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International Relations Opinion Short Read

Why the United States Needs to Rethink its China Strategy

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

America’s current strategy to prevent China’s rise in Eurasia is failing and needs to be rethought. Prior to Trump taking office, the United States’ strategy to blunt China’s challenge rested on the hope that the People’s Republic would accept the liberal principles associated with political and economic reforms. This  proved unsuccessful. The Trump Administration’s China strategy towards the Zhongguo (Middle Kingdom) is now one of containment and aggressive trade wars, and it too will fail.  In fact, rather than solving the problem, it is likely to create more obstacles for the US (and its Allies). As this paper will demonstrate, Western strategists’ reliance on history and unnecessary levels of force as their baseline remains flawed. Instead, America’s strategy needs to be far more inclusive and focus on those areas where it is strong: diplomacy, humanitarian aid, financial support and economic development.

The Problem with History

Western strategists who are disciples of international relations tend to have a narrow view when it comes to the application of force to defeat an adversary and this prevents them from fully understanding the changing character of war. Prior to 1914, strategists remained fixated on the wars fought by Napoleon Bonaparte and Fredrick the Great. The First World War showed this approach to be both misguided and inadequate.

The same issues were repeated during the Second World War where the battles of Verdun and The Somme still held sway. Even the success of certain operations during the Second World War, such as the German Blitzkrieg against France in 1940, often achieved success due to the demoralisation of the enemy, itself a hangover from the previous conflict. Similarly, Naval strategists who were advocates of blockades failed to grasp the impact submarines and aircraft carriers would have in overturning the primacy of capital fleets. The same predicament was exacerbated during the Cold War where the shadows of nuclear weapons meant the conduct of war and the political objectives had changed, once again rendering the strategists’ fixation on history ineffective.

Can we Blame Clausewitz?

Over the years, many strategists have misused the Clausewitzian trinity of political objectives, popular support, and operational instruments by applying them to situations that were often based wholly upon force or past conflicts. Strategists should turn to force as a last resort and expand their thinking into other policy areas. The Global War on Terror witnessed another shift in the character of warfare as conflicts broke out between states and non-state actors such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban. A phase of irregular warfare began where citing history once again failed to be of any use. Ultimately, Strategists should not be over reliant on history or on the application of unnecessary military force. Instead, they should focus on the present, and analyse the application of multiple levers of power to broaden their horizons. Coercion against an adversary can be achieved using means other than force.

Strategists also need to be unconstrained in their thinking. By adopting a slow, measured approach, many academics in this field lack the spontaneity and agility in thought required to seize what can be fleeting opportunities. Deep dives into specialized areas can lead to a sense of paralysis; they need to be countered by an enlightened approach to thinking that looks at a range  of interconnected issues. Only then can they capitalize on opportunities and not repeat mistakes of the past.

America Overplays its Military’s Hand

After the Cold War, the United States found itself fighting asymmetric wars against non-state actors whose military capabilities were far inferior to its own. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Robert Gates stated that the over militarization of American foreign policy during this period has led to the neglect of non-military instruments of power. It is not only potential adversaries that have felt the effects of American power. As early as 2003, the American historian Robert Kagan highlighted that America’s excessive use of military power had generated a rift between itself and Europe and it this was likely to worsen unless the United States showed restraint in its use of force. Ultimately, Washington’s narrow strategic view has been largely unsuccessful in realising its political aspirations and resolving the many issues that it needs to address.

America is Repeating the Same Mistakes with China

Unless the United States changes its current China strategy, it will face a similar outcome when confronting China. Aggressive trade wars and containment do not guarantee success in defusing or curbing China’s subtle rise within the region. China currently resides inside an international system that actually rests upon American hegemony whereas America is the only nation that continues to dominate across every aspect of national power: military, economic, political, ideological, technological as well as popular culture.

Notwithstanding the steady decline of the United States, no nation comes close to overcoming or even matching the American power in all of these areas. The Middle Kingdom, on the other hand, is a one-dimensional power that only seeks victory in the economic arena.

Tackling China – Who’s the Paper Tiger now?

Adopting a strategy based upon containment is the latest example of America using history as its primary reference point. America needs to recognise that China does not represent the threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. China is a paper tiger economy; most of its economic success is wholly contingent on the strength of the U.S Dollar.

