By Timothy R. Heath
Dueling high level strategy documents in both the United States and China portend an intensifying competition for leadership and influence at the global systemic level. The coming years are likely to see a deepening contest in the diplomatic, economic, cyber, and information domains, even as the risks of major war remain low. Although the US strategy has garnered considerable scrutiny, less attention has been paid to the directives outlined in key official Chinese strategy documents.
The National Security Strategy recently released by the Trump administration surprised many in its stark depiction of China as a “revisionist power” that seeks to “displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.” The strategy’s striking tone has drawn widespread commentary, but in many ways it reflects a grim, but realistic recognition of the realities of a deepening rivalry. Indeed, a closer look at authoritative Chinese documents suggests that preparations are well underway in that country to compete with the United States at the global level.
In the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress report, China’s most authoritative strategy document, Beijing articulated for the first time an ambition to contend for global leadership. It stated that by mid-century, China seeks to have “become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.” Given that China already has the second largest economy and one of the largest militaries in the world, this phrasing strongly suggests that, over the long term, China is mulling competition with the United States for the status of global leader.
Beyond reasons of prestige, global leadership affords a country the opportunity to reap considerable economic and security benefits by shaping international norms, rules, and institutions, as the United States has done since World War II. And if trends that narrow the gap in national power continue, global competition between the two giants could become unavoidable in any case.
To be sure, the future remains undetermined and there are many reasons why China may never succeed in mounting such a challenge, but the report’s contents suggest China’s leaders are positioning the country to seize such an incredible opportunity should it present itself.
China’s interest in global leadership
Clues as to the sort of preparations underway can be seen in the sections of the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress report that outline policy objectives for 2035, a new category designed to serve as an intermediary point between the two well-known centenaries of 2021 (centenary of the founding of the CCP) and 2049 (centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China).
The objectives reflect a much stronger awareness of the need to compete globally than was the case in previous CCP Congress reports. The shifting emphasis reflects the reality that China has grown into a great power with global interests, and that consequently elements of domestic and international policy increasingly overlap.
Underscoring this point, the 19th CCP Congress report describes China’s ambitions as interlinked with the world. It observed, “The dream of the Chinese people is closely connected with the dreams of the peoples of other countries.” Not coincidentally, the 19th CCP Congress elevated the role of the Foreign Ministry in policy making.
The goals outlined for 2035 hint at the need for global competition. But as a public document, the report unsurprisingly features diplomatic and elusive terms on sensitive topics, such as foreign policy. Some clues about Beijing’s intentions can nevertheless be deduced through careful study of the report’s entire contents, however.
For example, the report directs officials to avoid war and maintain peaceful, cooperative relations with the United States and other great powers. It also highlights the need to safeguard core interests of sovereignty and territory, as well as protect the resources, markets, and citizens abroad needed for national development. These imperatives are not new, but they will probably remain essential for years to come.
The report does introduces new requirements, however, such as the need to achieve technological leadership, build a network of strategic partnerships, and expand China’s international influence and involvement in global governance.
The 19th CCP Congress report stated that by 2035, China seeks to have “become a global leader in innovation.” This ambition is important for three reasons. First, leadership in technological innovation increases the likelihood that a country will enjoy higher productivity and wealth than its peers.
Second, the transferability of military and civilian technology means that a technologically advanced country is better positioned to build a premier military an idea captured in the report’s directives for “military-civilian fusion.” Third, technological leadership enhances a country’s international influence, or “soft power,” because others tend to emulate the world’s technological leader and the lifestyle changes it affords. Indeed, some experts regard the contest for technological leadership as among the most consequential for deciding global leadership.
Build a global network of strategic partnerships
Any global superpower requires a network of supportive, powerful countries to bolster its authority. Traditionally, this has meant military alliances, but China is exploring alternative arrangements. The 19th CCP Congress report directed the development of a network of “partnerships, not alliances.”
Commentary in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the CCP, explained (in Chinese) that this means China will “form a global partnership network.” Articulating the logic of this idea, the commentary argued that in the contemporary world, countries are more threatened by a lack of development and nontraditional threats than by traditional threats, and thus China has concluded that partnerships may actually prove more relevant and useful than traditional security alliances.
