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China’s Global Ambitions and U.S. Interests


Below is the text upon which Dr. Ford based his remarks at the first “China Forum” held at the U.S. Library of Congress on November 5, 2015, sponsored by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Good afternoon, everyone, and my thanks to Marion Smith and the rest of the staff at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation for having me here today at the Library of Congress for this inaugural “China Forum.”  As a Congressional staffer, I’m obliged to make sure you know that what I offer here represents only my own thinking, and not necessarily that of anyone else in the U.S. Government.  That said, I appreciate your interest and look forward to our discussion.

This panel is devoted to the question of whether, how, and the degree to which, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) threatens United States interests.  As I see it, the PRC’s posture and activities in East Asia – indeed its broad aspirational vision for the international community as a whole – clearly do threaten our interests to an important degree.  Without more, however, simply saying that isn’t very analytically interesting,  so I hope you’ll bear with me while I try to unpack the idea a bit.

First of all, let’s put the Chinese Party-State’s self-serving propaganda trope of ineradicable U.S. hostility behind us.  The main problem is not, I believe, China’s “rise” per se.  If today’s China were a different China, there would be some reason to welcome, or at least to accept, the rise of a populous, economically vibrant trading partner on the other side of the Pacific – particularly if it were one that did not repress and afflict its sophisticated and industrious people with heavy-handed authoritarianism and rampant human rights abuses, one which did not seek to revise international boundaries by coercion, and one which really was a “responsible stakeholder” dedicated to the preservation and deepening of the open, classically liberal economic and political order that has brought such great prosperity to the region for decades.  It is the dream of that kind of a China that seems to have kept many American policymakers, not to mention business leaders, eagerly on the edge of their seats for the last thirty or forty years.

Wishful thinking aside, however, that is not the China we face.  Instead, we face a wealthy but insecure and prickly power prone to regional bullying – one that has not been socialized to modern norms of international behavior but instead still nurses revanchist dreams of geopolitical “return” to a position of global centrality it believes it had, it lost, and it is today desperate to regain.

This has been one of the themes of my scholarship on China for some years.  I first raised concerns about the implications of Sinocentric Chinese conceptions of global order in an article in the Joint Forces Quarterly in 2007, and explored this in more detail with my book The Mind of Empire in 2010.  Most recently, in my book China Looks at the West – published just last summer, and which I am pleased to see is being made available to attendees here today – I detail how these conceptions have played out in the modern propaganda narratives and policy agenda of the Chinese Party-State.

To make a long story short, the leitmotif of Chinese policy for the last century, across successive governments, has been the ideal of national rejuvenation or return: China’s ambition to claw its way back to a position of status-centrality as the dominant political actor in the global system – a position of which Party-State propaganda insists that China was robbed by malevolent imperialist powers in the 19th Century.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I do not think there is a master plan for such global “return” hidden away in a file somewhere.  Nor, even if they couch their declamations in airy, feel-good rhetoric about “peaceful rise” and “win-win solutions” and carefully downplay the security implications for others of their anticipated trajectory, have Chinese officials ever seemed to make much secret of their broad ambitions.  This strategy of “return” is not a hidden, conspiratorial plan, I would suggest, as much it is something more like an instinct or an underlying predisposition – that is, an emotional and conceptual pole star that serves to orient and to inspire a range of sometimes carefully calculated and sometimes rather improvisational national policies, and which has done so for a long time.

This fixation upon “return,” moreover, seems to have intensified in recent decades, fanned by the turn of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward an increasingly ugly, jingoistic nationalism to buttress its tattered domestic legitimacy narrative, and by the Party’s claim that it is uniquely qualified to rule China because it offers the country its best chance to achieve this dream.  I would also argue that these themes are being further intensified by the cultivation, in regime propaganda narratives, of the auto-Orientalizing conceit that Party autocracy fulfills ancient Chinese ideals of rule by a wise and meritocratically-selected oligarchy of scholar-gentlemen.  In the romanticized self-flattery that characterizes today’s increasingly politicized and co-opted Confucianism, the CCP conceives itself as a benevolent elite that deserves to be the fulcrum of social and political life, and whose primacy is to be expected and welcomed as part of the natural order of things – much, in fact, like China’s own destined centrality in the international community.

These conceits, I would argue, are part of the subtext of China’s modern dream of national “return.”  They help explain how Party officials can, with a straight face, explain their vision of a future “harmonious world” as one modeled upon the socio-political order of the “harmonious society” they claim to have created in China itself.  These insights also provide a window into the meaning and implications of currently-favored phrasings about a “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation that is expected to give rise to a “new concept of great power relations.”

