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“China Looks at the West” and U.S. China Strategy


Below appears the text on which Dr. Ford based his remarks at a Hudson Institute event on September 10, 2015, at which was discussed his new book: China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations (University Press of Kentucky, 2015).  Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA, 4th District) founder and co-chair of the Congressional China Caucus and chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, gave the keynote address at this book event.  Elbridge Colby of the Center for New American Security and Professor Maochun Yu of the U.S. Naval Academy joined Dr. Ford as panelists at the event, which was moderated by Dr. Michael Pillsbury of Hudson Institute.  An online video of the entire event can be found at

Good afternoon.  I would like to thank you all for coming, but many other thanks are in order also: to Hudson Institute for its gracious willingness to host this discussion; to Mike Pillsbury for moderating; to my fellow panelists for participating; and to Congressman Forbes of the U.S. Congressional China Caucus for offering us his insights.  I also owe deep thanks to Mr. Andrew Marshall, a Washington legend recently retired from the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, for his support and encouragement over the years and for his office’s willingness to fund the research that resulted in this book.  (Additionally, I should make a caveat: whatever I say here represents my own personal opinion, and bears no necessary relationship to the views of anyone else in the U.S. Government.)

China Looks at the West is a long book, as it discusses Chinese understandings of and approaches to the outside world – and particularly the United States – from the mid-19th Century to the present day, using Chinese narratives of the foreign “Other” as a way to gain insights into Chinese politics, assumptions, and aspirations.  In telling this story, I draw out a number of major themes, including:

(1) The consistent importance in China over many generations of what I call the “Great Telos of Return” (or GTR) – that is, Chinese dreams of national reinvigoration and “return” to geopolitical status and centrality,  an aspiration conceived in essentially zero-sum terms as China covets the United States’ own position atop the totem pole of global status;

(2) The ways in which, in the shadow of the GTR, “aspirational” and “oppositional” themes have played off each other, and often reinforced each other, in the Chinese regime’s approach to understanding and dealing with the United States.

(3) The usefulness of Sino-Japanese relations as a case study of Beijing’s willingness to pivot from cooperation to confrontation when Chinese leaders conclude that (a) their domestic legitimacy requires a more villainous foreign bogeyman, (b) they no longer feel the need to learn the secrets of modern power from the target of such vitriol because that country seems to have lost its economic vitality, and (c) such hostility does not seem likely to elicit painful responses;

(4) The ways in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime is cultivating a self-Orientalized domestic legitimacy discourse, in which conceits of disinterested and “meritocratic” Party benevolence and themes purportedly drawn from ancient Chinese philosophy serve as the centerpieces of a deeply anti-democratic theory trying to justify the Party’s autocracy;

(5) The ways in which Chinese foreign policy has been characterized by tension between Deng Xiaoping’s strategically cautious policy of non-provocatively “biding time” while building up Chinese strength, and those impatient for Beijing to assert itself against the United States sooner rather than later – and how the longtime equilibrium between these camps has tilted in recent years towards the confrontationalists; and

(6) The ways in which, for a variety of reasons, China’s narrative of America has over time become progressively darker and more threatening, and more intractably wedded to anti-American postures.

I suppose any of these issues might have been a good subject for discussion today, but since we are here today at a think tank founded by the seminal strategic thinker Herman Kahn, I’d like to focus here on drawing out a few policy lessons for the United States, based upon the final chapter of China Looks at the West.

I.          Some Things Cannot Be “Fixed”

One key lesson stems from the degree to which Chinese narratives of and approaches to the United States seem to have developed and be driven by Chinese internal dynamics.  Chinese thinkers for more than a century have expressed and struggled over their own hopes and fears for China in significant part through their interpretations of the United States, with Chinese political dynamics manifesting themselves on the terrain of – and through contestation for control over – the Chinese narrative of America.  The CCP regime has itself always devoted great energy and attention to controlling and shaping this narrative, and how the United States is interpreted to Chinese has varied according to the demands of the Party’s legitimacy strategy.

U.S. policymakers need to remember this, for it suggests that Beijing’s approaches to Sino-American relations are only partly influenced, or even capable of being influenced, by what the United States actually does.  It is still something of a mantra in some parts of the U.S. China policy community that we must not think that, or act as if, China is a competitor or adversary, for this will “confirm” the worst suspicions of “hard-liners” in Beijing and thus become a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

This is an analytical mistake, however.  The PRC has taken different approaches over the years for tactical reasons, based upon its assessment of various factors – including of what it stood to gain from smooth Sino-American relations in support of its dream of “return,” what the trends of “comprehensive national power” were felt to be, and what the domestic legitimacy discourse of the the CCP regime was felt to require.  Beijing has perceived the United States as an adversary and competitor all along, however, and the darkness and confrontationalism inherent in the regime’s America narratives cannot be dispelled, or Chinese strategic approaches redirected, simply by U.S. congeniality.

II.         Penalizing Provocative Self-Assertion

So how do we influence China?  Well, a second important lesson inherent in my analysis is that U.S. policymakers retain at least some tools that may still be capable of influencing Chinese leaders’ choices about how to pursue their agenda and how to act upon the grim and adversarial images of us they cultivate with such assiduousness.  Chinese perceptions of U.S. economic decline and political paralysis may have reduced or removed positive aspects of emulative aspiration as ingredients in Chinese foreign policymaking, but while this has clearly left Beijing’s America policy less constrained by tactical caution than before, it has also, if anything, heightened the relative importance of risk-manipulation and cost imposition.

