centuries ago. They will become just like us.
Now, that take, that Western take on China’s grand strategic evolution, begins to falter a little bit as China becomes noticeably stronger. It becomes more and more powerful. In fact, the language that is used by Jiang Zemin, who is Deng Xiaoping’s successor, is not hide and bide but peaceful rise, [which] quickly evolves into peaceful development, because the whole idea of rise is beginning to generate some anxieties in the neighborhood. A lot of countries in the region have memories of being subordinated elements of a Chinese empire. They do not particularly like the memories. But especially in the United States, [the reaction to] this notion of the peaceful rise of China is wow, we are really successful, and we might build them into our liberal international order, a term which comes into vogue around this time, and they might become just like us, but boy, they are getting strong, and maybe we should start worrying a little bit about this.
So the Chinese leadership changes the language from peaceful rise to peaceful development, but the idea is the same. We are going, we are getting stronger, but we do not want to generate any anxieties which are going to trigger some counterbalancing dynamics in the region or at the global level. We are still in this rejuvenation strategy, right? We have left survival behind. We are now in this rejuvenation. We are in the second phase, not hide and bide but now peaceful rise or peaceful development, and that brings us up to about 2010, 2012.
Again, the conventional wisdom in Washington, the Obama administration, is still everything is going according to plan. American consumers are getting things really cheap. Yeah, there has been a little offshoring of production and whatnot, but China is being built into, it is being actively incorporated into, our liberal international order, which is dominated by us, reflects our values, reflects our interests. This is a good thing.
And then Xi Jinping becomes the paramount leader. He wears the three hats, General Secretary of the Party, Chairman of the Military Commission, and President of the State. And if you have those three hats – even if you have only two of them, you become the paramount leader in the People’s Republic of China. He recognizes, I think, that China’s level of domestic development has reached the point where – and again, this is in the context of unipolarity, right, still this American dominated world order, has reached the point where China can up the ante on the rejuvenation project.
And the language he uses from time to time is moving, China moving to center stage of world politics, so again, if you think of those two determining variables, one of which is the international system, unipolar, creating a great deal of space for China to do whatever it wants as long as it kind of keeps its head down, and on the other hand, China’s level of comprehensive national power or its development vis-à-vis, especially relatively compared to the United States and others, it has reached the kind of taking off point in terms of this rejuvenation project, a point where Xi Jinping says forget hide and bide, that is long dead. Forget peaceful rise. We will make those noises periodically, but now we are at a point where we can emerge as one of [the great powers], finally realize the project of achieving great power status.
It begins under his immediate predecessor, but we see the development of the People’s Liberation Army, the armed forces, by the way, not of the People’s Republic of China but the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party. We see rapid development, again, an echo in the sense of that one element of that traumatic trifecta. When the People’s Liberation Army saw how effective the American way of war, high-tech surveillance and intelligence, and reconnaissance, intensive information, intentions, etc., when it saw that, it picked up that model and began to reconfigure the People’s Liberation Army, and its air force, and its navy, so that it looked more like the high-tech American military of the 21st century, and less like the old Chinese National Liberation-kind of army of the mid-20th [century].
A Multipolar Era
Okay, now it is at this point then we have arguably the end of unipolarity as an international structure, the emergence or the evolution of that order into one that is more multi-polar, and we have People’s Republic of China, newly powerful, not rising anymore but in fact risen. We have a resurgent Russia. Now, remember this is before February 24th of this year, so people still thought that Russia had reconfigured, had reconfigured its military and made some other adaptations and adjustments such that it was once again a great power, and people were looking around and looking at India, for example, and perhaps Iran, and potentially some others, even the European Union if it could ever get its act together, as an international actor. We have left bipolarity behind. We have left unipolarity behind. We have entered into this multi-polar era, defined though primarily by two superpowers, China and the United States.
Okay, it is at this point that finally, [it] begins in the second Obama administration but really during the Trump years, there is an epiphany, as it were, in Washington. China is not going to become just like us. It is not going to be another Canada. It is not going to be even another Mexico. It is going to be something sui generis. It is going to be a competitor. It is going to be a rival. And it is at this point, not only is there a vibe shift in Washington and other national capitals in the West, but we see in academia and in the think tank world, we begin to see, and the drumbeat begins, a number of books and articles, a number of conferences.
Michael Pillsbury’s is most famous, I think in some respects, The Hundred-Year Marathon, that the United States is now in an existential struggle for dominance of what is now rebranded the rules-based international order with China, and this is going to be a long-term process. It is going to take decades as China’s developmental arc goes like this, and a decline in the United States goes like this, that when those two trend lines cross, the logic of the argument would have us believe, something was going to happen.
