What is China’s Grand Strategy?

America’s foreign policy establishment believed that China’s economic ascent would lead to political liberalization, and that China in the long term would become a benign actor in world affairs. That view has been falsified, but there is no consensus about what China wants and what threat it might pose to American interests. China is seeking technological self-sufficiency and even superiority in key industries. It has concentrated military spending on advanced technologies. Its Belt and Road Initiative proposes a trillion-dollar investment program to project China’s influence across the world. What is China’s grand design, and how should the United States respond to it?

David P. Goldman is a columnist at Asia Times and a principal of Asia Times Holdings LLC. He contributes regularly to the Claremont Review of Books and other conservative outlets, including PJ Media, where he writes the “Spengler” column. During 2013-2016 he was a managing director at Yunfeng Financial, a Hong Kong investment bank. Previously he was global head of debt research at Bank of America and head of credit strategy at Credit Suisse. He is the author of several books including “How Civilizations Die” (2011).

U.S.-China Trade Standoff May Be Initial Skirmish in Broader Economic War

The United States is increasingly wary of China’s emerging role in the global economy and the tactics it uses to get ahead, including state-sponsored hacking, acquisitions of high-tech companies in the United States and Europe, subsidies to crucial industries and discrimination against foreign companies.

The Trump administration has begun trying to limit China’s economic influence in the United States and abroad, warning about China’s ambitions in increasingly stark terms. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, compared China’s ambitions to Russia and Iran in a speech in London last Wednesday, saying Beijing poses “a new kind of challenge; an authoritarian regime that’s integrated economically into the West in ways that the Soviet Union never was.”

China, whose ambition is to dominate industries of the future, is pushing back. A column on Saturday in the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper stated, “The United States is again waving the club of tariffs after misjudging China’s strength, capacity and will, further escalating trade friction between our two countries.”

The piece was written under the pen name Zhong Sheng — the “voice of China” — a name used when the paper publishes comments on foreign affairs that are authoritative.

Restraining China’s ambitions and methods is a tricky task — and there is concern that the Trump administration’s effort is creating a new red scare, fueling discrimination against China and its citizens that could ultimately hurt the United States. As many as 30 Chinese professors have had their visas to the United States canceled in the past year, or been put on administrative review, according to Chinese academics and their American counterparts.

“We’ve got decades of painful negotiating with China ahead,” said David Lampton, a China scholar at Stanford University. Mr. Lampton said a trade deal, if reached, would do little to resolve the bigger conflict. “It’s just a skirmish in an ongoing battle.”

.. While a trade deal could calm some tensions and establish more good will between the two nations, it is unlikely to achieve many of the ambitious goals that the administration has set for itself. Mr. Trump’s advisers, in particular the United States trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, have been focused on what the administration calls China’s practices of “economic aggression.”

But the administration has struggled to address the immensity of the problems in the text of a trade deal. People close to the talks say that the negotiators appear powerless to force any changes that aren’t in China’s interest.

Mr. Liu, who is leading China’s team in the trade negotiations, hinted at that uphill battle in a video statement released by the official Xinhua news agency.

Instead, a trade deal between the two countries seems more likely to bring change around the margins — tens of billions of dollars of soybean purchases, some tariffs lifted and changes to the text of Chinese laws or regulations that the country might ultimately disregard, particularly once another administration occupies the White House.

This is a decades-long endeavor,” said Robert Daly, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “This can’t be waved away over cake at Mar-a-Lago.”

The notion that the United States has one last shot to change China’s behavior is held by an array of people on both sides of the political spectrum. But it is an aggressive notion of American power to upend a rival system that has delivered prosperity for its people and put China on course to be the world’s largest economy.

Many in China see the United States as a declining power bent on enforcing its will on a world that no longer cowers before its hegemonic might. The troubles in American democracy and the long economic slump after 2008 persuaded many in China that its instincts to chart its own course were correct. In the eyes of many Chinese, their country is simply reclaiming its historic status as a dominant regional power in Asia.

It has also projected power across Asia, Africa and elsewhere while the United States has, on many fronts, retreated from its post-World War II commitment to the global order. But it has done so with little application of military force, in sharp contrast to what many in China see as American militarism.

Many in China have sought to avoid a trade conflict, which could have a larger impact on their economy than the United States’. But they have long thought the United States would have a difficult time accepting a true peer in economic, technology and military power, so consider the management of conflict with the United States to be an inevitable result of their own rise.

While the Trump administration accused China of breaking a trade deal, China’s resistance to the emerging terms stemmed from its belief that the United States was asking too much and offering too little in return. Many of the changes the United States seeks would limit what Chinese officials regard as a tried-and-true approach of using tens of billions of dollars from state-owned banks and government investment funds to turn previously small industries like car production or solar panel manufacturing into the largest industries of their kind in the world.

