Inspired by the attempted January 6th insurrection in Washington, D.C., “Changing of the Guard” is a series of reflections on transitions of power — the peaceful, the violent, and the era-defining.
China’s current leader has worked swiftly and ruthlessly to extend and cement his grip on power. He has also presided over China at a time when the West increasingly perceives his country’s rise, intentions, and actions as an existential threat to the rules-based international order. Perhaps this is the cost of realizing his paramount goal of restoring and delivering Chinese greatness. The question remains, is Xi the driving force behind today’s China, or a product of it?
Seventy-five years ago, American diplomat George F. Kennan looked out at a world that had drastically changed in a matter of six years. World War II was over, the allied powers had triumphed, and long-time great powers like the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan were left battered and fundamentally weakened. While many in 1946 would have just been wrapping their heads around the freshness of peace, Kennan saw the scorched ruins of Asia and Europe as the soil, and the Soviet Union the seed, where a new era of heated contention was already beginning to sprout and take shape. Unlike previous periods in recent history, the U.S. could not afford to take the back-seat. It rose out of the ashes of the conflict as a global superpower embedded in a bipolar international system.
This newly inherited position required the U.S. to reject the pull of its past isolationist inclinations and instead take the lead in a new era of great power competition and global ideological contestation. As Kennan correctly foresaw and noted in his “Long Telegram” sent on February 22nd, 1946 from the U.S. embassy in Moscow, America now faced one of its starkest challenges to date. In it he laid the groundwork for what would become American grand strategy towards dealing with the Soviet Union: The policy of containment.
Kennan later followed up his diplomatic cable with an anonymous piece published in July 1947 under the pseudonym “X” where he laid out the “sources of Soviet conduct,” declaring: “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” This entailed “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy” and the persistent countering of “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world.”
Fast forward nearly eight decades and America now faces the emergence of a new era of great power competition and a competitor that has thrown into question the legitimacy of the current international order and the values in which it is based upon. Just as the Soviet question engaged the minds of American politicians, policymakers, and academics in the immediate post-war world, so too is China today. It is widely recognized that the United States must forge a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the country, but what the central components of that strategy look like remains in question.
George Kennan gave Cold Warriors containment; our leaders today have given us everything from naive delusions of Chinese democratization to disastrous unilateral trade wars. In short, there is consensus that China presents a fundamental challenge but little agreement on how to deal with it in the long-term.
Perhaps this lack of a coherent strategic vision stems from the fact that the world today is far more complicated than the one George Kennan had to deal with. The line then was clearly drawn between Liberalism and Communism and two powers that had little-to-no economic dependence on the other. Today, America is polarized to its core, transnational threats like pandemics and climate change continue to grow, and the need to compete and confront China increasingly appears contradicted and constrained by the realities of globalization and the lure of China’s economy.
Then came the “Longer Telegram” published last month by an anonymous senior government official with deep expertise and experience dealing with China. The full memo appeared in the Atlantic Council, while Politico published a shorter, more concise version on January 28th titled, “To Counter China’s Rise, the U.S. Should Focus on Xi.” The first sentence of which states, “The single most important challenge facing the United States in the twenty-first century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping.”
As both the title and introductory sentence suggest, the author believes that any long-term U.S. strategy for dealing with China must focus on Xi, his inner-circle, and learn how to separate and identify the differences between the government, party-elite, and even between different factions of the party-elite and Xi himself. This proposal is predicated on one central claim: China is not homogenous and sharp divisions do indeed exist within the Communist Party.
It is true that Xi has transformed China greatly in his nearly decade-long tenure as Communist Party General Secretary. For decades, China has had term limits and rules in place to force leaders to step down after around ten years. These were intended to institutionalize succession and ensure that transfers of power were both peaceful and consistent. Xi has instead abolished term limits, failed to choose a successor, and paved the way to retain power long after his term ends in 2023. He has also worked vigorously to crush political opponents through his infamous anti-corruption campaign, centralized power in his own hands, reasserted the role of the state in the economy, embraced hard-line nationalism, and has decreased the space for civil society to operate. More importantly, Xi has turned away from Deng Xiaoping’s well-established doctrine “韬光养晦, 决不当头” (“hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead”). Indeed, Xi has overseen a vast military modernization effort, severely eroded Hong Kong’s autonomy, placed nearly 1.5 million ethnic Uyghur Muslims in “re-education” camps, put Taiwan on notice, constructed artificial islands in the South China Sea, and has recently pushed the country’s diplomats to adopt a more confrontational style of diplomacy abroad.
These developments lead the author to state that “the rise to power of Xi has greatly accentuated” the China challenge and “accelerated its time-table.” The author further notes that all five of China’s post-Mao leaders prior to Xi were able to “work with the United States,” therefore, “the mission for America’s China strategy should be to see China return to its pre-2013 path—i.e., the pre-Xi strategic status quo.”