To the extent that debates continue within China’s political elite over to what degree to abandon Deng Xiaoping’s cautious “time-biding” in favor of self-assertion against the United States and other countries, it remains within America’s power to affect how costly Chinese decision-makers are likely to perceive self-assertiveness to be.  My book’s analysis suggests that perceptions of potential political, military, and economic costliness are perhaps the most important single factor constraining Sinocentric provocations in East Asia, as well as more broadly on the global stage.

In this regard, American competitive strategies should focus on making adversarial Chinese behavior much more painful, not least by increasing our capacity to impose costs of the sort that Beijing seems most to fear.  This suggests a relatively greater role for such things as: more robust efforts to undermine the Party-State’s information controls at home and efforts to skew the rest of the world’s China narratives abroad; more resolute promotion of civil rights, human rights, religious liberty, and democratic political values in China; economic or resource-access pressures; the cultivation of international institutions and capacity-building among, by, and for states faithful to democratic values as such, especially those in East Asia; and of course better-resourced Defense Department policies and postures vis-à-vis Beijing’s emerging military capabilities.  It also suggests a greater role for multilateral politico-military diplomacy in the creation and maintenance of stronger cooperative and security relationships with countries, both around China’s periphery and farther afield, whose policies, jointly or severally, can raise the perceived costs and risks of Beijing’s assertiveness.

III.       The CCP as the Final Obstacle to “Return”?

Another issue of potential importance – and in which there may be some room for U.S. policy choices to influence the course of events – has to do with Chinese perceptions of the degree to which American policy toward China is driven by idealist or realist motives.  Depending upon how analysts in Beijing assess the situation, this question has potentially important implications.

If American foreign policy were felt in China to be fundamentally realist in nature in the sense in which international relations scholars use this term, then Chinese leaders can be expected to conclude that Washington is irrevocably hostile to China’s “rise” and that it will be committed to precluding China’s “return” no matter what.  Such a conclusion would, however, fit well with the CCP regime’s own domestic legitimacy narrative of irreconcilable foreign threat.  But if, on the other hand, America were perceived to be driven to a significant degree by idealist motives, the situation might be quite different.

If it were perceived that America’s opposition to China’s “rise” or “return” is not intrinsic, but instead stems largely from Washington’s principled opposition to China’s oppressive form of government, this could create real tensions within the Chinese political system.  It would imply that the United States might be willing to accept a “risen” China if that China were a democracy faithful to the basic human values that modern liberal democracies prize.  Framed this way, democratic change at home becomes a national strategic interest for China.  If China’s regime type is the final obstacle to China’s “national rejuvenation” and return to international status and respect, all patriotic Chinese eager to vindicate the “Chinese dream” of “return” would instantly acquire a powerful stake in sending their Party rulers packing.  Especially because I suspect that most Americans are more idealist than realist in these regards, this insight may suggest some interesting public diplomacy and perception management opportunities.

IV.        Competitive Strategy Against a “Virtuocracy”

If U.S. policymakers understand that they are dealing with a Chinese government with profound virtuocratic pretensions – one which grounds much of its asserted legitimacy in claims of meritocratic benevolence and politico-moral righteousness, however implausible – this may in itself open up certain policy possibilities.  It is a characteristic weakness of an ostensibly virtuocratic autocracy that it has difficulty shrugging off what in other systems might be handled merely as regrettable errors, or things that in a democracy could be corrected at the ballot box.  A soi disant Confucian meritoligarchy is inherently vulnerable to legitimacy critiques that impugn the virtue or competence of its ruling elite, for this elite’s claim to power is based upon the assertion that it is a better choice than anyone else to control the system, without check or accountability, forever.

A competitive strategy against such a regime by the United States and its friends and allies, for instance, could thus do worse than to obtain and publicize information about corruption, abuses of power, errors, and meretricious personal or professional behavior of the ruling elite.  It could – in this and other ways – set about quite systematically to poke holes in the CCP’s domestic legitimacy discourse by drawing more attention to the myriad ways in which regime practice betrays its pretensions to omnicompetent benevolence and disinterested “meritocracy.”

More broadly, in fact, we could use the CCP’s dark and hitherto semi-imaginary threat-narratives of American-led “subversion” and global anti-China “bias” as something of a Rorschach Test – that is, as a means for identifying what it is that the Party-State elite fears most, so as to be better able pressure the CCP regime more effectively along these very axes.  Indeed, we need a more Sinologically-informed strategy across the board.  We must not fall into the trap of tailoring our approaches to what would influence us in the desired ways if we were in Beijing’s shoes.  We are not in their shoes: they are.  Instead of mirror-imaging, we need China scholarship devoted to supporting strategic planners’ efforts to affect Beijing’s calculations, shape its assumptions about the present and future world, play upon its hopes and fears, and so forth.  We need more “strategic Sinology.”

V.         Designing Against “Alternative Chinas”

Finally, as I suggested earlier, we need to do more to plan our approaches with an eye to their utility against a landscape of “alternative Chinas” that might perhaps come to be.  The final section of China Looks at the West offers some speculation about such Chinese futures and their relationship to our strategy, so I won’t say more here except to point out that politico-military instruments seem likely to perform relatively well against the entire “landscape” of alternative futures I discuss – particularly to the degree that we wish to influence ongoing debates in Beijing between proponents of strategic caution and those who favor confrontational assertiveness.

That’s plenty for now.  I look forward to our discussions.  Thank you!

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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