In academia, there was some hegemonic war transition theory, hegemonic transition theory, things like this, but that was all said to be a danger still some way off in the future. China was not there yet, it was not able to challenge the U.S. militarily yet, it was not in a position to build alternative international institutions at the global level. It had been happily and merrily doing that at the regional level. Think the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, things like that. It had been building these alternative regional institutions, but nothing really at the global level, and it certainly had not tried to Sino-form or transform those global institutions to look more like [China], to reflect Chinese interests and values, rather than Western or American interests and values.
So, that is one form of anxiety that emerges, really as I said during the Trump years, but it predates that by half an administration, let us say. More recently, there has been a second form of anxiety that has popped up. If you go back to the beginning of my [talk], I talked about two variables which we have to keep our eye on, the polarity or the distribution of power in the international system and China’s level of comprehensive national power, where it fits into that. Is it poor, is it rising, has it arrived, where is it in all of that?
The second form of anxiety about this current moment that we inhabit right now is not that China is rising. It is getting wealthier. It is translating that wealth into more military [power], and soft [power], and sharp power, and at some point in the future, it is going to clash with the United States to knock the capstone out of the way and assume its rightful place as the dominant power in the globe.
The New Anxiety of a Peaking China
No, the new anxiety is that China has peaked, that demographically, economically, and geopolitically, China’s trend line is not like this. China’s trend line is like this. Now, if you are a true believer in the old argument that generated anxiety, you are thinking to yourself, well, that is great. China thought they could take a run at the U.S. They are going to run out of gas. There is no problem, providing the United States does not run out of gas. I use that term metaphorically. These days one can never be sure [that the U.S.] will [not] actually run out of gas. And some people took that as the lesson learned, that was the takeaway, a peaking China, a plateau in China, a faltering China is a China that no longer poses a threat. It will settle back into a second or maybe third-rate status in the international hierarchy, and our liberal international order, again, rebranded recently the rules-based international order, will prevail and persist, no problem.
But then along come people like Hal Brands and Michael Beckley who, by the way, have written independently on this topic I am about to discuss. But two or three days ago, their co-authored book, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China, arrived on my doorstep. It is just published. It is a collection of their thoughts over the last few years along the following line, that if we look historically, we can see that rising powers which peak before they are able to reshape the international system along the lines they might want sometimes act out of desperation and will launch wars because they know that if they launch a war now, they might get what they want, but if they wait 5, 10, 15, or 20 years, their decline will be such that they will have no chance of prevailing.[There are] two obvious 20th century examples. One [is] 1914. There are many explanations for the First World War, but one of them is that Germany engineered that war because it was looking eastward toward Russia, saw a rapidly industrializing Russia, was very fearful of rapidly industrializing, and thus potentially militarizing, Russia, and reckoned that it had – I am going to make some arbitrary numbers here – reckon that it had a 50-50 chance of winning in the next two or three years against this Russia, but if it waited 10 or 15 years, Russia would simply steamroller over Germany, and it would be destroyed.
And so, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, the Germans issued a blank check, and etc., etc., etc., and brought the war that they wanted about. A peaking power relative to another power, concerned that in the future, things would [be worse], its geo strategic situation would be much worse, decided to gamble now in the hopes that it could prevail, rather than gamble in the future without any hope that it would prevail.
And one could make, and people have made [the claim], in fact, Beckley and Brands have made it independently and collectively, that the same can be said of Japan in 1941, that it was facing the prospect of [defeat] because of American boycotts on embargoes and whatnot, and other political and economic pressures. Its position relative to the United States was declining and the Pearl Harbor [attack] was, in fact, a gamble, not a sure thing but it was a gamble made in the understanding that if Japan waited a few more years, it would have no chance of defeating the United States, whereas in 1941, December 1941, it had some chance.
So, if you take those two historical cases, and there are others as well, but if you take those two historical cases and you apply them to a peaking or plateauing China today in 2022, you can see that the situation looks not quite so sanguine, at least in one meaning of the word sanguine. It looks not so promising.
It looks not so good from the Western position, and so there is this idea then that is beginning to gain traction I think in foreign policy and adjacent circles, that the real danger is not at some point in the midterm future, it is over the next decade as China’s demographic collapse, and it is a serious demographic collapse, begins to kick in. China will get smaller. It will get older. Its economic model as we have seen, especially it has been heightened by developments related to the pandemic, but we have seen China’s economic model faltering. We have seen some geopolitical blowback in the region as countries are becoming a little more concerned about the prospect of a Chinese hegemon in the Indo-Pacific or western Pacific, rather than an American hegemon.
