In a watershed moment for Chinese politics, President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third term in power as general secretary. This highly anticipated development transpired this week at the quinquennial National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In conjunction with the 2018 constitutional amendment to abolish presidential term limits, this would effectively set up Xi to rule indefinitely—possibly for life. In light of this, it is likely that China will continue along a more assertive course in global affairs, and the United States and its allies need an updated strategy to navigate this period of relations with China. The strategy outlined here considers China’s challenge to the global order across multiple domains and proposes a path forward for the United States and its allies to deter and defend against Beijing’s aggression in the near term to achieve a more sustainable, cooperative relationship in the long term.
The strategic context
Leadership succession, often the Achilles’ heel of an authoritarian regime, has not yet crippled China in the post-Deng Xiaoping era. On the contrary, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has demonstrated remarkable authoritarian resilience via the successful institutionalization of collective leadership.1Andrew J. Nathan, “China’s Changing of the Guard: Authoritarian Resilience,” Journal of Democracy, January 2003, https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/chinas-changing-of-the-guard-authoritarian-resilience/. Xi Jinping’s pursuit of indefinite rule, however, compromises the party state’s recent track record of peaceful, orderly, and timely successions. Over the last decade, Xi has consolidated power in a return to personalistic rule in China. Now, Xi is poised to further strengthen his control over the party by breaking with the precedent of recent decades to continue for a third term as general secretary.
At this inflection point in Chinese politics, and as United States-China relations grow more tense, it is more important than ever for the United States and its allies and partners to have a strategy for dealing with China. Two years ago, the Atlantic Council released An Allied Strategy for China. As the strategy argued then, achieving a stable, cooperative relationship with China will be difficult under the current generation of Chinese leadership. Xi’s further consolidation of power and personality-driven approach to authoritarian rule only reinforces and exacerbates that challenge.
Apart from Xi’s politicking, there have been other changes too since the publication of An Allied Strategy for China, which merit consideration. These include, but are not limited to: China’s increased military activity and aggression toward Taiwan; China’s deepening partnership with Russia amid the war in Ukraine; the Chinese government’s zero-COVID policy and its impact on the country’s economy and ties to the outside world; and the CCP’s continued human rights atrocities in Xinjiang and crackdown on Hong Kong. Other shifts include the continued movement toward technological and, to some extent, broader economic decoupling between China and the United States, including through US efforts to protect and strengthen critical supply chains, such as semiconductors, through legislation like the CHIPS Act. Meanwhile, European attitudes toward China have continued to harden, especially as Beijing has sought to pressure Lithuania, among other events.
Despite these developments, the goals and elements outlined in An Allied Strategy for China remain sound. The United States and its allies and partners should continue to seek a stable, cooperative relationship with China in the long term; in the meantime, they need to be willing to impose costs on a China that is increasingly under the personal sway of a single figure and that is likely to undertake actions that violate widely held international rules and norms.
The China challenge remains evident in the economic, diplomatic, governance, and security domains.
- Economic: China’s growing global influence flows largely from the fact that it is an $18 trillion economy that is the top trading partner of—and investor in—a large and increasing number of countries around the world. China also continues to engage in unfair economic practices that violate international standards, including intellectual-property theft, subsidizing state-owned companies to pursue geopolitical goals, and restricting market access to foreign firms. China leverages its economic heft to coerce—or attempt to coerce—other states. For example, after Lithuania withdrew from a Chinese-led initiative and allowed Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius, China responded with severe economic sanctions.2Matthew Reynolds and Matthew Goodman, “China’s Economic Coercion: Lessons from Lithuania,” CSIS, May 6, 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/chinas-economic-coercion-lessons-lithuania. Meanwhile, China is also investing enormous state resources in a bid to dominate key technologies of the twenty-first century. The US Congress has recognized this challenge, as well as related vulnerabilities in critical supply chains. In a recent example of bipartisanship, Congress passed the CHIPS Act to bolster US semiconductor fabrication. Furthermore, the Department of Commerce recently imposed new export controls to curb China’s access to semiconductors. Despite China’s use of economic coercion and its technological ambitions, there are signs of weakness. Economic growth continues to slow due to a strict zero-COVID policy, worsened by other challenges, including a property crisis born of substantial amounts of property-related debt and a crackdown on the private sector, especially key players in technology.3Jeremy Mark, “Why China’s Leadership Must Respond to the Country’s Property Crisis,” New Atlanticist, October 3, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/why-chinas-leadership-must-respond-to-the-countrys-property-crisis/; Tom Hancock, “China Crackdowns Shrink Private Sector’s Slice of Big Business,” Bloomberg, March 29, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-03-29/china-crackdowns-shrink-private-sector-s-slice-of-big-business#xj4y7vzkg.