And the Chinese view some of the Trump administration’s demands as infringing on their sovereignty and giving America too much power over their economy — including requiring the country to codify changes through legislation in the National People’s Congress. To the increasingly nationalistic public in China, the American requests are reminiscent of 19th century history of unequal treaties forced on the country by foreign powers.

Mr. Trump on Saturday suggested China was simply delaying a deal in the hopes that a Democrat would win election in 2020 and continued his pugilistic approach, saying “the deal will become far worse for them if it has to be negotiated in my second term. Would be wise for them to act now, but love collecting BIG TARIFFS!”

In the United States, China’s unwillingness to bow to America’s demands is uniting lawmakers like the Democratic Senate leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, and Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida.

That is a significant shift from the prevailing view in the United States since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 that close economic engagement with China would produce an increasingly democratic country that would be closely tied to an international economic order founded mainly on Western liberal ideals.

That has not happened.

China has indeed grown in prosperity, leaping into the ranks of what the World Bank defines as upper-middle income countries. Its economy is now bigger than any other country except the United States. Its manufacturing sector is now bigger than those of the United States, Germany and South Korea combined.

But in the last five years, China has veered toward increasingly repressive authoritarianism at home and a rapid military buildup. The State Department estimates that Beijing has put 800,000 to two million Muslims in hastily built internment camps ringed with barbed wire in northwestern China. The Chinese government has built an archipelago of air bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea in between Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. And China now has the world’s largest navy and has conducted

China has indeed grown in prosperity, leaping into the ranks of what the World Bank defines as upper-middle income countries. Its economy is now bigger than any other country except the United States. Its manufacturing sector is now bigger than those of the United States, Germany and South Korea combined.

But in the last five years, China has veered toward increasingly repressive authoritarianism at home and a rapid military buildup. The State Department estimates that Beijing has put 800,000 to two million Muslims in hastily built internment camps ringed with barbed wire in northwestern China. The Chinese government has built an archipelago of air bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea in between Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. And China now has the world’s largest navy and has conducted military exercises as far away as East Africa and the Baltic Sea.

On the economic front, the competition is even fiercer. Trump administration officials warn that China is trying to dominate the global 5G infrastructure that will be the basis for future mobile communications and is competing to set other technological standards that will determine which global companies win.

China is extending low-cost loans and building infrastructure around the globe through its One Belt, One Road program, which critics warn is making poorer countries beholden to China. It is out-investing the United States in some high-tech industries, and is gaining dominance in certain segments, like mobile payment, new energy vehicles and areas of artificial intelligence.

While American companies have long hankered for access to China’s growing market, their position has begun to shift as they see China’s practices and treatment of foreign companies. A survey released by the American Chamber of Commerce in China in February showed that the majority of its members favored retaining tariffs on Chinese goods while trade negotiations continued.

China’s own experts say that the Beijing leadership has been caught off guard by the pace of change in American perceptions of Sino-American relations.

“Even if there is some kind of agreement between Xi and Trump, in the long run the strategic bilateral relationship is already in trouble,” said Zhang Jian, a professor in the School of Government at Peking University. “There is no coming back, even if there is a deal.”

China is Losing the New Cold War

At first glance, it may not seem that China is really engaged in an arms race with the US. After all, China’s official defense budget for this year – at roughly $175 billion – amounts to just one-quarter of the $700 billion budget approved by the US Congress. But China’s actual military spending is estimated to be much higher than the official budget: according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China spent some $228 billion on its military last year, roughly 150% of the official figure of $151 billion.

In any case, the issue is not the amount of money China spends on guns per se, but rather the consistent rise in military expenditure, which implies that the country is prepared to engage in a long-term war of attrition with the US. Yet China’s economy is not equipped to generate sufficient resources to support the level of spending that victory on this front would require.

If China had a sustainable growth model underpinning a highly efficient economy, it might be able to afford a moderate arms race with the US. But it has neither.

On the macro level, China’s growth is likely to continue to decelerate, owing to

  • rapid population aging,
  • high debt levels,
  • maturity mismatches, and the
  • escalating trade war

that the US has initiated. All of this will drain the CPC’s limited resources. For example, as the old-age dependency ratio rises, so will health-care and pension costs.

Moreover, while the Chinese economy may be far more efficient than the Soviet economy was, it is nowhere near as efficient as that of the US. The main reason for this is the enduring clout of China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which consume half of the country’s total bank credit, but contribute only 20% of value-added and employment.