To my eye, Chinese leaders do not seem to have a very clear picture of exactly how things would work in the Sinocentric world of their imaginings – or at least if they do, they haven’t expressed it.  But though it seems to remain more a vague aspiration than a concrete “plan,” the ambition to reshape the international system in ways congenial to such Party-State’s dreamings seems very real.

In interviews and research conducted for China Looks at the West, I was struck by the degree to which some Chinese writers at the forefront of the Party-State’s cultivation of self-justificatory, quasi-Confucian political legitimacy narratives have invoked the hallowed cultural memory of the Zhou Dynasty – the political system later idealized by Confucius as a Golden Age – as a potential model for a future Sinocentric world.  This is a fascinating analogy, for it indeed seems perfectly to fit the thrust of the modern Party-State’s geopolitics.

Notably, the Zhou period, as romanticized by the Confucians, was not one of unified and centralized imperial control.  To be sure, the Zhou Dynasty sat at the ritualized center of the political Sinosphere of the era, and was given symbolic and political deference by all participants.  The principal functional players in the system, however, were the princes of the various proto-states into which China was then divided like a patchwork quilt.  These states had not yet reached the conditions of formal independence and catastrophically rivalrous warfare that characterized the later Warring States period, and a good number of them existed for quite some time in conditions of de facto independence but under notional Zhou suzerainty.

To my eye, the Zhou is a fascinatingly revealing model for the future world-system the Chinese regime seems to imagine.  Putting its emphasis for the most part upon status deference and ritualized obeisance rather than direct control, the Zhou conception is one that seems almost perfectly suited for a vain but insecure regime that craves acceptance, status, and the righteous self-satisfaction of lording a presumed moral superiority over others, but is yet uncertain of its own capacities and worried about its ability actually to manage the complexities of large-scale politics over time even at home, much less abroad.

So much for what I think is the fascinating political sociology of unpacking the “Chinese Dream.”  To return to the subject matter of this panel, however, we still need to ask ourselves: “What does this mean for United States interests?”

I would argue that there are important implications for U.S. interests, and that the modern Chinese Party-State does threaten them in significant ways.  But I also think its important to be clear about how.

One thing I want to emphasize is that I see no sign that the “Chinese Dream” of global centrality equates to a Soviet-style desire for direct domination of the entire world-system.  Thankfully, in other words, our problem with China today is not that problem.

To be sure, Chinese ambitions seem to be rather nakedly imperialist – or perhaps more accurately, to use mid-20th Century terminology, neo-imperialist – with respect to the smaller states near the PRC’s territorial periphery.  If you are a small country next door to the aspiring Sinic hegemon, in other words, you can expect that Beijing’s demands for political and status deference will be very taxing.  Should you question what is expected of you, moreover, you should anticipate some kind of morally indignant “chastisement,” demands for self-criticism, and compulsory re-education until you accept the natural and proper order of things.  Such small neighbors in East Asia could expect to retain relatively little of the functional independence enjoyed by Zhou-era proto-states, though they might still retain some rather truncated form of de jure independence.

Farther afield, however, I don’t see Sinocentric “Chinese Dreaming” as aspiring to old-school, imperialist direct dominion.  Instead, its aims seem to be more modest, consisting principally of demands for deference, acknowledgment of centrality, and a role as the primary norm-shaper of global system.  Such demands would not be without domestic implications for other states, of course.  The Party-State in Beijing has already clearly signaled to all of us by repeated reminders, for instance, that foreign politicians, media figures, and even private citizens must not “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” – and PRC leaders have also made it clear that they believe that the fragile sensitivities of that “Chinese people” are offended by any depiction of China or its Communist Party-State not broadly consonant with that regime’s propaganda narrative of itself.

Nevertheless, it follows, on the whole, that even a fairly ambitious Sincentric agenda is unlikely to be a direct and specific threat to the United States itself in the way that the USSR was.  The concrete implications of Sinocentric order are principally regional.  Rather than to that of the USSR and the Cold War, therefore, the better historical analogy may be somewhat closer to the challenges presented us by Imperial Japan in the 1930s: a power feeling its economic and technological oats and that wishes to have the freedom to organize a regional “Co-Prosperity Sphere” and push its neighbors around without outside interference or impediment, but which does not seem to presume for itself a future of planetary supremacy of the sort claimed by truly globalist ideologies such as Marxism-Leninism or radical Islam.

