China: The rules of engagement

How should America deal with a newly aggressive and expansionist Beijing?

This article is part of our special China issue.  To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In Washington, a rough consensus has formed that China needs some containing. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken baulks at the word, preferring the catechism of a “rules-based order”. Containment, though, does not mean literally bottling China behind its borders, nor does it mean suspending any cooperation.

It means America balancing against China’s ability to dominate in areas that matter to it, and the US is increasingly practising just this strategy. However, alongside this broad consensus, there is disagreement over what historian John Lewis Gaddis has called “strategies of containment”. 

Observers differ over how, how much, where, and even why to contain. The issue is fraught. The US is seeking to preserve its liberty, and therefore to prevent one hostile power’s domination. And in so doing it aims to maintain enough of a favourable balance of power abroad. Therefore it seeks peace, or at least an absence of major war, which could destroy the very position it wishes to preserve. Checking China’s expansionism is important, but it’s not all-important. As with all security competition, trying to consciously execute a policy carries dangers both direct and insidious. Let’s then consider five propositions which put in context the history happening in front of us.

I / The contest is driven primarily by a power shift

Among multiple causes behind this competition, the underlying one is a power shift. Historically, incumbent powers fear the growth of challengers and the prospect of being eclipsed. For the Greek general and historian Thucydides, the “truest” cause of the war that ravaged the ancient Hellenic world was the “least spoken of”, beside the specific grievances that led to hostilities. Simply, one state had grown to great power, frightening the dominant state that desired the status quo. That dynamic is underway in our world. 

China’s population and industrial revolution drives a rapid growth, and a relative shift of wealth and power. China is a growing power, the most populated country and now the largest economy on earth, on purchasing power parity measures. Where it is headed, we cannot say. But it has passed an inflection point to join the ranks of the first-tier powers. It now demands both the ascendancy and the recognition commensurate with its size. It’s engaged in an accelerated naval build-up, and with its large missile arsenal, has acquired the ability to project power over water at long-range. It is increasingly aggressive, claiming the entire South China Sea, completing its reconquest of Hong Kong, menacing Taiwan, stealing intellectual property, and using its trading and commercial muscle to punish criticism, directing this coercive power on governments, businesses and universities. 

It’s unwise to define the competition as a showdown between democracy and dictatorship

American leaders once hoped that China, while getting richer, would ultimately defer to the US-led security order as a “responsible stakeholder”. They are now concerned. Joe Biden in 2019 dismissed fears Beijing would “eat our lunch”. As president, he warns of America being surpassed. “If we don’t get moving, they’re gonna eat our lunch.” This is not merely performative. The tech and trade wars to limit China’s economic penetration and market access are expensive for America, and it is hardly voters’ demands that are moving Washington to increase ties with Taiwan. 

So what? It means that the problem won’t go away if leaders deny it exists, or seek to defuse friction at every turn, or assume economic interdependence will curb Beijing’s bid for hegemony. Thus increasing understanding or crafting a better “narrative” can moderate and bound the contest, but it cannot avoid it. The root of the problem is not misinformation nor specific disagreements, but a clash of interests and capacities. 

II / China can’t physically conquer the world, but can dominate in other ways

The chief danger posed by the power shift is not that the People’s Liberation Army will water their horses in the Potomac. Beijing can’t conquer Asia directly. This scene is not analogous to continental Europe of the 1930s. The power struggle in Asia is principally maritime, rather than playing out over contiguous territory. It is happening in an age where the instruments of sea denial are powerful, and takes place in a nuclear shadow. These are formidable obstacles to aggrandizement. Still, it is important to maintain the ability to inflict costs on military adventurism.

The Chinese threat is chiefly geo-economic. Beijing can still dominate harmfully. Its expansion threatens what Americans and others care about — their liberty, institutions and way of life. China does not seek to convert other powers to its political system. Rather, it seeks to extend an authoritarian techno-sphere, acquiring control over infrastructure and thereby the ability to coerce, shut out, punish and silence. It seeks deference. It wants to shift the hard power balance in its favour, not to annex most of its neighbours, but to persuade them to submit. If increasing swathes of life — human rights, disputed territories, trading practices — require free citizens to become silent or compliant, they are less free. In short, it wants the pre-eminence America currently has, and Britain had before it, but with Chinese communist characteristics. If this is not a world we want to arrive ahead of schedule, we need to think coldly and clearly about what we realistically propose to do now.

The iconic Taipei 101

III / America should be wary of over-ideologizing the competition

This struggle is best conceived as one about interests, defined in terms of a favourable material balance of power, not the spread of values, defined around the regime type of other countries. Framing the contest as an absolute clash of regime types will make it harder to build and maintain a balancing coalition. Valuable partners will include dictatorships (Vietnam, Thailand the Philippines), semi-authoritarian states (Singapore, Indonesia) and illiberal democracies (India). 

