Xi Jinping’s China is displaying a superpower’s ambition. Only a few years ago, many American observers still hoped that China would reconcile itself to a supporting role in the liberal international order or would pose—at most—a challenge to U.S. influence in the Western Pacific. The conventional wisdom was that China would seek an expanded regional role—and a reduced U.S. role—but would defer to the distant future any global ambitions. Now, however, the signs that China is gearing up to contest America’s global leadership are unmistakable, and they are ubiquitous.
By 2016, China had achieved a measure of parity in relative military power with the United States. Yet its relative military spending paled in comparison to Washington’s: the U.S. was spending about $600 billion on defence, or about three times as much as China’s outlays, in 2016, a figure far in excess of China’s economic size.1 And China’s overall military spending is increasing by around 10 percent each year—far faster than America’s rate of increase, even taking into account the additional costs China has incurred in a major military modernization program.
The American military has noticed these signs as well. Chinese units that once counted on reluctant and, at times, reluctant allies, now are steadily increasing their presence on the high seas, their interoperability and their combat power. Chinese officials have made it clear that China will not back down in the face of military coercion or economic sanctions, and a growing number of observers are of the view that China is developing what has become known as a “Chinese military chessboard,” in which key moves are being made not only to strengthen the Army, Navy and Air Force, but also to marshal the resources of the coast guard, marine corps and paramilitary forces.
Recent developments in Chinese military aviation, communications, and space technology have raised the prospect that China could become a global space power, while commercial satellite launches, which were once only shared with the United States, are now seen as a domestic Chinese venture. Chinese agents and soldiers have been detected in South Korea, Japan, the United States, and Germany, and Western leaders see Chinese hackers and cyberspies infiltrating and attempting to compromise U.S. organizations. The threat of Chinese cyber espionage In August 2015, the National Security Agency (NSA) published its first annual report on the threat of Chinese cyber espionage.
On April 30, 2013, hundreds of thousands of students took to the streets in Chinese cities to protest China’s corruption and economic stagnation. Tensions were exacerbated by China’s decision to block three Hong Kong booksellers and a British reporter who were publishing books critical of China’s one-party state. One of the booksellers, Lee Bo, wrote that he and his associates had been arrested for “journalistic activities,” but the Chinese government released a terse statement that described them as “unruly and disturbing elements.” The message was unmistakable: The People’s Republic of China was prepared to retaliate against the West, and especially the United States, to maintain its power and political authority.
Consider: A New York Times article described a China that is gathering a formidable array of instruments of influence, ranging from the back door to the front door of America’s cyberspace, a “cyber stranglehold on America.” A 2015 government report on China’s emerging military capabilities describes “greater numbers of low-cost, lightweight, deployable aircraft.” The researchers found that “China has become adept at mounting aircraft carrier-sized-aircraft on conventional runways,” indicating that China is developing—or in fact, may already possess—new generation aircraft carriers. Chinese military exercises have featured the ballistic missile-capable J-20 stealth fighter—and demonstrated that China is now capable of deploying such a technology.
In our survey of Chinese officials, most see China as being on the threshold of creating what some call a “new normal” of great power status—but a new normal defined by far more than traditional economic prowess. China sees itself as being on a continuum of both capability and power that will force the U.S. to take into account China’s emerging status on the global stage, rather than allowing Washington to anchor the global order.1 To create this status, China must—as my Brookings colleague Brian Katulis puts it—take the first step toward becoming a “full-spectrum great power.” This means making important decisions now about what kind of military, economic, and political power it will hold and the rules it will adopt to shape the international system and establish its place within it.
By challenging American primacy, China intends to expand its global hegemony to serve the interests of its vast population, especially China’s 1.4 billion people who remain underdeveloped, largely poor, and many of them struggling to achieve the American dream of upward mobility. China’s top objective is not America’s obsolescence, but its vitality and the flourishing of its domestic market. Though China is smaller and less prosperous than the United States, its middle class is expanding rapidly, as are its purchasing power and consumer habits, which make it possible to leverage its size to maintain that dominance.
To grasp the extent of the Chinese effort, we need to look at how China is transforming its thinking and practice. To do so, we must first consider how China itself thinks about international relations. Many Chinese leaders—including President Xi himself—did not appreciate the extent to which China had been perceived as a threat by the West. Under China’s current political system, it is widely assumed that individual Chinese citizens are responsible for what China does at home and what the country’s foreign policies are. There is also a long-standing Chinese penchant for collective and apolitical leadership. Even if there is a world leader, he will be someone who has emerged spontaneously in a way that is difficult to predict or control.
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) model for building an autocratic “common-sense society” is nothing if not bureaucratic. In practical terms, this means a narrow, vertically integrated and very powerful state structure. This approach was exemplified in the command and control of the last great challenge to Western capitalism, Nazism, whose leaders generally had failed to develop a cohesive national culture and did not foster a spirit of mutual respect that underpinned peaceful democratic cooperation. But more importantly, the world has changed since World War II. NATIONALISM WITHOUT A COUNTRY After World War II, the democratic world created the United Nations (UN) to promote a peaceful and progressive global order. China has consistently opposed a UN-driven system of world governance.
The direction of the twenty-first-century geopolitics will be determined by China’s China-as-the-savior strategy. Although the United States still dominates the global financial and political systems, Beijing is shifting from a quiet “spoiler” to a dominating global actor. When China launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, it signaled a potential intent to challenge the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, both led by the United States. Similarly, it has taken a passive approach to resolving its maritime territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines. But it is developing a more assertive posture in the South China Sea.
The many different trade and aid policies being pursued by China globally have been heavily criticised but can developing countries become more independent or will China’s policy reform?