Is China Waiting Us Out?
The one constant in recent U.S. foreign policy—regardless of which party occupies the White House or controls Congress—is that it prioritizes military intervention, both covert and overt, to advance its interests overseas. While President Barack Obama vowed to move the U.S. away from its “perpetual wartime footing,” by the end of his presidency he had overseen the bombing of seven countries and had greatly expanded the drone war. In his last full year in office, the U.S. military dropped 26,171 bombs—an average of 71 bombs per day.
Candidate Trump railed against the invasion of Iraq during his campaign, at one point blaming George W. Bush directly and saying, “we should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.” As president-elect, Trump continued to promise a very different foreign policy, one that would “stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with.”
The election of Donald Trump gave the international community pause: Trump appeared unpredictable, eschewed tradition, and flouted convention. He might well have followed through on his promise to move the U.S. away from its long embrace of forever war. China’s government in particular must have worried about such a move. If the U.S. focused on its internal problems and instead pursued a restrained foreign policy that was constructive rather than destructive, it might pose more of an impediment to China’s rise to global power status.
But the Chinese need not have worried. With a continued troop presence in Afghanistan and Syria, a looming conflict with Iran, and even talk of an intervention in Venezuela, Trump is keeping the U.S. on its perpetual wartime footing.
This is good news for Beijing, whose own foreign policy could not be more different. Rather than embracing a reactive and short-sighted approach that all too often ignores second- and third-order consequences, the Chinese strategy appears cautious and long-ranging. Its policymakers and technocrats think and plan in terms of decades, not months. And those plans, for now, are focused more on building than bombing.
This is not to say that China’s foreign policy is altruistic—it is certainly not. It is designed to cement China’s role as a great power by ensnaring as many countries as possible in its economic web. China is playing the long game while Washington expends resources and global political capital on wars it cannot win. America’s devotion to intervention is sowing the seeds of its own demise and China will be the chief beneficiary.
China has not engaged in a foreign war since it invaded Vietnam in 1979, a war which lasted less than a month and in which the Chinese overreached and underperformed, suffering an estimated tens of thousands of casualties in 27 days. After heavy fighting against the battle-hardened Vietnamese, Chinese forces withdrew, cut their losses, and declared victory (as did the Vietnamese). Their leaders appeared to be acting on the advice of the 6th century BC philosopher and general Sun Tzu, who wrote in The Art of War, “there is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.”
Since then, the Chinese have pursued a more cautious foreign policy and focused the lion’s share of their resources on internal development. As a result of this relentless effort, they have accomplished in 39 years what even the most daring and optimistic China expert would have thought impossible. The government has lifted 800 million of its citizens out of poverty and has set the country on a trajectory that, if maintained, will see its economy overtake the U.S. in terms of GDP by 2032. If purchasing power parity is taken into account, China has already surpassed America as the world’s largest economy.
Backstopped by its trade surplus and foreign currency reserves, China has been on a building spree for decades. The country has invested massively in its infrastructure and while billions have been lost to waste and corruption, the investments will pay dividends for decades to come. New cities, ports, pipelines, airports, roads, and 18,000 kilometers of high-speed rail lines mean that China’s infrastructure now rivals that of many Western nations—especially the U.S. Moreover, Beijing’s investment in research and development alone topped $279 billion in 2017. By 2020, China is expected to overtake the U.S. with regard to gross expenditure in this space.
By contrast, Washington’s chief investment in the last two decades has been the war on terror, which has greatly contributed to its ballooning national debt. Since 9/11, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimates that America’s wars have cost the country $4.6 trillion, not including an additional trillion for meeting military veterans’ medical and disability requirements through 2056. Nor does that total take into account the trillions of dollars in interest payments—much of which will be paid to Chinese creditors—that will be required to service the debt.
Meanwhile, domestic infrastructure is crumbling, sometimes literally, rating a D+ according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which estimates that the U.S. will need to invest $4.5 trillion in its failing infrastructure by 2027. President Trump, like his predecessor, promised big spending on infrastructure, which he called “third world” during his campaign. However, his 10-year, $1.5 trillion plan is riddled with flaws and has little support in Congress.
While the Chinese have lavished money on infrastructure projects, they have been relatively abstemious with defense spending. The estimated Chinese defense budget has increased from $10 billion in 1997 to upwards of $228 billion today, but that still pales in comparison to Washington’s 2018 defense budget of $716 billion.
While modernizing its military is critical for Beijing, it has taken a measured approach to defense spending. Power projection beyond what it regards as its sphere of influence, largely the South and East China Seas, has ranked as a low priority. This is evidenced by where it is spending money. It has an antiquated aircraft carrier purchased from Ukraine, one indigenously built carrier undergoing sea trials, and two more under construction.
But it is no match for the U.S. Navy—at least outside of its coastal waters. China knows this, and as a consequence has built what it deems to be unsinkable, low-cost, permanent aircraft carriers in the South China Sea in the form of artificial islands. Since 2013, China has created 3,200 acres of new land on and around the reefs that make up the disputed Spratly Islands. The artificial islands on which China has built military installations allow it to project power in the South China Sea but not beyond.
So far China has shown limited interest in developing and funding bases abroad. While it is thought to have plans for bases in Pakistan and other nations that lie along the Indian Ocean, China’s only operational military outpost is in Djibouti. At present, the Chinese have no need to send a $110 million dollar jet halfway around the world to bomb a few men with Kalashnikovs as the U.S. so often does in its forever war. But that does not mean their economic and political influence isn’t being felt in places as far flung as Yemen and Argentina. In these and in many more countries, the Chinese are staking claims and, in essence, hoping to wait the U.S. out.