All of these are coming together in ways that are inclining Xi Jinping’s regime to – in a way that smacks of desperation – to push now, to lock in whatever advantages China might have, to maximize its relative advantages on the international stage now, to move China to center stage now because there is not the luxury of waiting some amount of time for it to happen more or less naturally.
So that is where we are now. There are very few people that think China is a normal power that is still going to become just like us down the road. There are still many people who think that we are not there yet, but China is continuing to rise, and as it does, it is going to continue to bump up against the United States, generate friction, and that might lead to war down the road, but there are more and more people [who are worried about this decade].
My sense is the vibe has shifted. There are more and more people who accept this notion of a danger zone over the next decade, that if something bad is going to happen, it will not be in 2050, it will be before 2030. That something bad could have something to do with Taiwan, could have something to do with the South China Sea, could have something to do with India, could have [something to do with] who knows. There are a lot of friction points, but something is likely to happen in that 10-year time frame, rather than, to go back to Michael Pillsbury’s notion, this 100-year marathon, which would culminate in 2049-2050.
Offshore Balancing with Chinese Characteristics
I am tinkering with an alternative, which is that if you look at China’s history, not just back to 1949 but even back to antiquity, we can see that a China that is relatively weak or less powerful than it was is a China which plays a game of defensive balancing, that rather than a mad dash for some kind of supremacy, rather than a slightly longer-term marathon for global supremacy, that the Chinese leadership, again, if we look at multi-polarity, and if we look at its level of relative economic development, that the Chinese leadership will be left with no option other than to engage in a kind of – I am calling it offshore balancing with Chinese characteristics.
Offshore balancing is a very American concept, the idea that the United States does not have to have troops everywhere in the globe, it does not have to dominate the entire planet, it does not have to be the policeman for this liberal international order, that in fact there are a few parts of the world that matter, and that American forces can intervene to maintain a stable balance of power in Europe, the Middle East, or the western Pacific as and when circumstances require, but we do not need bases in 100-plus countries around the world. We do not need all of the accoutrements of a liberal empire, which proponents of this perspective [sometimes suggest]. Sometimes that is how they characterize the United States’ grand strategy.
The United States version of offshore balancing is all about maintaining American primacy or hegemony at the lowest possible cost, and therefore in the most sustainable way. China’s version of this, offshore balancing with Chinese characteristics, would not be about maintaining a non-existent Chinese hegemony, it would be about disrupting American hegemony in ways that weakened the United States, and made China, an increasingly plateauing China, maybe even over time a declining China, safer and more able to shape both its immediate neighborhood and perhaps even the international political stage as well.
So me being ever the optimist (that is a bit of a joke, but that is my optimistic take on where China is likely to hit), my sense is that there is going to be a period of turbulence. And I think Brands and Beckley et al. are not wrong about that, and I think we already see this on display, not just with the reaction to Mrs. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, but probing of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone over the last few years, various antics that the PLA Navy has gotten up to in the South China Sea, etc. We already see this turbulence beginning to [manifest]. What does turbulence do? Does it roil the waters? Something like that.
But I think my provisional thesis at the moment is that if we can manage this turbulence over the next few years, we are into a more normal geopolitical situation in which we have great powers, and I think there will be a variety of them, [we] cannot discount India, which by some estimates has already got a larger population than China, and it is much younger, we will be back in a more normal [geopolitical situation], the factory settings of the international system will kick in, we will be back to a more normal, multi-polar system of various great powers competing with each other for security, and for wealth, and for power. And that is manageable. That is not preordained to be catastrophic.
It can be [catastrophic]. Again, one theory about how the First World War broke out was mismanaging multipolar great power competition in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, but by and large it seems to me to be a more desirable trajectory with less prospect or potential for world war than either the 100-year marathon or the danger zone arguments are. So I think I have given – I hope I have given everybody a lot to think about there both in terms of the evolutionary course of Chinese grand strategy, the drivers of Chinese grand strategy in the past, what that is likely to tell us about the near future, and maybe I will close on this note.
How Should America Respond
What should the American response be?