From the perspective of U.S. interests, it thus probably follows that were we willing to concede to China the regional hegemony and the global status deference it seems to desire, there might be no particular grounds for dangerous friction between the two powers.  But, of course, to say that is to say a lot – and this points one to the ways in which such Chinese aspirations are inimical to U.S. interests.  Our current role in the international system, our system of friendships and alliances in East Asia, the political autonomy of the other countries of the region (and especially its democracies), and our own enormous stake in the open, liberal order that has made prosperity around the Pacific Rim possible for decades – all these things are indeed threatened by the prospect of a Sinocentric order as it is apparently envisioned in Beijing.  To put it bluntly, they are obsessed by the imperative of national “return,” and we are in their way.

Fascinatingly, this seems to have been perceived in China for a long time.  More than a century ago, a seminal Chinese political thinker named Liang Qichao visited the United States.  His musings on authoritarianism and democracy in the Chinese context – such as in one essay he wrote, tellingly entitled “On Enlightened Despotism” – have proven to be enormously influential, and resonate powerfully in Party-State theory even today.  Liang also wrote, however, about Sino-American relations, and about their long-term future.

Specifically, Liang Qichao expressed great worry about what were then the United States’ initial forays into the Pacific Rim in the wake of America’s seizure of the Philippines from Spain and in the new era of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet.”  Liang  argued that “the nation that will be most severely victimized” by the growth of American power in the Pacific “will surely be China,” because the emerging U.S. role in the region was incompatible with what was for him the imperative of restoring China to the international position that it deserved.  As he put it, “no country is in a better position to utilize the Pacific in order to hold sway over the world than China.  But China is unable to become the master of the Pacific, and politely yields this position to others.”

For Liang Qichao, this was shameful and intolerable.  For him, one might say, the planet was not big enough for two Pacific powers such as what the United States was then becoming and what Liang envisioned as desirable for China itself.  It was clearly his vision that it was China’s destiny someday to become the predominant power – not merely in the Pacific, but indeed once again thereby “to hold sway over the world” as Chinese felt themselves to have done in prior centuries.

This made America inherently threatening, not necessarily as a result of anything we might actually do to China, but rather on account of our very presence in the region as a major power and influence of any sort.  This mere presence was incompatible with the predominance that China needed to obtain if it were to recover from the humiliations that Liang felt it to be suffering in his time.  Any significant role for America as a Pacific power, in other words, was incompatible with China’s destiny, dooming the United States to an adversary role almost irrespective of our actual behavior.

So, where does this all leave us?  Well, to the extent that Liangist thinking translates directly into modern conceptions of how Chinese leaders envision their country’s “rise” and “return” – and I do spend a lot of time in my more than 600-page book making and supporting the argument that it does – this tells us important things about how the PRC’s ambitions affect our interests.

Of course, it may well be that the CCP regime is unable, for various reasons, to do much more than it already has to act upon these dreams.  Perhaps, for example, the Party will fail in its desperate efforts to cling to power.  Perhaps the somewhat unstable and artificially-inflated Chinese economy will stall in ways that undermine Beijing’s perception that the balance of “comprehensive national power” is tilting its way.  Perhaps the vigor and resolution of our own responses to China will elicit a renewed sense of prudence and strategic caution in Beijing, persuading it of the need to “bide its time” for some while longer, or even to recalibrate its ambition.  Or perhaps history will surprise us in some other fashion, as it so often likes to do.  I, for one, cannot predict the future.  If China does have the opportunity to move forward with its dreams of “return,” however, what would this mean for us?

Well, we are likely to have few problems with the “returned” China of modern Party aspirations if: (a) we don’t care about the political autonomy or territorial integrity of our friends and allies in East Asia; (b) we don’t mind paying ongoing lip service to Party-State narratives whereby corrupt and repressively self-serving autocracy masquerades as meritocratic benevolence; (c) we are willing to see the Pacific Rim fall under the sway not of a genuinely liberal trading regime but of a politically-skewed economic system that has – rather brilliantly – been called “Market-Leninism;” and (d) we are willing to concede to the Chinese Communist Party the principal role as norm-articulator for the international community as a whole.  Such a chain of acquiescences would be quite compatible with the “Chinese Dream” as it is apparently dreamed in the leadership compound in Zhongnanhai.

If these conditions are not acceptable to us, however – and I suspect that this is the case – we have a more difficult task ahead, for such a conclusion would require us actually to formulate an effective competitive strategy vis-à-vis the Chinese Party-State.  I certainly do not pretend to know all of what such a competitive strategy should include, though it almost certainly should not be a purely competitive approach, for our relationship with Beijing involves important elements of interdependence and cooperation as well as significant (and growing) competitive aspects.

Nonetheless, if we are to replace outmoded approaches to Sino-American relations with ones better suited to the actual situation we and our friends confront in East Asia, we need more openness and honesty about these challenges in the U.S. public policy community.  Events such as this one here today, I hope, can help contribute to this goal.

Thank you for inviting me.

-- Christopher Ford

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