Beijing’s ambitions are about to crash into its problems.
By Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Michael Beckley, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University.
August 13, 2022
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) at a ceremony in Hong Kong on July 1. SELIM CHTAYTI/POOL/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
The greatest geopolitical catastrophes occur at the intersection of ambition and desperation. Xi Jinping’s China will soon be driven by plenty of both.
In our new book, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China, which this article is adapted from, we explain the cause of that desperation: a slowing economy and a creeping sense of encirclement and decline. But first, we need to lay out the grandness of those ambitions—what Xi’s China is trying to achieve. It is difficult to grasp just how hard China’s fall will be without understanding the heights to which Beijing aims to climb. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is undertaking an epic project to rewrite the rules of global order in Asia and far beyond. China doesn’t want to be a superpower—one pole of many in the international system. It wants to be the superpower—the geopolitical sun around which the system revolves.
That ambition is now hard to miss in what CCP officials are saying. It is even more obvious in what the CCP is doing, from its world-beating naval shipbuilding program to its effort to remake the strategic geography of Eurasia. China’s grand strategy involves pursuing objectives close to home, such as cementing the CCP’s hold on power and reclaiming bits of China that were ripped away when the country was weak. It also includes more expansive goals, such as carving out a regional sphere of influence and contesting American power on a global scale. The CCP’s agenda blends a sense of China’s historical destiny with an emphasis on modern, 21st-century tools of power. It is rooted in the timeless geopolitical ambitions that motivate so many great powers and the insatiable insecurities that plague China’s authoritarian regime.
Although China’s drive to reorder the world predates Xi, it has accelerated dramatically in recent years. Today, CCP officials outwardly evince every confidence that a rising China is eclipsing a declining United States. Inwardly, however, Beijing’s leaders are already worrying that the Chinese dream may remain just that.
China’s grand strategy is typically found more in a rough consensus among elites than in detailed, step-by-step plans for the future. Yet there is ample evidence that the CCP is pursuing a determined, multilayered grand strategy with four key objectives.
First, the CCP has the eternal ambition of every autocratic regime: to maintain its iron grip on power. Since 1949, the Chinese regime has always seen itself as being locked in struggle with domestic and foreign enemies. Its leaders are haunted by the Soviet collapse, which brought down another great socialist state. They know that the collapse of the CCP-led system would be a disaster—and probably fatal—for them personally. In Chinese politics, paranoia is thus a virtue rather than a vice. As Wen Jiabao, then China’s head of government, once said, “To think about why danger looms will ensure one’s security. To think about why chaos occurs will ensure one’s peace. To think about why a country falls will ensure one’s survival.” The CCP has historically gone to enormous lengths—plunging the country into madness during the Cultural Revolution, killing hundreds or perhaps thousands of its own citizens amid the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989—to protect its power. And the goal of perpetuating the CCP’s authority is at the core of every key decision. Xi’s fundamental purpose, as a reporter summarized one official’s explanation in 2017, was “ensuring the leading role of the Communist Party in all aspects of life.”
Second, the CCP wants to make China whole again by regaining territories lost in earlier eras of internal upheaval and foreign aggression. Xi’s map of China includes a Hong Kong that is completely reincorporated into the CCP-led state (a process that is well underway) and a Taiwan that has been brought back into Beijing’s grasp. Elsewhere along its periphery, the CCP has outstanding border disputes with countries from India to Japan. Beijing also claims some 90 percent of the South China Sea—one of the world’s most commercially vital waterways—as its sovereign possession. Chinese officials say that there is no room for compromise on these issues. “We cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors,” Xi told then-U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis in 2018.
The CCP’s third aim is to create a regional sphere of influence in which China is supreme because outside actors, especially the United States, are pushed to the margins. Beijing probably doesn’t envision the sort of outright physical dominance that the Soviet Union exercised in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The CCP envisions, rather, using a mix of attraction and coercion to ensure that the economies of maritime Asia are oriented toward Beijing rather than Washington, that smaller powers are properly deferential to the CCP, and that the United States no longer has the alliances, regional military presence, or influence necessary to create problems for China in its own front yard. As Xi said in 2014, “It is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia, and uphold the security of Asia.” Other officials have been more explicit. In 2010, then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told 10 Southeast Asian countries that “China is a big country and you are small countries, and that is a fact.”
The final layer of Beijing’s strategy focuses on achieving global power and, eventually, global primacy. State media and party officials have explained that an increasingly powerful China cannot comfortably reside in a system led by the United States. Xi has talked of creating a global “community of common destiny” that would involve “all under heaven being one family”—and presumably obeying the fatherly guidance of the CCP.
Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, makes no bones about who will shape global affairs once China’s national rejuvenation is achieved: “By 2050, two centuries after the Opium Wars, which plunged the ‘Middle Kingdom’ into a period of hurt and shame, China is set to regain its might and re-ascend to the top of the world.” The struggle to “become the world’s No.1 … is a ‘people’s war,’” the nationalist newspaper Global Times declares. “It will be as vast and mighty as a big river. It will be an unstoppable tide.”