Let us not overreact. We need not to bring a Cold War frame to bear, and think we have to contain China. We barely survived the last Cold War, despite all the triumphalism in the 1990s. That is not the right model to bring to bear. We also have to throw out the unipolar idea that we are somehow a global police [officer] – sorry, law enforcement officer, charged with maintaining the system and dealing with challenges and threats. Those are wrong frames. Those are wrong lenses to bear. If I am right about China, and if I am right about the broader international system, a much more [apt frame], I think potentially a much better frame, let me just put it that way, much better frame to bring to bear is one of multi-polar, great power competition. And that is I think how policymakers need to see the challenge. And we have a long history of that from which we can draw lessons about how this rivalry ought to be managed. Q.E.D.
Robert R. Reilly:
Andrew, thank you very much. Let me ask you one very in-depth question, and that is about how China conceives of itself. I mean you certainly were addressing that in terms of what Chinese strategy might be, but it was within the context of a bipolar or multipolar international situation. We know for vast periods of the Chinese empire that it was the heavenly court, the emperor was the son of heaven, that the Chinese emperor had a divine mandate, that the middle kingdom was ordained to be the hegemonic power, and these minor powers around it were simply theirs to give tribute. And nothing could so offend that sense of themselves as the arrival of these Western barbarians with their superior military technologies that led to a series of very rude awakenings. And the various reforms then with which the Chinese empire attempted to undertake to meet that challenge ended in its collapse, thus we have this long period of a century of humiliation from which Chinese leaders are determined to recover, thus the great rejuvenation.
However, as you repeatedly point out, it is the Communist Party of China that is running things. Now, when the Communist Party ran the Soviet Union, it never had a prospect of being a normal country simply because its ideology would not allow it to be since its ideology made universal claims that set its goal of implementing that ideology everywhere, however impractical that millenarian ideological goal was.
Now, the Communist Party of China is not the Soviet Communist Party, it is somewhat different, but neither is it the imperial Chinese court. It does not have that divine mandate since it is officially an atheistic regime, so do you see what I am trying to get at? How does it explain and justify itself to itself and to the Chinese people for this great rejuvenation and for assuming the place it thinks it ought to have in the world order?
Well, there are I think two ways of thinking about how a state like China acts on the international stage, one of which is to focus on the domestic side of the equation, and especially on the political or strategic culture. And you are quite right, [when it comes to] the Chinese Communist Party, part of the cultural legacy that it inherited was Confucian. Mao was a big fan of Confucius even though Confucius was officially banned in the People’s Republic of China.
There is always going to be a cultural residue left over from earlier eras. It is almost a reflex that it imparts, right, it cultivates a reflex, and so one way of thinking about what China is ‘up to’ is to say, well, now that they are back on, now that they have stood up, they are off their knees, which was the language that the Chinese Communist Party uses.
Now that they are strong again, not weak, it is time for China to do what China has always done, which is to dominate, and here [it] depends on how you think about [what it means] to dominate, either their neighborhood or the world, because their neighborhood was their world for most of their history, right, so to be the middle kingdom means to be at the center of things.
The mandate of heaven, you know, is to govern all under the heavens, so you can see how that cultural legacy and the reflex that it has left the Chinese leadership with I think is important. I think it is worth bearing in mind. It is not though I think necessary to explain China’s grand strategy, and that brings us to the second way of thinking about this.
Focus less on political and strategic culture and the legacy of the past, and focus more on the historical drivers, which generate systemic pressures for a government to do this rather than that. Now, an incompetent government might do that anyway, and get itself into all kinds of trouble, but I mean this is kind of political realism 101, that there are systemic pressures that emanate from the international system, whether it is unipolar, bipolar, multi-polar, that where one’s country fits into that, are you strong, are you Costa Rica or are you the People’s Republic of China, that matters in terms of your choices, and it matters in terms of the systemic pressures acting on you and your scope for reacting to them in ways that advance and defend your interests.
So if we take the domestic stuff, the cultural stuff, out of the equation, and simply focus on those international domestic drivers, we can look backward through Chinese history and say, yes, you can explain almost every shift in Chinese grand strategy without reference to the cultural piece. And if we can do that looking backward, maybe we can do that looking forward. When I said at the very outset that there are all kinds of ways to complexify the sort of simple argument – I hope not simplistic, but simple argument that I was making, that is one of the ways to complicate the story. I think it makes for really interesting history, and I think it will make in 20, 30, or 100 years a really interesting history of this moment.
Is it necessary for us to go down that rabbit hole in order to understand and explain what Beijing is up to at the moment? And I would say probably not.
Robert R. Reilly:
One thing that you left out of your equations was the state of the United States. Xi Jinping, after observing the fiasco of the January 6 riots in the U.S. capitol, Brexit, and other disruptions of what had taken to be a settled order, said that momentum and time are on our side.
