The China Challenge

By Khalilzad, Zalmay | The American Conservative, May/June 2017 | Go to article overview

The China Challenge


Khalilzad, Zalmay, The American Conservative


It isn't clear what President Trump's recent Florida meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping produced in the way of understandings between the two countries. Regardless of the summit outcome, however, the Trump administration must identify the challenges and opportunities posed by China's growing power and decide on America's objectives in, and overall strategy toward, the Middle Kingdom.

This should begin with a review of China's own objectives and strategy. After more than a century of weakness and humiliation and self-inflicted devastation under Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, China has had a remarkable resurgence. It has modernized its economy, fostered economic development and growth, and brought hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty. This growth has bolstered the Chinese Communist Party's political standing and domestic power. But the Communist Party also has proved flexible in how it rims the country. It has relaxed its control over the population, opened the country to foreign influences, and reduced the government's role in the economy by allowing the growth of the private sector (though government officials and their family members retain much of the ownership and enjoy extralegal benefits in a generally corrupt system). This economic development has created new centers of influence-economic entrepreneurs, intellectual leaders, even labor groups-while the Communist Party retains a monopoly on political power. In the Chinese system, though, these new centers of influence may be largely within the existing power elite rather than outside it.

Now China, the world's largest trading nation, is seeking to convert its economic relationships into political influence at the expense of the liberal international order established and defended by the United States since World War II. China is investing in new trade routes-the "One Belt, One Road" initiative- and has established a new international infrastructure bank rivaling the World Bank. It promises to invest $4 trillion in this global trading hub.

China has leveraged its economic power to invest in military capabilities, particularly in space and anti-space weapons, cyber capabilities, and ballistic missiles, along with related "anti-access/area denial" capabilities. It is building up its naval forces and gaining access to facilities in Asia and Africa. China wants to avoid the Soviet Union's mistake of placing an unbearable burden on its economy due to too much military spending. But as its economy approaches that of the United States, it likely will also want a comparable military capability.

These developments bolster China's self-confidence and its conviction that time is on its side. Beijing, peering long into the future, seems bent on establishing a Chinese-led international order.

So far China has focused its attention largely on gaining dominance over Southeast and Central Asia. In both regions China has competed mostly with the United States and has sought to minimize the U.S. role. The maritime territorial grabs in the South China Sea include the building of artificial islands and making claims unsupported by international law. It is investing in Central Asia to link Chinese infrastructure systems with those in the Middle East, starting with Iran.

But China's future will be shaped by two central factors. One is U.S.-China relations. History tells us that when rising powers challenge dominant powers, the result of\ten is war. A strong China likely will behave assertively, especially in its territorial ambitions, its claim on Taiwan, and its demand for deference from neighboring countries.

China does not want a conflict with the United States in the near term. The country understands the importance of Americas technological leadership, Chinese investments in the United States, the size of the U.S. market for Chinese exports, U.S. global influence, and U.S. military power. China remains conscious of its need to "catch up," though the imperative for good relations with the United States is not without limitations and countervailing pressures. …

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