The four layers of Chinese grand strategy all go together. The CCP argues that only under its leadership can China achieve its long-awaited “national rejuvenation.” The quest for regional and global power, in turn, should reinforce the CCP’s authority at home. This quest can provide legitimacy by stoking Chinese nationalism at a time when the regime’s original ideology—socialism—has been abandoned. It can deliver prestige, domestic as well as global, for China’s rulers. And it can give China the ability, which it is using aggressively, to silence its international critics and create global rules that protect an autocratic state.
Chinese grand strategy thus encompasses far more than the narrowly conceived defense of the country and its ruling regime. Those goals are tightly linked to the pursuit of an epochal change in the regional and global rules of the road—the sort that occurs when one hegemon falls and another arises. “Empires have no interest in operating within an international system,” writes former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in his book Diplomacy, “they aspire to be the international system.” That’s the ultimate ambition of Chinese statecraft today.
Americans might be surprised to find that Chinese leaders view the United States as a dangerous, hostile nation determined to hold other countries down. Yet even as China has, in many ways, flourished in the Pax Americana, its leaders have worried that Washington threatens nearly everything the CCP desires.
It cannot escape the attention of Chinese policymakers that the United States has a distinguished record of destroying its most serious global challengers—Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union—as well as a host of lesser rivals. Nor can Chinese officials forget that the United States is poised to frustrate all of the CCP’s designs.
From Mao Zedong to Xi, Chinese leaders have seen the United States as a menace to the CCP’s political primacy. When the United States and China were avowed enemies during the early Cold War, Washington sponsored Tibetan rebels who fought against that regime, while also supporting Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek and his claim to be China’s rightful ruler. In recent decades, American leaders have insisted they wish China well. But they have also proclaimed, as then-U.S. President Bill Clinton said in 1997, that the country’s authoritarian political model puts it “on the wrong side of history.”
After the Tiananmen Square massacre, and in response to CCP atrocities against the Uyghur population more recently, the United States even led coalitions of countries that slapped economic sanctions on China. The CCP sees through the subterfuge, one Chinese politician explained: “The U.S. has never given up its intent to overthrow the socialist system.”
Even when the United States has no conscious design to undermine dictators, it cannot help but threaten them. America’s very existence serves as a beacon of hope to dissidents. CCP members surely noticed that protesters in Hong Kong prominently displayed U.S. flags when resisting the imposition of authoritarian rule in 2019-2020, just as the protesters in Tiananmen Square erected a giant sculpture resembling the Statue of Liberty 30 years earlier. They howl in anger when U.S. news organizations publish detailed exposes of official crimes and corruption in Beijing. Things that Americans view as innocuous—for instance, the operation of nongovernmental organizations focused on human rights and government accountability—look like subversive menaces to a CCP that recognizes no limits on its own power. The United States simply cannot cease threatening the CCP unless America somehow ceases to be what it is: a liberal democracy concerned with the fate of freedom in the world.
The United States stands athwart China’s road to greatness in other ways. The CCP cannot make China whole again without reclaiming Taiwan, but the United States shields that island—through arms sales, diplomatic support, and the implicit promise of military aid—from Beijing’s pressure. Similarly, the United States obstructs China’s drive for dominance in the South China Sea with its Navy and its calls for freedom of navigation; its military alliances and security partnerships in Asia give smaller countries the temerity to resist Chinese power.
Washington maintains a globally capable military and bristles when China tries to develop something similar; it uses its heft to shape international views of how countries should behave and what sort of political systems are most legitimate. Beijing must “break the Western moral advantage,” noted one Chinese analyst, that comes from determining which governments are “good and bad.”
To be clear, China doesn’t reject all aspects of the U.S.-led order: The CCP has brilliantly exploited access to an open global economy, and its military forces have participated in United Nations peacekeeping missions. But Chinese leaders nonetheless appreciate, better than many Americans do, that there is something fundamentally antagonistic about the relationship: The CCP cannot succeed in creating arrangements that reflect its own interests and values without weakening, fragmenting, and ultimately replacing the order that currently exists.
Even at moments when Beijing and Washington have seemed friendly, then, Chinese leaders have harbored extremely jaded views of U.S. power. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, whose economic reforms relied on U.S. markets and technology, argued that Washington was waging a “world war without gunsmoke” to overthrow the CCP. Such perceptions, in turn, lead to a belief that realizing China’s dreams will ultimately require a test of strength with the United States. The CCP faces a “new long march” in its relations with the United States, Xi said in 2019—a dangerous struggle for supremacy and survival.
Xi is right that the countries are on a collision course. The CCP’s grand strategy imperils America’s long-declared interest in preventing any hostile power from controlling East Asia and the western Pacific. That strategy is activating America’s equally long-standing fear that a rival that gains preeminence on the Eurasian landmass could challenge the United States worldwide. China’s drive for technological supremacy is no less ominous: A world in which techno-autocracy is ascendant may not be one in which democracy is secure.