Yeah, there have been a couple of developments, the withdrawal (if I can use that term) from Afghanistan would be one, which I am seeing more and more references to Chinese leadership looking at that and thinking, wow, right? Questions of credibility, and American staying power, and American capacity to uphold an order, and an American capacity to prevail on a battlefield like Afghanistan.
And then there is the question of domestic decay and decline, January 6 being the tip of a very big iceberg, unfortunately. And so, again, embodied Chinese leaders, especially the paramount leader, Xi Jinping, sitting in the position of power that he is, being buffeted by all of these international pressures, which generate constraints and opportunities, what do I do? What should China do?
Part of his equation, part of his answer to that is always going to be in what state do we find our principal competitor and rival? Is it getting weaker faster than we are, might be one way of putting it. Is it in a more profound kind of decline? I mean China is experiencing a demographic decline, which the U.S. would be too minus immigration, by the way. Post-2008, for the first time I think in American history, birth rates have declined below replacement rate. China has been there for a long time, first by government fiat, second by cultural reflex.
So yes, I think one cannot leave the United States out of the equation. It is the elephant in the room as it were. It has to affect the cost-benefit calculus of the Chinese leadership. It would be better from an American perspective to project strength abroad. We could talk about Elbridge Colby’s notion of differentiated credibility. I think that is important. We do not have to be inflexible everywhere all the time in order to project this notion of credibility.
But projecting credibility abroad and ability abroad, but also signaling a kind of vitality at home [would help]. We are at the moment doing neither, and that has got to bode poorly rather for the next five to ten years, that danger zone, because again, if the Chinese leadership perceives that it is plateauing, but the United States is going into serious decline, maybe that changes the calculation, maybe now is the time to act before the United States recovers its footing.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, there was sort of an ironic joke during the period of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union declining, and the United States itself also declining, that we were engaged in a competitive degeneracy, who was going to degenerate more quickly than the other.
Well, now let us talk about the force of nationalism in China as an element in its grand strategy. The issue of Taiwan was let us say exacerbated by the visit by Nancy Pelosi in a congressional delegation followed by the visit of another congressional delegation. The Chinese issued a statement that the straits of Taiwan, if I may quote it, “China has sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction over the Taiwan strait.”
Well, first of all, [there is] nationalism. If the regime in China is increasingly unable to deliver the economic goods, but [it] still wants to legitimate the Chinese Communist Party, it has to turn to something. It is not going to be Mao’s Little Red Book, it is going to be nationalism, which is a seed planted a long time ago by the Chinese leadership, and it is now coming to full bloom, and it constrains the Chinese leadership. If you create this sense that you are the defender of the Chinese nation, and you are going to see the Chinese nation fully [restored with] all the lost elements of the Chinese nation reincorporated into the nation, well, you are kind of trapped. You have to do that, and it is going to be exacerbated as your other legitimating instruments become less potent. You cannot deliver the economic goods, for example, so it is a trap of their own making.
The PLA is not in a position yet, by all accounts, to successfully invade Taiwan. People forget that there was almost 100 miles of water between the mainland and Taiwan. It is not like D-Day where you have got a few miles, although the PLA and the PLA Navy studies D-day and various other amphibious operations in the Pacific all the time. They are trying to learn the lessons, but they are simply not there yet, and perhaps the experience of Russia in Ukraine has chastened them a little bit there as well. They are not exactly analogous, but defense dominance seems to be the takeaway in Ukraine, and if that is the case, then the Chinese, the PLA, is likely to fare not terribly well against [the Taiwanese].
Now, Taiwan is incredibly poorly prepared because for the last 30 or 40 years it has all been cross straits harmony and trade, and love, and peace, and all the rest of it, and they have allowed their national defenses to decay to the point where they need to do something serious very soon to reverse the decay, or they are not going to be in a position when China is finally ready to act.
All of this matters only because of deterrence. If the PLA and the Chinese leadership look across the straits, and they say we cannot possibly win, they are really going to be disinclined to launch that invasion. If Taiwan is weakened and America’s credibility as the guarantor of Taiwan’s security is eroded to the point the Chinese leadership is going to say, okay, let us do it, we are going to lose some of this, we are going to lose some of that, and it is going to be some blowback, but we can weather that, we can survive that, let us act.
And then if you look at a map of the region, that would be catastrophic in all sorts of ways. It would simply open a gate, as it were, for further Chinese adventurism and further Chinese efforts to impose its own order on the region, not even to mention that the challenge it would pose to American credibility.