The commentary stated that China has established partnerships with “about 100 countries, regions, and regional organizations.”
Expanded international influence and leadership
The 19th CCP Congress report outlined goals to expand the country’s “soft power” and its international leadership. Among goals set for 2035, the 19th CCP Congress report declared, “China’s cultural soft power will have grown much stronger” and “Chinese culture will have greater appeal.”
The report also called for China to take an “active part in reforming and developing the global governance system” and “keep contributing Chinese wisdom and strength to global governance.”
How China plans to prevail in global competition
The report carries contradictory guidance on how to realize these ambitions. For example, the 19th CCP Congress report stated, on the one hand, that China “opposes acts” that “interfere in the internal affairs of others.” This directive argues for a passive approach to international developments, no matter the consequences for China’s interests. On the other hand, the report stated, “No one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines our interests.”
This argues for an energetic involvement in the affairs of other countries to disrupt or defeat any threat to China’s interests. This contradiction lies at the heart of the most critical challenges for China’s foreign policy in the next few decades: how to intervene in other countries to safeguard and advance China’s interests without appearing to do so.
The 19th CCP Congress report’s contents suggest that Chinese leaders aim to resolve this conundrum in part by enhancing the country’s prestige. China’s pursuit of steady growth, technological leadership, cultural superiority, and a modern military, if successful, could incentivize countries to respect a wealthy and powerful China’s interests and avoid antagonistic policies.
But enhanced prestige is unlikely to suffice. The report’s contents recognize that more direct means may be required to protect China’s overseas interests. In addition to activities undertaken under United Nations authority, Chinese leaders are exploring ways to incentivize foreign leaders and build political support in other countries. Some of these methods are reviewed below.
Manipulation of diplomatic incentives
Through partnerships, Chinese officials seek to employ incentives and punishments to induce leaders in other countries to respond to Chinese concerns. Partnerships are depicted as highly moralistic, reciprocal relationships in which China bestows financial and other benefits in exchange for deference and cooperation on issues of importance to Beijing. For example, the 19th CCP Congress report described partnerships in terms of “cooperation” on issues that advance “justice” and “profits” and yield “win-win” outcomes.
Left unspoken, but implied, is the idea that insufficient cooperation could result in punishments through economic sanctions, diplomatic freezes, or other measures. A recent example of such punitive actions can be seen in China’s decision to cancel concerts by South Korean music bands and scale back import of some goods to signal displeasure with Seoul’s decision to proceed with hosting the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system. One Chinese scholar explained the logic of such a reciprocating, hierarchical relationship as one of “the more you do for others, the more you have; the more you give, the more you get.”
Deepen regional dependence through integration
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aims to deepen “connectivity” in policy, infrastructure, trade, financial, and inter-personal contact across the Eurasian landmass. Chinese officials and scholars explain that the BRI will grant China the advantage of extending its influence by expanding the number of countries that depend on standards of technologies and infrastructure set by China.
As Wang Yiwei, a scholar at People’s University, explained (in Chinese), the BRI provides the advantage of “interoperability based on infrastructure construction” and standards set by China. Wang cited in particular areas such as high-speed rail, nuclear power, energy, electricity grid, and information technology connectivity in which Chinese companies will gain advantage.
“If Eurasia forms an interoperable whole” under presumably Chinese leadership, Wang concluded, “then there will not be much left for the United States.”
Increase reform of international institutions and agenda setting
In a commentary published in People’s Daily, State Councilor Yang Jiechi explained (in Chinese) that the 19th CCP Congress calls for an expansion of China’s influence in existing institutions and the creation of new ones as needed. Chinese leaders have stepped up senior leader engagement in international venues, such as the Davos Summit, G-20, United Nations and Paris Climate Accord.
Where existing institutions have proven insufficiently responsive to Chinese demands, China has created alternatives, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Yang Jiechi also noted that the UN has incorporated some Chinese concepts, such as the idea of a “community of common destiny,” into its documents.