.. The problem for the CPC is that SOEs play a vital role in sustaining one-party rule, as they are used both to reward loyalists and to facilitate government intervention on behalf of official macroeconomic targets.

Dismantling these bloated and inefficient firms would thus amount to political suicide. Yet protecting them may merely delay the inevitable, because the longer they are allowed to suck scarce resources out of the economy, the more unaffordable an arms race with the US will become – and the greater the challenge to the CPC’s authority will become.

The second lesson that China’s leaders have failed to appreciate adequately is the need to avoid imperial overreach. About a decade ago, with massive trade surpluses bringing in a surfeit of hard currency, the Chinese government began to take on costly overseas commitments and subsidize deadbeat “allies.”

Exhibit A is the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion program focused on the debt-financed construction of infrastructure in developing countries. Despite early signs of trouble – which, together with the Soviet Union’s experience, should give the CPC pause – China seems to be determined to push ahead with the BRI, which the country’s leaders have established as a pillar of their new “grand strategy.”

An even more egregious example of imperial overreach is China’s generous aid to countries – from Cambodia to Venezuela to Russia – that offer little in return. According to AidData at the College of William and Mary, from 2000 to 2014, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe together received $24.4 billion in Chinese grants or heavily subsidized loans. Over the same period, Angola, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela received $98.2 billion.

Now, China has pledged to provide $62 billion in loans for the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.” That program will help Pakistan confront its looming balance-of-payments crisis; but it will also drain the Chinese government’s coffers at a time when trade protectionism threatens their replenishment.

Like the Soviet Union, China is paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race. The Sino-American Cold War has barely started, yet China is already on track to lose.

China is Losing the New Cold War

In contrast to the Soviet Union, China’s leaders recognize that strong economic performance is essential to political legitimacy. Like the Soviet Union, however, they are paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race with the US.

When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the Communist Party of China (CPC) became obsessed with understanding why. The government think tanks entrusted with this task heaped plenty of blame on Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist leader who was simply not ruthless enough to hold the Soviet Union together. But Chinese leaders also highlighted other important factors, not all of which China’s leaders seem to be heeding today.
.. But overseeing a faltering economy was hardly the only mistake Soviet leaders made. They were also drawn into a costly and unwinnable arms race with the United States, and fell victim to imperial overreach, throwing money and resources at regimes with little strategic value and long track records of chronic economic mismanagement. As China enters a new “cold war” with the US, the CPC seems to be at risk of repeating the same catastrophic blunders.
.. China spent some $228 billion on its military last year, roughly 150% of the official figure of $151 billion.
.. the issue is not the amount of money China spends on guns per se, but rather the consistent rise in military expenditure, which implies that the country is prepared to engage in a long-term war of attrition with the US. Yet China’s economy is not equipped to generate sufficient resources to support the level of spending that victory on this front would require.
If China had a sustainable growth model underpinning a highly efficient economy, it might be able to afford a moderate arms race with the US. But it has neither.
.. China’s growth is likely to continue to decelerate, owing to rapid population aging, high debt levels, maturity mismatches, and the escalating trade war that the US has initiated. All of this will drain the CPC’s limited resources. For example, as the old-age dependency ratio rises, so will health-care and pension costs.
.. while the Chinese economy may be far more efficient than the Soviet economy was, it is nowhere near as efficient as that of the US. The main reason for this is the enduring clout of China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which consume half of the country’s total bank credit, but contribute only 20% of value-added and employment.
.. the CPC is that SOEs play a vital role in sustaining one-party rule, as they are used both to reward loyalists and to facilitate government intervention on behalf of official macroeconomic targets.
.. Dismantling these bloated and inefficient firms would thus amount to political suicide. Yet protecting them may merely delay the inevitable, because the longer they are allowed to suck scarce resources out of the economy, the more unaffordable an arms race with the US will become – and the greater the challenge to the CPC’s authority will become.
.. The second lesson that China’s leaders have failed to appreciate adequately is the need to avoid imperial overreach. About a decade ago, with massive trade surpluses bringing in a surfeit of hard currency, the Chinese government began to take on costly overseas commitments and subsidize deadbeat “allies.”
.. Exhibit A is the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion program focused on the debt-financed construction of infrastructure in developing countries.
.. An even more egregious example of imperial overreach is China’s generous aid to countries – from Cambodia to Venezuela to Russia – that offer little in return.
.. from 2000 to 2014, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe together received $24.4 billion in Chinese grants or heavily subsidized loans. Over the same period, Angola, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela received $98.2 billion.
.. Like the Soviet Union, China is paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race. The Sino-American Cold War has barely started, yet China is already on track to lose.