A Thorough Explanation of China’s Long-Term Strategy
Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (Oxford University Press, 2021)
If one day China should change her color and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation the people of the world should identify it as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow China.
– Deng Xiaoping, U.N. General Assembly, April 10, 1974
What are the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions? Does it seek to turn China into the hegemon of Asia and a global superpower? Or does it just aim to stay in power by whatever means necessary? Unfortunately, U.S. policymakers and analysts haven’t come to an agreement on how to answer these questions. That’s a problem, because China’s intentions ought to shape how the United States develops its strategy toward the Indo-Pacific.
Fortunately, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has made the answer to the first question much plainer for people inside and outside China. Xi marked the party’s centenary on July 1 with an hour-long speech about the party’s achievements and ambitions. Throughout the speech, Xi referenced the need to stay true to the party’s “original aspiration” and “founding mission” to bring about the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.” “To realize national rejuvenation,” Xi said, “the Party has united and led the Chinese people in pursuing a great struggle, a great project, a great cause, and a great dream.” Such language is a routine feature of leadership speeches, especially speeches Xi has given during his near decade in power. But what does it mean? What are the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions? Should we understand Xi’s words as soaring rhetoric to mobilize the party faithful or as a plain statement of the party’s positions?
For all the talk in Washington about a new consensus on the China challenge, no consensus exists on the intentions of the Chinese Communist Party. Experienced and respected analysts still insist that the Chinese Communist Party just wants to stay in power or that its ambitions are regional rather than global. They believe Xi’s words — like those of every other party leader dating back to Mao Zedong — are formulaic tropes, signs of a moribund party trapped in its Leninist theory. The alternative view is that this formulaic language and the intellectual architecture built around national rejuvenation provides the basis for understanding the party’s ambitions. Debating the party’s ambitions may seem distant from the urgency of today’s problems in Sino-American relations. A clear answer to this question, however, is necessary to calibrate the U.S. response and to decide whether to revisit the goal of trying to preserve a liberally-biased international order or to pursue a more aggressive course, like containing or otherwise neutralizing the regime.
Into this debate comes The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order by Rush Doshi, who is currently serving as a China director at the National Security Council. As the title of his book suggests, Doshi argues that Beijing does have a coherent strategy to displace America’s position in the world by stymying U.S. power and creating the infrastructure for a China-centric global order. Doshi arrives at this judgment by examining the statements of intent in party documents, speeches, and policy memoirs. He maintains that China’s strategy is first to blunt U.S. power and then to build the hardware and software of alternative regional and global orders.
Doshi insists the Chinese Communist Party has acted upon this strategy over time, adapting it based on the party’s assessments of its power relative to the United States. As he notes, more than a few experienced China scholars and former officials do not believe Beijing has a strategy or that it could execute one. The Long Game, however, makes a convincing case that the skeptics are wrong and that we need to spend more time making the connections between the words and deeds of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Long Game contends that China and the United States have been engaged in geopolitical competition since the end of the Cold War over the political values and institutions that define the regional and global orders. Those orders, viewed from Beijing, have constrained China’s rise and inhibited its freedom of maneuver. According to Doshi, the United States, as a hegemon, used and continues to use three “forms of control” to maintain order: coercion to force compliance, inducements to incentivize compliance, and legitimacy to rightfully command compliance. He frames China’s strategy of displacing the United States in terms of blunting America’s “exercise of its forms of control” and building “forms of control over others as well as the foundations for consensual bargains and legitimacy.”
Doshi highlights the significance of what he calls the “Traumatic Trifecta” — the Tiananmen Square demonstrations that the party violently suppressed, the demonstration of U.S. power in the Persian Gulf War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. These events persuaded Deng and other party leaders that the United States would destroy the People’s Republic of China if it got the chance. Beijing consequently launched a much more deliberate effort to blunt America’s influence that continued until the financial crisis of 2008. Politically and economically, this included, among other measures, joining regional and international institutions to impede their functioning. Militarily, China focused on deploying new asymmetric military capabilities, such as submarines and missiles, that directly challenged the U.S. military’s ability to operate in the region.
The financial crisis shifted China’s assessments of U.S. power. Critically, Chinese Communist Party leadership believed it was time to go beyond blunting American power and proactively build the foundations for regional hegemony (and arguably springboard for global influence). The relative decline of U.S. power and the turn inward to address domestic concerns distracted Washington, in Beijing’s view, from countering China’s effort to lay the foundations of a new China-centric order.
Finally, Doshi draws attention to a formulation that the party has used more frequently in recent speeches and officials documents — “great changes unseen in a century.” He argues that the impacts of Donald Trump’s presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic emboldened Beijing to enter a new phase beginning in 2016 to more aggressively expand China’s order-building efforts. The party leadership came to believe that it needed to seize the opportunity to push U.S. decline and encourage an American retreat from the world. This strategy includes efforts to undermine U.S. financial hegemony, become the global leader in advanced manufacturing and key emerging technologies, and field a world-class military capable of operating on a global scale.