Expand United Front tactics
The CCP has upgraded the importance of its “United Front” – a CCP led organization dedicated to building a domestic and international coalition of individuals, groups, and organizations that support Beijing’s aims. Reflecting its growing importance, authorities established a central leading group on the topic in 2015.
In a 2017 article, the United Front Department’s Research Office (in Chinese) defined its “new direction” in terms of “the three tasks of serving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, safeguarding the state’s core interests, and maintaining the long term stability of Hong Kong and Macao and complete the unification of the motherland.” The article noted that Xi had directed the United Front to build the broadest base of support possible based on common interests in other countries.
Mobilize overseas Chinese
Chinese authorities regard diaspora, or overseas Chinese, as an important resource for advancing the country’s agenda. The 19th CCP Congress called for “uniting” with overseas Chinese to “revitalize the Chinese nation.”
In a 2017 article, State Councilor Yang Jiechi called (in Chinese) for cultivating overseas Chinese support for the Belt and Road Initiative as a means of accessing advanced technology. Yang Jiechi also characterized cooperation with ethnic Chinese abroad as an “important means to contain separatist forces and safeguard the core interests of the country.”
Reflecting the growing strategic importance of the diaspora, the Chinese government appears to be taking an interest in how other countries treat ethnic Chinese. In the same article, Yang stated that it had become “necessary to actively push the governments of other countries to build a favorable environment conducive to the survival and development of ethnic Chinese compatriots.”
China’s approach to extending its global influence differs considerably from that taken by the United States or imperial European powers of past centuries. Lacking an imperialistic military or the U.S. advantage of globally distributed armed forces, China has little choice but to rely on a more diffuse and loose-knit approach involving diplomacy, limited deployment of military, paramilitary and contractor security forces, covert intelligence operations, propaganda, and the use of economic and political benefits and sanctions.
The wide range of resources available provides China the flexibility to tailor its approach to the type of country involved. For example, in impoverished and weakly institutionalized countries, China may support local security forces or hold regimes accountable and withhold support when they fail to do so, as appears to have happened recently in Zimbabwe.
In wealthier and more politically stable countries, by contrast, China may find more useful the use of propaganda, united front tactics, and the mobilization of ethnic Chinese citizen sentiment to mute criticism and protect Chinese interests. Sensational reports of just these sorts of tactics in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain have recently made headlines.
Overlapping, parallel globalizations?
Fearing the risks of an escalating rivalry, China and the United States have for years faced the prospect of competition with well-founded apprehension. China attempted to head off rivalry by proposing a “new type of great power relationship,” while the United States emphasized cooperation with China, even as it bolstered its military position and presence in Asia under President Obama’s “Rebalance to Asia.”
But the 19th CCP Congress report’s directions and the Trump administration’s designation of China as a strategic competitor signals the competition may be evolving into a more intense stage.
Thankfully, the risks of military conflict remain low, owing principally to the fact that globalized production, trade interdependence, mobility of populations and the spread of transnational threats continue to provide powerful incentives for the two countries to maintain cooperative relations. Nor is there any serious domestic or international support for global conflict.
Beneath the placid surface of cooperative relations, however, the two countries appear poised to step up the struggle for advantage. The struggle could intensify in the shadowy worlds of diplomatic maneuvering, influence operations, elite politics and cyberspace. Incapable of challenging U.S. power openly, China will likely instead focus on increasing its national competitiveness in technology, commerce, diplomatic influence and military strength.
In geopolitical terms, China is likely to prioritize efforts to further Eurasia’s integration. If it succeeds, the result could be the emergence of parallel, interpenetrating globalized orders that share some institutions in common, but reflect divergent values, norms, and standards. To retain its leadership position and the immense benefits that it confers, the United States will require global vision, foresighted policies to bolster technological advantage, energetic and skillful diplomacy, adept intelligence operations, and savvy management of alliances and partnerships, especially in Asia and Europe.
The challenge of managing an intensifying contest in a stable manner will test the leaders of both China and the United States and bear directly on the prospects for peace and prosperity for the entire world.