- Diplomatic: China buttresses diplomatic efforts with economic heft, and it has increased its engagement and diplomatic outreach in many regions, including Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, despite pandemic-related economic contractions. Beijing announced the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and Global Security Initiative (GSI) in 2021 and 2022, respectively, building on Xi’s efforts to broaden China’s reach, including through programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The GDI and GSI currently lack details but reflect China’s attempt to shape the international system according to its expanding interests. They also come as the BRI has faced challenges due to economic difficulties and debt related to BRI investment, which has prompted consideration of a more restrained program.4Lingling Wei, “China Reins in its Belt and Road Program, $1 Trillion Later, Wall Street Journal, September 26, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-belt-road-debt-11663961638. Elsewhere on the diplomatic front, the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins in Wuhan, combined with scrutiny of China’s public health practices early in the crisis, have damaged China’s reputation globally. This was further exacerbated by China’s zero-COVID policy, which cut off international engagement for a much longer period than other countries. Still, despite challenges, China retains a willingness to take aggressive action against countries that resist or criticize it. This includes its aforementioned reaction to Lithuania’s softening toward Taiwan. Chinese diplomats have also engaged in ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, combatting criticism and vociferously denouncing critics. In one case, a diplomat accused French media of making “a big fuss about lies and rumors about China.”5Chao Deng and Chun Han Wong, “China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ Diplomats are Ready to Fight,” Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2020, https:// www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-wolf-warrior-diplomats-are-ready-to-fight-11589896722. The Chinese government also seeks to advance positive narratives about the CCP through support for Confucius Institutes at colleges and universities around the world, as well as by bolstering its global media presence. In some cases, China has had success advancing its diplomatic interests. In Latin America, for example, several countries have cut ties with Taiwan over the past few years, often spurred by Chinese investment.6Patricio Giusto and Juan Manuel Haran, “Taiwan Fights for its Diplomatic Survival in Latin America,” The Diplomat, May 16, 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/05/taiwan-fights-for-its-diplomatic-survival-in-latin-america/. Elsewhere, the CCP has cultivated closer ties with fellow authoritarians. Beijing has deepened ties with Russia across the military, political, and information domains—culminating in a joint declaration issued just weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine declaring a “no limits partnership” between the two autocracies.7Tony Munroe, Andrew Osborn, and Humeyra Pamuk, “China, Russia Partner Up Against West at Olympics Summit,” Reuters, February 4, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-china-tell-nato-stop-expansion-moscow-backs-beijing-taiwan-2022-02-04/. Beijing has subsequently refused to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
- Governance: China’s economic and political model of authoritarian state-led capitalism is the first formidable alternative to the US model of open market democracy since the end of the Cold War. Current and would-be autocrats look to China as a model for combining authoritarian control with economic success. Meanwhile, developing countries are tempted by China’s offer of an alternate model for countries that want to achieve rapid economic growth. Despite China’s marked economic slowdown and evident turn towards political repression, the Party is promoting its authoritarian model abroad, whether through exporting surveillance technology to authoritarian regimes, capturing local elites, or employing “sharp-power” tools that undermine democratic governance and civil society.8Charles Edel and David O. Shullman, “How China Exports Authoritarianism,” Foreign Affairs, September 16, 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2021-09-16/how-china-exports-authoritarianism. In one recent episode, the UN high commissioner for human rights released a report accusing China of “serious human rights violations” in Xinjiang, despite Beijing’s persistent efforts to hinder its publication. In addition, China has leveraged its partnerships to quash debate in the UN Human Rights Council about its actions in Xinjiang. More broadly, Chinese officials, including Xi, have promoted the idea that democracies are highly flawed and even failing.
- Security: China continues its decades-long military modernization and expansion, while making sweeping territorial claims and increasing its military and intelligence activities globally. Its growing capabilities increasingly threaten the US ability to protect allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, as China upends the regional balance of military power. Moreover, the Chinese government has adopted a more aggressive posture to proactively confront any threats to CCP rule. It has focused particular attention on Taiwan, increasing military operations surrounding the island, leading to the nullification of the tacit centerline in the Taiwan Strait. China has also escalated the use of armed coercion. Over the summer, it staged a series of impromptu military exercises near Taiwan in response to a high-level United States Congressional delegation visit led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.9Lily Kuo, “China’s Military Extends Drills Near Taiwan After Pelosi Trip,” Washington Post, August 8, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/08/08/taiwan-china-military-exercises-pelosi/. China has also surprised the United States with its advanced military capabilities. In 2021, for example, China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that showed it had developed this technology further than US intelligence had anticipated.10Demetri Sevastopulo and Kathrin Hille, “China Tests New Space Capability with Hypersonic Missile,” Financial Times, October 16, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/ba0a3cde-719b-4040-93cb-a486e1f843fb.
