The Four “Nots” to Correctly Interpreting China’s Rise

People's Liberation Army troops (Photo: Defense Intelligence Agency)

Correctly appraising the rise of China is the sine qua non for engaging with it.

In contrast to its predecessors, the Trump administration has brought about some relevant changes to U.S. foreign policy towards the People’s Republic of China. According to the 2018 National Defense Strategy, “inter-state strategic competition” has reappeared as the principal threat to U.S. national security.

Similarly, the 2017 National Security Strategy contends that China—together with Russia—threatens to challenge “American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” In short, China must be considered a “strategic competitor” and a “revisionist power” as it is promoting a worldview utterly “antithetical” to U.S. values and interests.

Each subsequent strategic and operational document released by the Trump administration since the National Security Strategy (2018 Nuclear Posture Review; 2018 Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0; 2019 Missile Defense Review) has chorused those conclusions. After unveiling the 2017 NSS, the White House imposed tariffs on China in response to allegedly unfair trade practices.

Beijing is a revisionist power, but it is not necessarily a subversive actor on the global stage.

The United States first imposed tariffs on $3 billion worth of goods and then enacted measures on another $50 billion. In September of 2018, the U.S. imposed a 10% tariff on approximately $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, with a possibility of a rise to 25% in January 2019. The U.S. and China negotiated a temporary truce over further protectionist escalation at the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires in December 2018, averting an increase in tariffs on Chinese exports. Nevertheless, competition between the U.S. and China is expected to endure, primarily in the economic and technological realms, forcing Washington and Beijing into an uneasy peace.

After four decades of economic growth, China today is a great power, eager to pursue its strategic interests. On a global level, however, China is bound by structures, institutions, procedures, and rules that have been promoted by the United States since 1945, and ultimately standardized after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Regionally, Chinese expansionism is constrained by the U.S.-led hub-and-spoke security system that binds the United States with its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region (primarily Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand). Policymakers should keep the following four points in mind when developing China policies—these four “nots” are essential for understanding Chinese behavior, goals, and interests.

  1. The center of political authority in China is NOT Xi Jinping; it’s the Chinese Communist Party. This is not to downplay the role Xi has played in fueling China’s global ambitions—rather, since 1978, it has been the Party that ultimately drives China’s foreign policy and grand strategic goals. It has always been since 1978. If Xi wants to implement a new vision or global agenda, he nevertheless needs the Party’s approval. Additionally, as Rush Doshi contends, concepts usually attributed to Xi such as “national rejuvenation,” “strategic opportunity,” and “China’s great power status,” were laid down before Xi rose to the apex of the CCP in November 2012.
  2. China’s revisionist behavior is NOT revolutionary; It’s incremental and selective. As Robert Gilpin’s hegemonic stability theory states, there are two plausible paths of systemic revisionism: incremental and revolutionary. Incrementalism aims to implement “continuous adjustments within the framework of the existing system,” while revolution occurs with “intermittent abrupt changes.” Empowered by forty-years of unprecedented economic growth, Beijing eventually became more assertive and demanding of what it perceives is a more accommodating and beneficial international order, but stopped short of attempting a sweeping and radical restructuring of the global order. Thus, as Evan Feigenbaum states, China is carrying out revisionist policies through an incremental and selective approach rather than a revolutionary one.
  3. China is NOT a peer competitor to the U.S. at present, but it could be in the future. Today, Chinese economic growth has run aground as Xi Jinping pursues structural reforms to shepherd the country into a more sustainable and domestic-consumption-driven path, a move which will inevitably stimy economic growth. Furthermore, a formidable strand of literature (see Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, Michael Beckley and Andrea and Mauro Gilli) has flourished in recent years stressing China’s deficiencies while outlining obstacles to reaching parity with the United States. Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth accurately identify national military, economic and technological capabilities that are “tailored for superpower status,” but conclude that “the one-superpower [the U.S.] system is not on the cusp of structural change” and that “there has been no transformation in its fundamental operating dynamics,” despite Chinese advances.
  4. China is NOT out-of-the-way; it’s in-the-way. Globalization and forty years of normalized diplomatic relations have intertwined Beijing and Washington on multiple fronts: currency reserves, trade, investments, industrial complementarity, cultural exchanges, international security matters in which both parties have interests, and more. As Michael Swaine appraised, disentangling—or decoupling—a relationship of such complexity, while addressing critical nodes, will require more than labeling China as an existential threat and discarding China’s contribution to global security and prosperity.

Beijing is a revisionist power, but it is not necessarily a subversive actor on the global stage. Indeed, as the U.K. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee recently assessed, “China is a force for order, but not liberal order.” For its part, the Trump Administration is advancing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy that, despite promoting strong global cohesion in the face of China’s rise, displays a proclivity for unilateralism. Policymakers should consider the four “nots” as a starting point for developing a long-term strategy for countering Chinese revisionism.

Lorenzo Termine

Lorenzo Termine is a junior fellow at a Rome-based think tank, and a contributor to multiple Italian and English-language publications. His research focuses on China’s military doctrine and strategy, nuclear policy, and the U.S.-China strategic relationship.

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