Doshi is not the first to draw attention to China’s activities in many of these areas, but he is the first to put them together and articulate their relationship to China’s systematic approach to challenging the United States. On China listservs and in other professional conversations, skeptics that Beijing has a strategy have largely deflected these developments in a one-off manner, rather than considering them as a whole. It is precisely this kind of thinking in intelligence circles that has led to a number of noteworthy failures, such as the Iranian Revolution.
One of The Long Game’s most important contributions is that it looks at Chinese Communist Party documents in a systematic way. Doshi even provides a short appendix explaining a basic hierarchy of authoritativeness. Although much of the community analyzing Beijing’s policies implicitly uses a version of this hierarchy, it is useful to see it explained explicitly as part of an analyst’s approach. The basic rule of thumb is to start at the top with the documents that require the most coordination across the Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy, and then work downward from there.
Doshi does not always follow his own advice when reading official documents, especially when discussing China’s “community of common destiny for humanity.” As Liza Tobin, like Doshi a director for China on the National Security Council, summarized it, the concept describes “Beijing’s long-term vision for transforming the international environment to make it compatible with China’s governance model.” However, Doshi mischaracterizes it as largely regional in nature when, in fact, it was always global, including when Hu Jintao discussed the term or its predecessor, “harmonious world.” Doshi conflates the regional application of the concept as China’s broader foreign policy. Had he nested the documents and speeches in his authoritativeness framework or the party’s governance paradigm, he would not have made this mistake and would have more accurately captured Beijing’s global ambitions. The white paper China’s Peaceful Development, which he credits with explaining the term, places the community in an explicitly global, not regional, context: “[Economic globalization] has turned the world into a community of common destiny in which the members are closely interconnected.” Official Chinese sources, including an article written by Foreign Minister Wang Yi in 2013 and a compilation of Xi’s speeches on the topic, pair the community with a “new type of international relations” — a policy term that goes unmentioned in The Long Game. Both concepts describe different aspects of a global order that reflects the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic political arrangements. Adhering to his own approach more rigorously in order to understand what Xi means when he refers to a “community of common destiny for humanity” would have strengthened Doshi’s argument about Beijing’s intentions to build an alternative international order.
Many of this reviewer’s other concerns with the book are only differences of degree that do more to amplify Doshi’s argument than to detract from it. For example, one episode suggests that China had much more expansive intentions earlier than Doshi gives the party credit for. Few policy professionals in Washington, D.C., today seem to be aware of Beijing’s push to alter the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ahead of the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. Whether this would count as blunting or building in Doshi’s schema is debatable, but the attempt to undermine and/or replace universal values as the core principles of the international order was arguably a more significant sign of Beijing’s intentions than its blunting action, as Doshi describes it, in the early days of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
The most significant drawback of the book is that Doshi does not explore the Chinese Communist Party’s vicious internal politics. Doing so would have placated some of those skeptical that the party has a strategy or can execute it. However, including this dimension may not have changed much of the overall analysis. Others, such as Department of Defense analyst Daniel Tobin as well as Orville Schell and John Delury, have noted that the party’s ambitions have demonstrable consistency, regardless of the domestic political situation in Beijing. Many of the fights among the party elite that skeptics would cite have been over power more than policy. Put another way, the issue is who has power, not what to do with it. By exploring China’s fraught domestic politics, Doshi would have enhanced the credibility of the book with the professors who should assign it as course reading.
Doshi’s policy recommendations at the end of the book should be applauded. He addresses the U.S. response to China’s rise in a coherent framework that encourages readers to think of additional, more comprehensive suggestions. The Long Game successfully avoids the trap of identifying huge problems while offering disproportionately small solutions, as so many others have done previously. Doshi starts from the proposition that the United States and China are “in a competition over regional and global order, as well as the various ‘forms of control’ that sustain it.” He lays out a series of political, economic, and military solutions to blunt China’s order-building efforts and to build or strengthen the U.S.-led order. Doshi’s preferred asymmetric strategy includes measures ranging from investing in U.S. economic competitiveness and research to diplomatic initiatives to expose Chinese manipulation and dilute its influence. Just as importantly, his solutions span domestic and foreign policy rather than avoiding the thorny issue of how to pressure Beijing.
The Long Game almost certainly is the most important book on China’s foreign policy since John Garver’s China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China. While Garver’s opus was the capstone on a distinguished career, The Long Game hopefully marks the first of many significant contributions that Doshi will make to our knowledge of the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions and activities on the international stage.
Peter Mattis is a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and, most recently, was the Senate-appointed staff director on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. He is the author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army and coauthor of Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer.
Image: Xinhua (Photo by Ju Peng)