The basic reason why U.S.-China relations are so tense today is that the CCP is trying to shape the next century in ways that threaten to overturn what the United States has achieved over the last century. This raises a deeper question: Why is Beijing so set on fundamentally revising the system, even if doing so leads to dangerous rivalry with the United States?
The answer involves geopolitics, history, and ideology. In some ways, China’s bid for primacy is a new chapter in the world’s oldest story. Rising states typically seek greater influence, respect, and power.
Yet China isn’t simply moved by the cold logic of geopolitics. It is also reaching for glory as a matter of historical destiny. China’s leaders view themselves as heirs to a Chinese state that was a superpower for most of recorded history. A series of Chinese empires claimed “all under heaven” as their mandate; they commanded deference from smaller states along the imperial periphery. “This history,” writes veteran Asia-watcher Michael Schuman in his book Superpower Interrupted, “has fostered in the Chinese a firm belief in what role they and their country should play in the world today, and for that matter, into the distant forever.”
In Beijing’s view, a U.S.-led world in which China is a second-tier power is not the historical norm but a profoundly galling exception. That order was created after World War II, at the tail end of a “century of humiliation” in which a divided China was plundered by rapacious foreign powers. The CCP’s mandate is to set history aright by returning China to the top of the heap. “Since the Opium War of the 1840s the Chinese people have long cherished a dream of realizing a great national rejuvenation,” Xi said in 2014. Under CCP rule, China “will never again tolerate being bullied by any nation.” When Xi invokes the idea of a CCP-led “community of common destiny,” he is channeling this deeply rooted belief that Chinese primacy is the natural order of things.
Not least, there is the ideological imperative. A strong, proud China might still pose problems for Washington even if it were a liberal democracy. But the fact that the country is ruled by autocrats committed to the ruthless suppression of liberalism domestically turbocharges Chinese revisionism globally. A deeply authoritarian state can never feel secure in its own rule, because it does not enjoy the freely given consent of the governed; it can never feel safe in a world dominated by democracies, because liberal international norms challenge illiberal domestic practices. “Autocracies,” writes the China scholar Minxin Pei, “simply are incapable of practicing liberalism abroad while maintaining authoritarianism at home.”
This is no exaggeration. The infamous Document No. 9, a political directive issued at the outset of Xi’s presidency, shows that the CCP perceives a liberal world order as inherently threatening: “Western anti-China forces and internal ‘dissidents’ are still actively trying to infiltrate China’s ideological sphere.” The perpetual, piercing insecurity of an autocratic regime has powerful implications for Chinese statecraft. Chinese leaders feel a compulsion to make international norms and institutions friendlier to illiberal rule. They seek to push dangerous liberal influences away from Chinese borders. They must wrest international authority from a democratic superpower with a long history of bringing autocracies to ruin.
And as an authoritarian China becomes powerful, it inevitably looks to strengthen the forces of illiberalism overseas as a way of enhancing its influence and affirming its own model.
There is nothing extraordinary about this. When the United States became a world power, it forged a world that was hospitable to democratic values. When the Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe, it imposed communist regimes. In great-power rivalries since antiquity, ideological cleavages have exacerbated geopolitical cleavages: Differences in how governments see their citizens produce profound differences in how those governments see the world.
China is thus a typical revisionist state, an empire trying to reclaim its cherished place in the world, and an autocracy whose assertiveness flows from its unending insecurity. That’s a powerful—and volatile—combination.
This is the outrageously ambitious China that the United States, and the world, are now familiar with. And as China amasses the means of global power—from influence in international organizations to the world’s largest navy by number of ships—it often seems as though it has embarked on an unstoppable ascent. “The East is rising, and the West is declining,” Xi likes to say. But it’s sometimes hard not to wonder if Xi and his lieutenants are as buoyant as they seem. Careful analysts of Chinese politics detect subtle anxiety in government reports and statements. Themes of bounding optimism are mixed with “words of caution and deep insecurity,” one such analyst wrote last year.
Xi acknowledges, even as he touts Beijing’s power, that there are many ways in which “the West is strong, and the East is weak.” He warned, even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, of “looming risks and tests.” He declared that China must make itself “invincible” to ensure that “nobody can beat us or choke us to death.” And he advised his cadres to prepare for brutal struggle ahead.
Xi’s not wrong to worry. On closer inspection, it turns out that there is another China, one beset by multiplying problems at home and multiplying enmities abroad. Economic growth has slowed to a crawl. Productivity has collapsed, while debt has ballooned. Xi’s government is careening into ruinous totalitarianism. Water, food, and energy resources are becoming scarce. The country faces the worst peacetime demographic collapse in history. Not least, China is losing access to the welcoming world that enabled its ascent.
Whatever its propagandists may say, this China will struggle mightily to surpass the United States over the long term. For that very reason, it may actually be more dangerous in the near future. Peaking powers usually become aggressive when their fortunes fade and their enemies encircle them. China is blazing a trail that often ends in tragedy: a rapid rise followed by the threat of a hard fall.