The long game: China’s grand strategy to displace American order
On Thursday, August 26, the Foreign Policy program at Brookings hosted an online webinar to discuss the evolution of China’s grand strategy and how the United States can effectively respond, as well as other themes in Rush Doshi’s new book from Oxford University Press, “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order.”
Following opening remarks from Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow and Director of Research for Foreign Policy Michael O’Hanlon moderated a discussion with Doshi, formerly a Foreign Policy fellow and director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative and currently serving in the Biden administration.
The conversation began with the two methodological points in Doshi’s book: the focus on rigorously defining and identifying grand strategies as well as the use of China’s open source documents, which involved parsing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) texts and then cross-referencing them with China’s behavior. Through these methodologies, Doshi identified three major strategies articulated by leaders of the CCP since the end of the Cold War. Doshi argued that the most important variable shaping China’s adjustment from one strategy to another was its perception of U.S. power and threat, and each is associated with a key party “strategic guideline.”
The first strategic guideline was “hide capabilities and bide time,” articulated by Deng Xiaoping at the end of the Cold War. China sought to quietly blunt American power over China, particularly in Asia, after the trifecta of Tiananmen Square, the Gulf War, and the Soviet collapse led Beijing to sharply increase its perception of the U.S. threat. The second guideline was “actively accomplishing something,” unveiled by Hu Jintao in 2009 after the global financial crisis, which led Beijing to see U.S. power as diminished and emboldened it to take a more confident approach focused on building the foundations for regional hegemony in Asia. Finally, Doshi presented a third strategic phrase, “great changes unseen in a century,” which has appeared in Xi Jinping’s major speeches and in white papers since 2017. Doshi stated that this phrase came about after populist elections victories and political dysfunction in major Western democracies, and it indicates China’s growing perception of America’s decline. He said China launched a strategy in this period more focused on expansion that takes blunting and building globally, and that it began to see substantial opportunities to displace the United States as the world’s leading state.
Doshi then finished the conversation by explaining that U.S.-China competition is perceived in Beijing as increasingly global and that it involves the formation of fluid, ad hoc camps on different issues. He argued that the United States would rely on its alliances and partnerships and that Beijing perceived that China’s developing relationship with Russia, along with the Belt and Road Initiative countries around the globe, constitute one way China would engage in its own competing coalition building.
Following the moderated discussion, Thomas Wright, director of Brookings’s Center on the United States and Europe, moderated a panel discussion on the themes of Doshi’s book with Jackie Deal, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and president and CEO of the Long Term Strategy Group; David Edelstein, vice dean and professor of international relations at Georgetown University; and Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Edelstein notes that the book conveys China’s perception of the United States as a critical variable determining strategic adjustment but then asked whether other explanations might also account for changes in its grand strategy, noting the work of other scholars of China.
Blanchette highlighted the book’s use of extensive primary source documents from the Chinese government when assessing what China and the CCP leadership wants. He noted, however, that the abundance of material to choose from makes the decision to emphasize certain documents a subjective one, and that the influence this has on the conclusions of the author can be a methodological challenge. For example, Blanchette noted Xi’s public statements to foreign audiences sometimes contradict his statements to party audiences. Blanchette agreed that China does generally seek to become a global and dominant power, but said whether it truly seeks to displace the United States is open to discussion and debate.
Deal noted that a strength of the book was that in each chapter, Doshi acknowledges and explicitly addresses alternative explanations for China’s behavior and its strategic adjustment that have been advanced by other scholars. Deal agreed with Blanchette on the challenges of open source research but noted that Doshi has a detailed annex that explains why some texts are considered more authoritative than others, and that a public speech to a foreign audience by Xi would be less authoritative than one delivered behind closed doors to the CCP. Deal praised the use of “partial hegemony” in Doshi’s book to describe China’s aims, but cautioned that China under Xi Jinping may act more decisively in the near future to seize strategic advantage.
Each panelist agreed that, while there is a debate over the angle of China’s intentions, the government under Xi Jinping is urgently seeking to make gains during this time of perceived opportunity, where it perceives China as rising and America as declining. Deal voiced support for the United States to institute an asymmetric approach in competition with China. Both Edelstein and Blanchette articulated their concerns for the economic component of the U.S.-China rivalry. At the same time, Blanchette asserted that the United States needs to better prioritize scarce resources and bandwidth in order to refrain from devoting excessive attention to China’s behavior in too many spaces.
Rush Doshi is currently serving as director for China on the Biden administration’s National Security Council (NSC). He completed the research and writing of his book before his government service, and it is drawn entirely from open source materials. Neither the book nor comments at the event necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government or NSC.
Michael E. O’Hanlon
Director of Research - Foreign Policy
Director - Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
Co-Director - Africa Security Initiative
Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy
Former Brookings Expert
Former Brookings Expert
Vice Dean and Professor - Georgetown University
Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy Research Institute
President and CEO - Long Term Strategy Group
Freeman Chair in China Studies - CSIS
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