What if the United States did nothing? And let us face it, Taiwan matters to the United States, but it matters way more to the People’s Republic of China. They are way more motivated, therefore way more inclined to take risks. There are some wild cards. What would Japan do? Japan has been happily rearming for a while now. Japan is even having a sotto voce discussion about possibly going nuclear, violating the ultimate nuclear taboo, because they are concerned, so how would [they react?] And the Senkaku Islands, claimed by China, claimed by Taiwan, but also claimed by Japan and governed by Japan at the moment, are very, very close to Taiwan.
So nationalism is an important driver. I think the Chinese leadership has painted itself into a corner on that. I think Taiwan is going to become more and more important, and that is likely to be the flashpoint between the United States and China going forward.
Robert R. Reilly:
When you say it has painted itself into a corner, it certainly did not do that unwillingly. Compare it, for instance, to the audacious claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea with their nine-dash line, [which] might as well have been drawn on a cocktail napkin for all of its historical veracity, from what I understand.
Yes, that is true.
Robert R. Reilly:
But in fact, I have never seen in peacetime a such an audacious claim of sovereignty, of such strategic significance by a great power, that did not lead to a war, but they simply more or less got away with that, and of course, have militarized these artificial islands that they have built up, giving it some significant strategic advantages.
Now, in terms of Taiwan, first of all, what they have just demonstrated in reaction to the Pelosi visit and the continued military activities in reaction to the latest congressional delegation that visited, that they have many options short of an invasion.
Yes, they do.
Robert R. Reilly:
They could strangle Taiwan. They could cut it off. They could impoverish it. They could suborn it in any number of other ways short of an amphibious invasion, which, as you pointed out, is not likely to succeed. It can apply pressure in those kinds of ways. And as you say, it means more to China than it does to the United States, but it certainly means more to Japan, as you also pointed out, because as I am told by other guests we have had on this program, including one who has lived in Japan for 30 years, that Japan would see its strategic and defensive situation seriously compromised should China take over Taiwan, that it would then have to cut the best deal it could with China.
Well, yeah. [I have] a couple of thoughts in response to that, one of which is the history of both the South China Sea and Taiwan vis-à-vis the Qing empire, China, mainland China. Historically, the idea that the waters within the nine-dash line, the South China Sea, are internal Chinese waters is complete bunk. It is nonsense. Bill Hayton has written a great book on this, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia. Historically, there is no way that one could make the argument that the South China Sea was in any way shape the equivalent of Lake Michigan to the United States, or even the Caribbean for that matter.
With respect to Taiwan, the same is true. The Qing empire colonized it, displaced and oppressed the indigenous aboriginal population, lightly governed it for a little while, sold it to the Dutch, then surrendered it to the Japanese at the end of the war with Japan. And then, of course, the refugees, the defeated nationalists at the end of the civil war, sort of found refuge there and on Hainan Island in the south, which they subsequently lost, but they held on to Taiwan. Again, there is no plausible historical argument to be made that Taiwan is China, or that the South China Sea is Taiwanese, so that needs to be said.
The second point that your comments triggered is, yes, the People’s Republic of China has options short of an amphibious D-day-like invasion. Blockade is one, and here the situation would be what would the American reaction be? The United States Navy and allied navies, the Royal Canadian Navy, within the last few months sailed through the straits of Taiwan, as they often do, to make the case that these are international waters. They are not internal territorial waters.
The same is true of the South China Sea, but the problem with respect to Taiwan though – well, in respect to the South China Sea as well, the Chinese have become very good at what are called salami tactics, which is to take just a little slice more and then dare the other side to challenge the new status quo, the ultimate danger always being that this will escalate and get out of control, and result in some kind of major conflagration or nuclear war. That has worked wonderfully well for the People’s Republic with respect to the South China Sea, right, but American naval vessels travel through there. It has to be said, by the way, that some enormous amount of world trade travels through that South China Sea. It is not an inconsequential body of water.
How Would Japan React?
And then finally, the Japan piece. Japan is the true wild card for me in all of this. Japan has its own historical baggage, obviously, but if you imagined a world in the not-too-distant future in which China had successfully reincorporated Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China, and had asserted absolute control over the South China Sea, and the United States was perceived to be an unreliable ally in all of this, I think the time between that realization dawning and Japan going full nuclear, developing a full nuclear arsenal, would be about five minutes.
But they have the technological capacity. They have always had, though, a deep cultural inhibition for obvious reasons, but I think a changed geopolitical environment like that would result in a nuclear Japan in about five minutes.