The Chinese government continues to pose a clear challenge to a rules-based international system, but there are domains in which it shares interests with the United States and US allies and partners, and where it could develop a more cooperative relationship. These areas include the global economy, arms control, nonproliferation, the environment, and development aid.11Michael Schuman and David O. Shullman, Cooperation with China: Challenges and Opportunities, Atlantic Council, July 28, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/cooperation-with-china-challenges-and-opportunities/. Meaningful progress in even these areas faces serious obstacles, however, due to the conflicting visions guiding Beijing’s strategic outlook and those of leading democracies.
The strategy proposed in 2020 is comprehensive, outlining how likeminded allies and partners should address the challenges and opportunities presented by China. By likeminded allies and partners, the strategy refers to several categories of leading states. The active participation of powerful democracies is of critical importance, including the nations of the D-10 (the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, South Korea, and Australia, plus the European Union), and other NATO allies. Other formal and informal partners (such as India, Brazil, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and others) will also be helpful in executing various elements of this strategy.
The authors stand by the goals put forth in an Allied Strategy for China.
- Long-Term: Likeminded allies and partners would prefer a stable relationship with China that avoids permanent confrontation and enables cooperation on issues of mutual interest and concern. They would like Beijing to become a responsible member of a revised and adapted rules-based system that respects individual rights and China’s legitimate interests. The problem is that such a relationship will be difficult to achieve under President Xi Jinping and the current generation of CCP leadership, who have launched the Chinese government on a more confrontational path vis-à-vis the United States and its allies. Indeed, as Xi personalizes rule and extends his time in office, there may be a longer time horizon in which the relationship with China will be competitive—if not outright confrontational.
- Short-Term: In the meantime, and perhaps as long as Xi is in power, likeminded allies and partners must prevent Beijing from continuing to threaten their interests in the economic, diplomatic, governance, human rights, security, and technological domains. This strategy seeks to prevent, deter, defend against, and impose costs on the Chinese government for its actions that violate widely held international rules and norms. The strategy seeks to shape Beijing’s behavior by imposing costs for challenging the United States and its allies and partners, particularly in light of the recent revival and resurgence of NATO; growing trilateral cooperation among the United States, Japan, and South Korea; and the increasing strength of the Quad. At the same time, likeminded allies and partners should maintain open lines of communication and find areas of mutual cooperation with China. They should work to convince Chinese leadership that Beijing’s interests are better served by playing within—rather than challenging—a revitalized and adapted rules-based system.
Elements of the strategy
1) Strengthen: Likeminded allies and partners should strengthen themselves and the rules-based system for a new era of great-power competition. They should
- prioritize innovation and emerging technology by boosting research and development spending, investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, and securing supply chains;
- invest in repairing and renewing infrastructure and ensuring it incorporates advanced technology, including fifth-generation (5G) wireless capability;
- reassert influence in existing multilateral institutions by, for example, promoting candidates for leadership positions that favor upholding open and transparent global governance;
- create new institutions to facilitate collaboration among likeminded allies and partners in Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and globally; and
- develop new military capabilities and operational concepts to achieve a credible combat posture in the Indo-Pacific region.
2) Defend: Likeminded allies and partners should defend against destabilizing Chinese behavior and impose costs on Beijing’s ongoing violations of core principles of the rules-based system. They should
- strategically decouple from China, including by prohibiting Chinese engagement in economic sectors vital to national security;
- collectively impose offsetting measures, including tariffs, for industries negatively affected by the China government’s unfair practices;
- collectively resist Beijing’s economic coercion by reducing economic dependence on China and offering offsetting economic opportunities to vulnerable allies and partners;
- counter Chinese government influence operations and defend democracy and good governance;
- coordinate penalties on the China government when it uses coercive tools, such as arbitrary detention of foreign nationals, to pressure their home countries;
- spotlight CCP corruption and human-rights violations and encourage human-rights reforms in China; and
- maintain a favorable balance of power over China in the Indo-Pacific to deter and, if necessary, defend against Chinese aggression.
3) Engage: Likeminded allies and partners should engage China from a position of strength to cooperate on shared interests. They should
- maintain open lines of communication with China, even as competition intensifies;
- seek to cooperate with China on issues of mutual interest, including the global economy, nonproliferation, and the environment, without compromising core values; and
- engage with China to, over the long term, incorporate China into a revitalized and adapted rules-based system.
The three parts of this strategy are interconnected. Likeminded allies and partners must continue to strengthen themselves—both domestically and their relationships—in a new period of great-power competition. This, in turn, better positions them to defend against Beijing’s threatening behavior. By demonstrating collective resolve and a willingness to impose costs on Beijing, they will be able to constructively engage and hopefully convince Beijing that its current approach is futile and that its interests are better served by cooperating with, or acquiescing to, a rules-based system, rather than by challenging it.
Likeminded allies and partners came together many times in the twentieth century to defeat autocratic revisionist challengers. Working together, they can once again advance their interests and values, and the broader rules-based system, by fending off the twenty-first-century challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party.