I challenge the basis of this prescription. It is difficult to imagine that any prospective strategy Washington employs would be able to, in essence, turn back the clock on China’s strategic calculus. A pre-Xi status quo is a world in which China was content with growing richer and Washington was under the impression that China would eventually liberalize and become more democratic. With this in mind, it is no wonder that China’s post-Mao leaders preceding Xi were able to work with the United States. And although Xi has both accelerated and come to embody the collapse of this status quo, the author of the memo misses one crucial point: The inherent lack of trust surrounding China that extends beyond Xi.
Why is there a lack of trust? It is because no state can know what China’s intentions are now, or what they will be in the future. This has little to do with Xi. States are more concerned with the material capabilities (economic and military) of potential threats and rivals. Xi may be a strong man that thrives on military might, nationalism, and repression, but these are things that have little to do with the inherent structural stress that China’s rise is putting on the international system. In a recent piece in Foreign Affairs, Professor Rana Mitter of Oxford University argues that “As China’s overseas interests grow, Beijing will not be able to continue taking advantage of existing security umbrellas,” and that “China’s growing range of economic and diplomatic interests increasingly demands an expanded global Chinese security presence.” Indeed, regardless of whether or not Xi is in power or if China eventually softens its rhetoric, China will still be constructing more aircraft carriers, modernizing its fast-growing nuclear arsenal, digitizing surveillance, and expanding its economic, military, and diplomatic footprint abroad simply because it now has the means and interests to do so. In short, China cannot return to its pre-2013 status quo because it no longer fits within it.
It is important to remember that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) increasing embrace of popular nationalism and calls for striking a more confrontational tone with the West long preceded the arrival of Xi. Professor Minxin Pei, a leading expert on Chinese governance, traces the roots of modern Chinese nationalism as far back as the May 4th Movement in 1919 when students took the streets to protest the Treaty of Versailles’ transfer of Chinese territory to Japan. “Chinese nationalism was actually partly a creation of Western imperialism,” he argues. By the last quarter of the 20th century, this anti-imperialist/anti-West nationalism began to replace the Marxist-Lenninist ideology that once undergirded the CCP, but now appeared increasingly passé in the context of the vast reforms taking place within China. Five years before Xi would even assume power, China experts were asserting time and again that this brand of nationalism was now the “pillar of legitimacy” for the CCP. This is not to say that Xi himself has not altered or stoked Chinese nationalism, but one must ask: Is Xi’s more overt brand of nationalism truly a break from the past? Or can it be seen as another step in a longer trend towards a more assertive and confident China which now boasts a commanding position in global affairs?
If the latter is the case, focusing too much on Xi’s nationalism misses the forest for the trees. Even when one looks to Xinjiang and the rise of ethnonationalism within China, it is evident that Xi’s autocratic turn is just one of many variables shaping a situation that many countries in the West have now labelled a genocide. According to Professor Sean R. Roberts, these include “the need to develop Xinjiang as an important land port in the vast infrastructure and development program known as the Belt and Road Initiative; Uyghur resistance to state policies; and China’s growing confidence in itself as a global power unconcerned with international criticism.” And although the situation concerning the Uyghurs temporarily improved under the reformist leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the general arch of CCP rule over the region has bent towards where the situation is today. The same, unfortunately, can be said for Tibet as well.
Furthermore, flagship projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, Made in China 2025, and the country’s militarization of the South China Sea reflect a state seeking to carve out a sphere of influence, secure sea and energy routes, gain access to new markets, achieve technological primacy, and project more power and influence abroad— all of which are aspirations that transcend any individual leader. They instead appear more in line with a state that possesses a massive (but slowing) economy that is finding it increasingly necessary to climb the economic value chain which, in turn, steps on the toes of the dominant state positioned on the end of that chain. More fundamentally, they reflect a state that contains sharp differences in values, goals, and interests than that of its principal rival. Xi or not, these are the new realities that characterize China and its place in the world.
Lastly, the argument that China intended to join the existing international order before Xi’s rise is incorrect. Before Xi, China benefited from the existing order. It supplied the world with cheap labor, fed its appetite for cheap products, and followed Deng’s advice of laying low to focus on getting rich. Times have changed. China can no longer hide its rise. Its interests have expanded and its need to secure those interests have had the unintended consequence of exacerbating mistrust inherent to the international system.
No strategy, no matter how savvy, will make China believe its true interests lie nearly a decade in the past. Focusing too much on Xi mistakes him as a driving force behind today’s China rather than a product of it. And although it is possible that a more tempered, moderate successor could one day take the reins in China, this would have little impact on the long-term trajectory of U.S.-China relations. No leader or rhetoric will fundamentally alter the fact that China seeks to preserve its autocratic political system, achieve regional hegemony, attain technological primacy, and champion its state-capitalist economic system. It would be a mistake to base any prospective China strategy on the misplaced belief that China can be returned to a day before Xi.