And then what about South Korea, and then what about the Philippines, and Indonesia, and some of the other countries in the region which have a historical memory, which is kept alive generation to generation, of a strong Japan within that part of the world, and you can see an insecurity spiral kicking off. You can see some very dangerous dynamics beginning being ignited right away. These are very fraught times, and I do not want to leave anybody with the impression that they are not.
Much rests on how prudent and how effective the United States is in both signaling that there are limits to what China is trying to do, but not going too far because I can see that there are certain provocations that would look very defensive from our perspective but would be perceived as crossing a red line from Beijing’s perspective. And then you can see this dynamic unfolding, this escalatory dynamic unfolding very quickly, which would be a very frightening prospect because there are nuclear weapons always in the background, right?
The prospect, for example, very briefly: the only way for the United States to effectively aid Taiwan in defense of itself would be to take out some of the military facilities on the mainland. It would require not just defending Taiwan, but in order to defend Taiwan, to strike some of the missile launchers, and logistics facilities, and whatnot in China.
Well, how would China react to that? Or preemptively, if I were the PLA, and I were going to invade Taiwan, I would want to knock Guam out of the equation. I would want to sink as many aircraft carriers as possible beforehand. You can see how this is a very unstable strategic situation, and it is going to require a great deal of prudence to navigate this, I think.
Robert R. Reilly:
In respect to which how would you characterize Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taipei?
Andrew Latham:[I have] two reactions, one of which is a country should have one foreign policy, and it should be set by the people who are charged with conducting foreign policy. In the United States’ case, that is the president.
Second, I do not know what the what the advantage was. I do not want to overstate the importance of our visit. I mean the Chinese had already planned these live fire exercises and whatnot. All this was going to happen anyway. It is part of their general ratcheting up, but I just do not understand the impulse behind needlessly escalating a situation, which could get out of control for any reason whatsoever. The only logic – there is not even electoral logic there because this does not play. I mean Nancy Pelosi is not going to be running again for office, I do not think, but she has been, to her credit, a stalwart critic of the repressive Chinese Communist Party and its government forever. Maybe this is just the culmination of that in her mind.
Robert R. Reilly:
Having been followed up by another congressional delegation led by a Democratic senator led me to wondering how to answer the question I asked you, whether there was any kind of potential electoral benefit. The one issue within the United States that is bipartisan is the attitude toward China as the number one threat to the United States, Democrat or Republican. And to appear strong shortly before the congressional elections in November by a Democratic Party leader maybe an attempt to garner support on that issue, show what strong leaders the Democrats are in terms of that foreign policy. Though of course, as you point out, the person who really should show that is the President and not the Speaker of the House, so that thought may not really apply.
It is curious. The President and his administration came out four square against this visit. Was that just theater? Was that just [for show]? Are they playing good cop, bad cop here? I mean I am just not sure because the message it would seem to send is that the Democratic Party is divided on this and has not got its act together, especially when you factor in Ukraine. So you said I think quite rightly that until five minutes ago, China was the number one threat, and then all of a sudden, the center of gravity, as it were, has shifted to focus on Russia in Ukraine.
And you know, the old saying is do not show me what your values are, show me your budget, and I will tell you what your values are. Well, where are we spending all the money? It is on Ukraine, and so, yeah, I am having a hard time sort of reconciling the way these competing impulses are being worked out.
Robert R. Reilly:
Yeah, I would think so because were we to see China as a burgeoning military threat against the United States, one would think that would be reflected. Show me the money. That would be reflected in the military budget, and of course, it is not at all. The Defense Department budget is being eroded by some nine percent inflation. It is not even keeping up with inflation, much less rearming or even replenishing its ammunition supplies, which have been so seriously depleted by sending so much of it over to Ukraine.
I would like to ask you another key question, Andrew, if I may. As you know, the 20th Party Congress approaches this Fall, at which it is expected that Xi Jinping will receive another five-year term or be leader for life, and that earlier, it was speculated that he was going to try to keep the Chinese economy revved as preparation for this, but that has not happened. The Chinese economy is faltering, particularly from its real estate sector. And as a result of his, I would think extraordinarily misguided COVID policies that lock down Shanghai and other major cities.
What we see, it seems to me, in Xi Jinping, and you have pointed this out too, is a re-emphasis on Leninism, Communist Party doctrine, Party control, the imposition on corporations of Party committees in the structure of those corporations, Chinese corporations that is, so that if the trade-off is between economic growth and Party control, Xi chooses Party control. And of course, in order to exercise that even more with fears of what civil disruptions there may be, China has increased its surveillance capabilities of the Chinese citizens in ways that make 1984 and George Orwell look like relatively free societies.