An over-emphasis on “liberal” values or a rules-based order (which the West has been known to cherry-pick) will make it harder to peel countries from China’s orbit, such as Cambodia or Laos. Emphasis on regime change or internal, Western-approved liberalisation will impede efforts to forge a stable deterrence relationship with China’s ally, North Korea. Why bind our hands?

Both sides are eroding the long-standing “strategic ambiguity” fudge that has kept the peace

It’s also unwise to define the competition as a showdown between democracy and dictatorship — an ideological death struggle that must ultimately be won by inducing regime change in Beijing. While Washington legitimately criticises Beijing’s atrocities and sanctions offences, it shouldn’t put those objections at the centre of the campaign, nor aim to coerce Beijing to change its authoritarian, state-capitalist system. Going beyond counterbalancing into attempting to overthrow China’s rulers will escalate the struggle beyond manageable bounds and increases the chance of major war. 

As Elbridge Colby argues, doing so will load peripheral conflicts with excessive significance, tempting military overreach. Emphasising an uncompromising struggle against dictatorships will further incentivise disparate authoritarian regimes, such as Russia’s, to opportunistically collaborate against the US, making the task larger and more dangerous than necessary. While it’s essential not to rigidly see things through Cold War lenses, we shouldn’t forget past, force-multiplying creativity. If Nixon could go to China, Biden can go to Modi.

IV / Diplomacy won’t prevent competition, but could prevent a war

At the Anchorage summit in March 2021 both China and the US issued boasts and accusations, but otherwise achieved little. Rhetorical offensives have their place, but to keep competition within prudent limits we cannot afford diplomacy to be merely a theatre for denunciation and self-celebration. As historian Art Eckstein notes, in the ancient Mediterranean, lacking effective means for behind the scenes bargaining, rival city-states instead engaged in public, hostile, rhetorical exchanges. 

We can learn from the past and avoid such needless escalatory contests of resolve. Restoring minimal diplomatic relations and strategic dialogue will be vital, to create “off ramp” mechanisms and communications in a crisis. China has been the greatest offender in this case, refusing to answer the emergency hotline. If summits are going to host declarations of limited value, back channels have valuable work to do. 

Diplomacy also has domestic consequences. The more indiscriminate, Covid-era denunciations of China’s part in the pandemic are intensifying domestic anti-Asian racism. Long conflicts tend to coarsen politics and accentuate divisions at home. But officials should work hard to minimise incendiary language about “the Chinese”, and not treat all dissent as fifth column mischief. 

V / Taiwan is a singularly dangerous potential point of collision

In most areas, it is still a good bet that deterrence will hold. Neither the US nor China are reckless, undeterrable gamblers. They know that nuclear weapons put them in stalemate and make victory impossible in the event of actual conflict, and that even a conventional war would be devastating and take years to recover from.

Taiwan is different. Its status is the one issue over which both sides may be willing to run higher risks than usual, in order to defend high stakes. As a triangular question, it is becoming increasingly unstable. For China, the eventual reunification of what it regards as a renegade province is an issue of first-order, existential importance. Both its increasingly strident words, and its energetic military preparations, suggest a deadly seriousness about maintaining its claims. For America’s part, Taiwan matters not only as a military barrier to China’s power projection, but as a measure of its credibility: this is increasingly their line in the sand. 

The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz participates in a show of force during the Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1996

Both sides are eroding the long-standing “strategic ambiguity” fudge that has kept the peace: China through its threatening behaviour and the US through ever-increasing ties with Taipei. Increased rivalry could bring both powers to the brink, sensing that too much is at stake to back down. Outright abandonment of Taiwan could tempt China to strike, miscalculating that America won’t step in. A movement away from ambiguity to de facto or unambiguous commitment could also induce escalation. It could make China fear that time is against it and that reunification is slipping away. All while her military, in particular, is still confident they could successfully act now, if — by their lights — they’re provoked.

Yet American strategists may equally fear the collapse of its primacy in Asia, while believing the US can prevail because of the net military and nuclear advantage in its favour. Before and during a clash, both rivals might reckon that they can, and must, win, and that the risk is worth running. Not least because the other side will surely see the disproportionate risks they’re taking. This is the ultimate point where cool heads are needed. In which case, a prudent sense of limits will prove more valuable than catechisms.

It’s America that wishes to hold on to her East Asian primacy while rebuilding its democracy: China’s the challenger. The threat is real, but Washington needs to relearn the value of coldly calculated balancing. Three decades of easy, consequence-free confrontation have to give way to cold containment and prudent realism. The easier American century is over.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover