Atlantic Council Strategy Paper Series December 16, 2020

Assumptions of the strategy

By Jeffrey Cimmino and Matthew Kroenig

Previous strategies toward China have been built on certain assumptions, and this strategy is no different. This section will explain the core assumptions upon which this strategy is predicated.

The authors assume that both power and ideology matter in a strategy for China. Some have argued that the US-China competition is primarily about power or, alternatively, about ideology. The authors adopt the commonsense position that both matter. China poses a challenge because it is a rising power with the world’s second-largest military and economy. Nevertheless, ideology is also shaping the competition. The threats that China poses (including its threats to its neighbors, systematic violation of the global trading system, human-rights abuses at home, and promotion of autocratic politics overseas) stem from its domestic political system. It is unlikely that a liberal democratic China would engage in these practices. Likeminded allies and partners should recognize that ideological differences will influence the direction of competition and cooperation with China.

Furthermore, ideology and power are intertwined. China’s autocratic political system provides it with strengths and weaknesses in this competition, just as the open market democracy of likeminded democratic allies and partners endows them with certain advantages and disadvantages.

Most relevant in this regard is that democracies are more adept at building alliances and partnerships and the appeal of democratic values could help to motivate democratic governments and their populations to compete with China. If this is a competition about values and what kind of world the parties want to inhabit, then it will be easier for democratic governments and their people to stand up to China. If, on the other hand, this competition is seen as two morally equivalent great powers jockeying for position, then it will be difficult to rally the free world to this challenge.

But, values must be used carefully: they can be employed to help foster common action among democracies, but—pushed too far—they could alienate nondemocratic partners and antagonize China to the point of closing off opportunities for cooperation. Therefore, the strategy prioritizes emphasizing common interests among likeminded allies and partners, and placing a spotlight on China’s threatening behavior, while staying attuned to the ideological elements of the competition. Likeminded allies and partners can recognize the ideological dimension of this challenge and emphasize it to rally the free world even as it seeks appropriate cooperation with Beijing and maintains pragmatic security partnerships with friendly autocratic governments

The question of ideology raises the specter of another issue: whether it is possible to coexist with a CCP-led regime in China. While it would be desirable for a more democratic government that respects the human rights of its people to come to power in Beijing, this strategy assumes that coexistence with the CCP is possible. For several decades in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, presidential administrations assumed economic reforms would facilitate political and economic liberalization and transform China into a “responsible stakeholder” in a rules-based international system. Those assumptions turned out to be flawed. Market-based economic reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping did not lead to a liberalized China; on the contrary, the CCP is backsliding toward aggressive authoritarianism. Some might argue, therefore, that coexisting with Xi’s CCP and its horrific human-rights abuses is not possible, and the only solution is regime change. The authors reject the notion that this competition can only end with the collapse of the CCP. It is possible to imagine a more cooperative Chinese leadership coming to power under the CCP banner, and this would be an acceptable outcome.

This strategy also assumes that China’s recent assertive turn is self-evident, but its ultimate objectives and strategy are, at least in part, unknowable. There is evidence that the CCP has an expansive vision for remaking global the order. The 19th CCP Congress work report issued by Xi in 2017 outlines a comprehensive vision for China to become a global power and reshape the global order according to its interests in coming decades. Between now and 2035, according to the report, the CCP will aim to continue its rapid economic growth while becoming a technological leader. By mid-century, the report calls for China to be a premier power with a highly advanced military. On the other hand, it is possible that China desires only limited hegemony, not complete dominance of the international system. According to this reading of China’s interests, the CCP’s primary goal is shaping the global order to assuage its concerns about its own survival. Therefore, it would be content with partially undermining the current rules-based system to create enough space for its authoritarian norms and values to survive. Achieving this entails reducing the influence of liberal democracies in the global order to an undefined extent. Furthermore, the precise contours of China’s strategy to accrue power are unclear. One option would be for China to pursue regional hegemony as a gateway greater global influence. Another path is for China to focus on shaping global rules, standards, and institutions to its advantage, and leverage its economic and increasing technological power to boost its position in the global order. This strategy is, therefore, resilient enough to address the CCP’s various possible conceptions of its goals and its strategies for achieving them. It does not presume a specific strategy or set of objectives on the part of the CCP, but it is designed to address the CCP’s evident assertiveness and willingness to undermine norms of the rules-based international system. The strategy would hold whether the CCP is pursuing global domination or a more limited sphere of influence designed to facilitate its survival.

This strategy also adopts the assumption that likeminded allies and partners are stronger when they act together to pursue shared interests and respond to common challenges. They should coordinate through alliance frameworks and multilateral institutions to challenge China’s efforts to undermine norms and engage China on opportunities for cooperation.

Finally, this strategy assumes that some degree of cooperation among likeminded allies and partners and China is possible and desirable. Likeminded allies and partners have in the past and continue to work with China on areas of common interest, such as nonproliferation. Moreover, to achieve the ultimate objective of a revitalizing and adapting a functioning rules-based system, engagement with China will be essential.