You are right in all of that. Initially apparently successful COVID strategy, right, which was again redounded to Xi Jinping’s political advantage at home in the run-up to the Party Congress, but now he is locked into that as well, even though it has proved to be catastrophic economically, let alone psychologically but certainly economically. There are some other pathologies in the Chinese economy around the real estate market, but this has really exacerbated and brought to a head many of these problems [like] supply chain issues, of course.
I mean [if] you shut down Shanghai for the amount of time that they did, obviously, bad things are going to ripple through the economy from that. So what do you have left? I mean you are failing on the COVID front, [and] you are failing on the economic front. There is a demographic time bomb, which is already going off in slow motion. He is left with, in the run-up to the Party Congress, having to appear strong on Taiwan, [and] having to appear unwilling to compromise on this.
What else really does he have left?
So I think that factors into it as well, and so at the beginning I was talking about grand sort of international structural factors, but I am really careful always to point out that these need to be nuanced by domestic political developments, which can be anything from, in our case, elections to, in that case, a Party Congress, the stakes of which are very high. Of course, he will not be just appointed for five more years. It will be a lifetime, formally or informally this will be. He is either in for life or he is out, so the stakes are very high, which makes backing down either on COVID or on Taiwan to be incredibly difficult at the moment.
Robert R. Reilly:
It was often spoken of that in China there was a domestic arrangement there between the peoples of China and the Communist Party, and it was that more or less the people to the Party would say you keep the economy growing, so that we have jobs and grow wealthier, and you can control the political world, so the Party saw its role as precisely to, let us say, re-legitimize itself through economic growth since it had kind of lost ideological legitimacy. As you pointed out, no one is going to revive the Party or the country by reading the Little Red Book.
So let us just close out our program by briefly discussing domestic vulnerabilities. I know Xi Jinping would speak rather openly with American visitors, oh, maybe a decade or so ago, less openly in recent years, about his fear of the color revolutions.
Now the country seems to be too tightly buttoned down, but there could be labor unrest. I was reading the recent statistics on the Chinese economy, that youth unemployment is almost 20 percent.
Yeah, 19 [percent], yep.
Robert R. Reilly:
19.9 percent, so how do you assess these vulnerabilities to Party power?
It is a combination. Some things are going well, obviously, but some things are going very poorly, and those things are being interpreted, so the real estate markets, the COVID fiasco, the lockdowns, all of the economic effects of that, the demographic time bomb. As you get older, that is less money you can devote to young people, to education, to the military. It is more money you have to devote to maintaining people who are retirees, basically, but all of these are viewed through the lens of, again, Tiananmen Square and the color revolutions, right, in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
That is the big fear. When I said earlier that the PLA, the People’s Liberation Army, is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party, we cannot forget that, that the whole point of that system is to maintain the Chinese Communist Party in power. And I mean I think that just pretty much explains everything that is taking place. What can Xi Jinping, the avatar of the Chinese Communist Party, what can he do both before COVID and since COVID? What can he do to maintain the Chinese Communist Party in power?
Well, for a long time, from Deng Xiaoping’s time forward, it really was we are going to deliver the economic goods, and that worked for a long time, and that has petered out. As that has petered out, there have been two basic reactions, one of which is clamping down on domestic dissent, re-Leninizing the Party, and re-insinuating the Party into every nook and cranny of life in China, including, by the way, not just Chinese firms but foreign firms doing business in China.
And then the other one is to play the nationalist card, whether it is in the Himalayas, whether it is in Xinjiang, which is undergoing horrific ethnocide, not destruction of a people but destruction of a people’s culture, and of course, Taiwan and the South China Sea, both of which are viewed through this nationalist lens.
So if you have only got those two, the clamp down [and nationalism, you resort to these measures]. The hope was for a long time that economic liberalization would translate into political liberalization. Well, that is gone now. We have got the re-Leninization of the Party and of society, re-emphasis on nationalism. Will that be enough? That is the question. It was not enough in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. I believe that that is always the specter that is haunting the Chinese Communist Party.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, I am afraid that we have run out of time, and I would like to thank our guest, Professor Andrew Latham, for joining us today to discuss: The Evolution of China’s Grand Strategy As it Applies to Today. I would like to invite our viewers to go to the Westminster Institute website or to our YouTube channel to see our other offerings from recent lectures, a number of them on China and other subjects, such as I mentioned Professor Latham’s extremely fine presentation on “The War in Ukraine: How Will it End?” Thank you for joining us today. I am Robert Reilly.