Updated: August 5, 2021 7:46:13 am
There is a story that in 1973 Zhou Enlai asked a young American interlocutor, “Do you think China will ever be an aggressive or an expansionist power?” The American, perhaps being polite, since these were the early days of the rapprochement, said “No.” At which point Zhou Enlai is supposed to have shot back, “Don’t count on it. It is possible. But if China were to embark on such a path, you must oppose it. And you must tell the Chinese that Zhou Enlai told you to do so.”
Rush Doshi tells this story in his brilliant, bracing and empirically rich The long game: China’s grand strategy to displace American order. The book takes on the dual mandate implied by Zhou’s remark. The first is to explain that China is indeed on its way to being an aggressive and expansionist power. It is out not just to displace the American order, but to remake the international order in its own image. The second is to think about how America might respond to Chinese ambition. The book is based on an extraordinarily deep dive into Chinese documents and sources. It may well turn out to be the one single book that distils both the Chinese approach to the world and the broad contours of Sino-American competition. The Long Road would have been a consequential book in its own right but it acquires added interest since Doshi is now China Director on Biden’s National Security Council.
The guiding thread through the book is that there is immense continuity in the Chinese approach to the world. This continuity is derived from a single-minded focus on national rejuvenation that enables China to be at the apex of the global order. The Communist Party is the vanguard of national regeneration. This rejuvenation involves not just immediate national aims, like unification with Taiwan, but a new form of order building that will be distinctively more coercive. Xi Jinping represents not so much a break with the recent history of Chinese policy, but the next logical step in its evolution. On this view, the differences between a slightly more open, less authoritarian China under Deng Xiaoping or Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping are inconsequential for world politics. The seeming difference in the Chinese approach to the world is governed by one critical factor above all else: The perception of China’s relative power in relation to the US.
On this view, the Cold War, as it were, between China and the US had already begun in 1989. The decline of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War and Tiananmen Square, heightened China’s threat perception. What is depressing is the sense the book conveys that China’s suspicion of the US is over determined. There is almost nothing the US could do to convince the Chinese of their benign intentions. There is almost a “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” quality to the perception of the US. If you don’t integrate China into the world order, it is an indication of hostile intention; if you do integrate China, as the US did in allowing MFN and WTO status, it is a covert strategy to promote liberalisation and regime change.
But the actions that follow from this determined suspicion of the US are a function of an assessment of China’s relative power in the world. In an analytically sharp, if perhaps overly neat, narrative, Doshi describes the Chinese foreign policy outlook in three phases. From 1989 to 2008, China’s strategy was to blunt US power, prevent it from inflicting harm on China. Doshi shows in vivid detail how the blunting strategy works through all spheres of China’s engagement with the world: It economically engages and participates in international institutions to protect itself. Its choice of weapons, from submarines to missiles, are guided by a consciousness of its need to wage asymmetric war and ensure area denial to the US, and it politically engages the world to soften its image. From 2009, especially with the onset of the global financial crisis, China goes into a building mode. It creates its own international institutions, its military acquires more offensive capabilities, and it asserts itself more politically. It has now entered an expansionist phase, where the objective is to resolve all territorial disputes in its favour, acquire bases around the world, evict the US from Asia, and create the world order in its relatively more illiberal image. The choice of actions in all three spheres, economic, political and military, are guided by this assessment.
Doshi’s response to an assertive China is to take a leaf out of the Chinese playbook. On his view, the US needs to blunt Chinese power where it can and build where it must. The book is full of vivid detail. But it requires effectively denying China the military space, making sure the Chinese do not capture international institutions, creation of partnerships through which Chinese influence can be curtailed, and the creation of a new US industrial strategy. It is a full blown manifesto for an ongoing Cold War.
It is possible that some might not be convinced by the seemingly excessive coherence that Doshi conveys about Chinese decision-making. But the book is refreshing in not making any assumptions about potential Chinese domestic weakness, or somehow the internal social contradictions of Chinese society bubbling up to save the world from potential Chinese ambition. It presumes that the Chinese system has deep roots, will remain legitimate enough, and has the ability to self-correct to reorient its society to its national aims.
Doshi argues against American declinism. But as he notes, we are in uncharted territory in global politics, where America is encountering an adversary whose GDP is going to give America a run for its money. China is vital to shaping the future of the world order. The assessment of China is convincing. But there are two issues. The first is whether the US can execute a China-style grand strategy domestically without compromising its openness or attracting allies. It is still America First by any other name. A revitalised US democracy (increasingly looking unlikely), will of course have the power of its example. But just reiterating that China will export authoritarianism while the West will export liberal principles is too easy a narrative. The prospect of a world in which nothing can convince China that the US will not undermine it and little can convince the US that China is not expansionist, is a sobering one. This will be a bumpy ride.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 5, 2021 under the title ‘The New Cold War’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express
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