China’s economic dynamism is built on attracting investment from foreign corporations who can in turn save on production costs by exploiting the relatively cheap labour costs for Chinese workers. This approach, however, has led to resentment amongst Chinese workers which could conceivably lead to strikes or even a possible rebellion against the PRC. One of the drivers for China to invest in artificial intelligence (AI) is to exert control over its population to prevent any conspiracies against the PRC. After all, the Communist Party does not want another replay of  the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Its other (in)famous population control measure, the one child policy, has itself created serious obstacles for the future growth of the Chinese economy that is likely to be impacted by an ageing workforce.

China’s current GDP stands as $16,000 per capita. The figure for America is $65,000. This is not good news for a nation with a population of over a billion people. China’s dependency on the dollar also means it is unable to weaponize its own reserves to hurt the US economy. Looking at the economic disparity between the two nations and China’s reliance on America’s currency makes it difficult to understand the need for a trade war, especially one that has, over the past three years, hurt American corporations as well as harming the relationship between itself and its allies.

Tackling China – is their Military a Threat?

Secondly, China’s military is still inferior to that of the United States, especially when it comes to naval power. China, for example, has only two aircraft carriers whereas the United States has 19 ships capable of launching fixed wing aircraft (although only 10 are considered as actual aircraft carriers). China’s air force may be Asia’s largest, but the majority of its combat aircraft consist of Cold War era Soviet designs or Chinese copies that are outmatched by their American equivalents. In terms of 5th Generation aircraft, China can only field a limited number of the J-20, a poorly cloned version of the F-35 which in itself illustrates Chinese dependency on American military technology. If China wants to conduct an invasion and a subsequent occupation of Taiwan, the amphibious landings will require levels of naval and air support that it does not currently possess.

Tackling China – Hearts and Minds

Thirdly, China is not a well-rounded political player and has not made any real efforts to create a rift between America and its allies in the region. When China deposed Japan as the region’s economic giant, it refused to establish any form of diplomatic relations with its neighbour which simply drove the latter into America’s arms as it sought security against Chinese hostility.

The ill-will that currently exists between America and her allies in the region is not due to Chinese political acumen but to America’s own diplomatic incompetence. China has also failed to conduct any political manoeuvrings with its own economic projects across the region. Its Belt and Road Initiative has, for the past six years, remained a purely commercial venture. Its sole aim (at least for now) is wealth generation and it seems likely it will stay this way.

Tackling China – Ideas, Ideology and AI

What keeps the Middle Kingdom intact is securing commercial interests and mass Chinese nationalism. China makes no attempt to promote an alternative ‘better’ way of life to the rest of the world. Beijing simply feeds on Chinese xenophobia. As for the Chinese Communist Party, it no longer possesses the ideals of egalitarianism and selflessness. The current COVID-19 crisis has shown the divide quite starkly. China could have exploited Western values and offered a new alternative to the world. This has not been the case.

It is only in the field of AI where China can be said to have made significant inroads into America’s lead. Even here, that lead could best be described as ‘modest’ although China’s roadmap for AI means it will soon overtake and surpass the United States in this field. China’s lack of privacy laws certainly allows it to gather massive amounts of big data.  AI analyst Joy Dantong stated, ‘If America loses its openness edge, then the country risks pushing AI talents right back into the arms of its competitors, including China’. It is only in the discipline of AI where China poses a genuine threat that needs to be countered.

Rethinking U.S strategy

The Trump administration has pursued a strategy that has undone the existing world order and  subsequently damaged America’s reputation as a leader of the free world. The administration’s repeated attacks on its allies represents a strategic error greater than the Iraq disaster. Domestically, the U.S requires a restoration of a political equilibrium as the first step to broaden and diversify its strategy across all components of national power, rather than swaying from one extreme or another. Prior to Trump, a key component of US foreign policy allowed different political camps to balance each other out and prevent violent swings of policy excess; this has now disappeared.

It is clear that the pursuit of aggressive trade wars and bolstering the militaries of its allies in the South Asian Pacific is proving counterproductive. The U.S should abandon this myopic form of coercion and should instead utilize a much wider range of policy instruments to neutralize China: international diplomacy, humanitarian aid, financial assistance, and economic development. The COVID19 crisis has shown how badly-off track America is in some of these areas. Instead of providing humanitarian aid to friendly countries, it did the exact opposite by hijacking a shipment of 3M mask supplies which were en route to Germany. America also needs to act where it is under threat. In particular, it needs to embrace a more robust R&D strategy to strengthen its AI capabilities.

America’s strategy against China should therefore focus on meeting China across a broad front, maximising its strengths and building up its capabilities where it is weak. If such changes do take place, then the United States would be able to reshape its strategy and take effective and much needed steps in stemming China’s rise within Eurasia.

Hashim Abid

Hashim is a Bio- Analyst of global affairs and has a BSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

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