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Foreign Policy

Does China Have a 'Grand Strategy?'

Sep 03, 2021

Some of the most pressing geopolitical and macroeconomic questions of our time relate to China's rise and if China will displace American order from strategically important regions throughout the globe, specifically the Indo-Pacific and Central and Eastern Europe.  

In terms of economic power, the U.S. has become somewhat less relevant in places like the Middle East compared to China, partially through Beijing's partnerships with the Russian Federation in specific areas. 

Beijing's partnerships with Moscow and China's active support of global multilateralism is not necessarily a sign of weakness or a need for diplomatic friends in strategic regions. China's willingness to support and aid governments from Latin America to the Balkans, from Africa to Asia, might be a characteristic of a greater “grand strategy” – one that might eventually lessen the importance of the U.S. dollar and Washington's geopolitical grasp. China managed to use its goodwill and credit availability to trailblaze and develop diplomatic ties with many nations needing investment.  

Additionally, Washington's geopolitical 'hiccups,' overshadowed by Chinese resilience despite increased criticism from the West, show the world that U.S. intelligence and diplomatic resources are often outwitted on the geopolitical stage by America's adversaries. The most recent debacle in Afghanistan showed the world that Washington was unprepared to save its citizens and allies in a country where it maintained a presence for 20 years, while China and Russia both secured agreements with the incoming Taliban government.  

U.S. diplomatic errors have unintentionally encouraged China, which could lead to new testing of boundaries in Asia. It is also possible that China and Russia will coordinate geostrategic pressure campaigns against Washington to see how far they can push geopolitical limits. The current state of the world and international affairs may give both China and Russia an opportunity to implement their grand strategies.  

Former Brookings Fellow Rush Doshi discusses some of these questions in his most recent book, "The Long Game: China's Grand Strategy to Displace American Order." He compares Li Hongzhang of the Qing Dynasty and President Xi Jinping, and their similar statements of "great changes not seen in three thousand years" and "great changes not seen in a century." While Li Hongzhang's statement preceded China's eventual failure to modernize, a military loss to Japan, and the embarrassing Treaty of Shimonoseki, Xi Jinping's words might precede an exciting period of rejuvenation and continued growth and progress.  

Both periods were characterized by unprecedented geopolitical and technological change – but while Li witnessed part of China's “century of humiliation,” Xi hopes for China's global success. The comparison between Li and Xi is helpful since it offers China a second historical chance to make the best of an opportunity to displace Western dominance from Eurasia.   

Unprecedented change requires nations and peoples to plan strategically, adapt and make the most of global shifts. The emergence of such change requires a “grand strategy.” While some suggest that Beijing might not have one, Rush Doshi's book title indicates that China might have a plan to gain a more significant stake in the global order.  

America's global dominance relies on political cohesion between liberal democracies, free markets and trade routes, and the role of multilateral institutions and diplomatic efforts and non-governmental organizations that actively support and facilitate the spread of liberal democracy. Xi recognized a shift when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and when Donald Trump became President of the United States and actively pursued isolationist policies that disappointed many of the leaders in the European Union. China noticed that liberal democracies began struggling to implement their global policies as they were confronted with instability at home. Political divisions within the United States that culminated with the U.S. Capitol unrest and frustrations with the pandemic further reinforced China's suspicions. Chinese policy elites declared that a "period of historical opportunity" had emerged.  

Throughout the 20th century, China began preparing the terrain for competition with the U.S. by slowly pushing America's political influence out of Asia while developing strategic and economic hegemony in Asia. These initial steps led Beijing into directly competing with Washington dollar-for-dollar, ship-for-ship, or loan-for-loan. 

In terms of developing global dominance, Beijing actively forges partnerships. It spreads influence with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in places that the United States previously held a secure geopolitical grasp. Given Beijing's efforts to expand its geo-economic and geostrategic footprint in Asia and places like the Middle East, Europe, and South America, it confirms that China hopes for both regional and global hegemony.  

Regardless of whether China's grand strategy aims for global hegemony, there has never before been a U.S. adversary or collection of adversaries that reached 60 percent of U.S. GDP. A breach of the 60 percent threshold didn't occur during First World War or the Second World War when combining the economic might of both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union never reached the figure, either. China surpassed this figure as early as 2014, and when adjusted for prices of goods, China's economy is already 25 percent larger than that of the U.S.  

With that, China is finally in a position where it can attempt to displace American power, especially in coordination with the Russian Federation, and implement a “grand strategy” to disrupt the global order. Whether Beijing take the chance and accelerate its efforts is the most pressing question. 

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