The reluctant making of a China hawk
China is not the same country it was a decade ago
I never intended to become a China hawk. Indeed, for years I prided myself on cultivating a relatively detached view of the reality of the power dynamic between the United States and the People's Republic. But I have slowly and reluctantly come to a much more hawkish view, and it is one that fills me with foreboding.
For decades, America's policy toward China aimed at smoothly integrating it into the existing U.S.-led international order, with strategists divided mainly on whether carrots and sticks should be deployed. The Obama administration's "pivot to Asia," its deepening security cooperation with Australia and Vietnam, its opening to Myanmar and embrace of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, were all efforts to demonstrate the risks of challenging the United States while leaving the door open to a deeply cooperative relationship.
That policy was already foundering on its unpopularity at home and increasing Chinese truculence when the Trump administration tore it up. They took a far more confrontational approach, beginning with more emphatic support for Taiwan and its attempted opening with North Korea, and extending to its trade war and its effort to limit the reach of telecom giant Huawei. But an alternative end-game was never clearly articulated, and the fruits of confrontation were hard to discern: The trade war ended equivocally at best, Trump's North Korea gambit went nowhere, and the main beneficiary of Trump's erratic behavior appeared to be China itself.
I am not surprised that neither strategy really worked, because both are based on the presumption that America's predominance remains both substantial and sustainable. Neither truly reckons with the potential scale of Chinese power.
A country four times America's population, once it fully modernized and was operating at the frontier of innovation, was destined to become a challenger the likes of which America had never faced. Despite what the Obama administration hoped, a China capable of truly challenging America would never tolerate being integrated into an American-led order. But by the same token, a China capable of truly challenging America wouldn't be faced down easily either, as Trump seemed to believe.
The danger we always faced is that of Graham Allison's Thucydides Trap. If the status quo power cannot countenance ceding as much power as the rising challenger expects, nor can it confront the rising power with an unbreachable barrier to their rise, then conflict is inevitable. Eventually, the rising power prefers war to waiting, or the status quo power prefers war to the continued erosion of their position.
The key was thus ceding power peacefully. If America could not prevent China from rising, then it could still cede China a substantial sphere of influence of their own, much as Britain did before a rising America in the late 19th century, or forge a partnership in which America would, over time, become the junior member, much as Britain did with the United States in the 20th century.
But believing in either scenario, however skeptically, required believing that America could live as comfortably in a world where China became increasingly dominant as Britain did in a world increasingly dominated by America. And that is an illusion that has become increasingly difficult to sustain.
Today, China is not the same country it was a decade ago. Then, it was possible to believe that the People's Republic was evolving toward a stable, corporatist system that, while neither liberal nor democratic, didn't pose a frontal challenge to the liberal order. If you squinted, it was even possible to believe that increasing private wealth and increasing public corruption could power a movement for actual liberalization.
But under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the opposite has happened. In the name of crushing corruption, China's political system has become less institutional and increasingly personalized, while the state has largely reasserted authority over private enterprise. Nationalism and ethno-nationalism have become increasingly important parts of the state ideology, and state ideology as such has become an increasingly dominant factor in national life. The crackdown in Hong Kong and the genocidal campaign against the Uighur people of Xinjiang are hardly unprecedented in PRC history, but the precedents being set now all point in a decidedly ominous direction. Americans can certainly live with such an odious regime on the other side of the Pacific; it's less clear that we can live with such a regime being more powerful than the United States.
The case for hawkishness, then, is clear — but its implications are muddy. That's true even for those who fancy themselves to be clear-eyed, like the authors of a detailed report from the Atlantic Council inspired by George Kennan's famous "Long Telegram" advocating containment of the Soviet Union until that regime collapsed of its own contradictions. The two eras make dubious comparison, something the report's authors recognize. They accurately describe China as a far more formidable competitor than the Soviet regime was even at its height, and less-susceptible to collapse. Indeed, they emphasize that the CCP has made careful study of the Soviet Union's decline and fall precisely to avoid their fate, and has repeatedly come through crises like the 2009 financial crisis and the 2020 coronavirus plague in a stronger position than ever.
In consequence, though, its ballyhooed new strategy to bolster American power and check China's ambitions doesn't anticipate Kennan's predicted outcome, but instead aims for precisely the same end-game as the last 30 years of China policy: persuading Beijing to abandon Xi's path and integrate into the American-led liberal international order. But if China's rise continues, why should we assume this end-game could be peacefully achieved by any strategy?
To be sure, China's rise isn't truly inexorable. It faces serious demographic headwinds from an aging population. The changes to the regime under Xi have made China less flexible in its understanding of the world, and less likely to operate at the frontier of innovation. And it is far less attractive to other countries as a development model than it was a decade ago.
But it's not like the United States doesn't have its own weaknesses and internal contradictions. Even if America embarks on a robust campaign to sustain its absolute primacy, China has every reason to believe that it will ultimately prevail, and it would take a monumental setback to convince them otherwise. In a very real sense, then, the hawkish position means steering right into the Thucydides Trap. That means being prepared for war — a real war, not the wars against vastly inferior opponents that the United States has gotten used to waging.
It's pretty easy to take a hawkish position where you're convinced your opponent will be deterred from fighting. I'm not convinced of that when it comes to China. And that's why I am filled with foreboding.