A senior aide to Yemen’s former minister of foreign affairs, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, told this author just before Yemen descended into war in 2015 (that the U.S. is deeply involved in), “the Chinese think so differently than Americans. They’re patient. Their first foreign policy objective is to not make too many enemies.”
He pointed out that the Chinese diplomats traveled around Yemen’s capital and throughout the country without bodyguards. Conversely, U.S. diplomats rarely left the American embassy, and when they did, it was only in a convoy of armored vehicles with Yemeni and American bodyguards in tow.
The diplomat went on to argue that China’s “second objective is to learn. They have people in their embassy who know more about what is going on in parts of this country than I do. Only after learning, do they act on their third objective which is to tie countries into their economy: resources and access in exchange for their imports and aid.” He added, “it’s their patience, their superior understanding of time, that will allow the Chinese to replace the U.S. as the world’s superpower.”
While the Chinese have been in a hurry to rebuild and modernize their country, they seem content to wait out foreign policy problems even if it takes a generation or two. One can see how this approach worked with Hong Kong and may in time ensure an upper hand with Taiwan. Sometimes doing nothing equates to doing more. In America it’s the opposite: both Republican and Democratic administrations have let present domestic problems fester while pursuing expensive, reactionary military policies abroad.
In contrast to Washington’s military-first approach, China’s signature foreign policy project today is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a critical component of its decades-long effort to restore its global power status. The BRI, which is well underway, is an attempt to spread China’s influence through investment projects in upwards of 68 counties along the old Silk Road connecting Europe to Asia by land and by sea via the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” component.
Projects in these countries involve infrastructure, power, education, railways, highways, shipping, mining, and more. China has already spent an estimated $300 billion and plans to invest $1 trillion more over the coming decade to realize this dream, which, according to The Economist, is “to make Eurasia (dominated by China) an economic and trading area to rival the transatlantic one (dominated by America).”
The first freight train from China arrived in Spain in December 2014, and in January 2017 a freight train from China made the journey to London in 18 days. The Chinese also plan to introduce high-speed rail links that will connect Asia with Europe. In January, President Xi Xinping announced the Polar Silk Road, which would utilize new shipping lanes in the Arctic Circle.
All of these projects are designed to open markets for China, which ties back into the “Made in China 2025” plan. Announced in May 2015, it is designed to upgrade China’s manufacturing sector by making it more efficient, quality-focused, and innovation-driven. The plan identified 10 key sectors—including information technology, new energy equipment, and pharmaceuticals—where China hopes to compete with the most advanced nations. Most critically, the plan aims to reduce Chinese dependence on imported components for its manufacturing sector.
The Trump administration’s decision to impose tariffs on China—while arguably long overdue—will reaffirm the importance and strategic necessity of both the BRI and the Made in China 2025 plan since they aim to reduce China’s dependence on the U.S. as a market and a source for imported components. China’s government will undoubtedly continue to try to negotiate a new trade deal with the U.S., but at the same time redouble their efforts to carve out their own global sphere of influence
Right now the biggest threat to that success is internal. Endemic corruption, insufficient rule of law, environmental destruction, a looming demographic shift, and ever-increasing economic inequality are all serious issues. In a country of 1.4 billion people, any one of those problems, much less all of them combined, could scuttle China’s rise. Its leadership, most especially Xi, appears to comprehend the gravity of these issues.
In a three-hour, 25-minute report delivered in a speech to the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress in October 2017, Xi projected a “great power” ambition, but acknowledged that grave challenges lay ahead. Significantly, most of his speech focused on domestic policy and needed reforms, including tighter regulations on the economy, increased government surveillance, and greater ideological control.
The leadership fears disorder and a restive population far more than any external threat—and for good reason. China’s domestic conflicts have been among the costliest in human history. The Taiping Rebellion alone, which lasted from 1850 to 1864, left an estimated 20 to 70 million Chinese dead.
To this end, China’s leadership is cracking down on political dissidents and is using the latest technology to track, monitor, rank, and influence its 1.4 billion people. A key component of this is its rapidly developing social credit system, which uses hundreds of millions of cameras and overlapping and, as yet, unintegrated systems that draw on “big data” to assess citizens’ behavior and assign a score to each. The scores are meant to reflect how “trustworthy” a person is. Points, depending on which system is being used, are deducted from the score for breaking the law, failing to repay a debt, “inappropriate” online behavior, and an ever-growing list of minor and major offenses.
A low score can cost a person access to planes and high-speed trains, or prevent him from receiving a job promotion or bank loan. A high score can lead to public recognition and preferential treatment like priority check-in at airports. The government is betting that such a system will tap into the same emotional triggers that drive hundreds of millions of people worldwide to obsess over Facebook likes, follower counts, and other forms of social media approval.
This is emblematic of the country’s tech-heavy approach to controlling, channeling, and managing dissent. However, Xi’s government has adopted harsher and more conventional measures for China’s minority Uyghur Muslims, interning hundreds of thousands of them in “reeducation” camps in response to protests and a small number of terrorist attacks by Uyghur separatists, according to recent reports. China views its ethnically diverse far west as its soft underbelly, an area ripe for foreign meddling.
Xi’s government is also pushing back against what many China watchers hoped was going to be a slow but steady move toward liberalization. Xi and those around him have taken to heart the words of influential late prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, who said if China were to adopt a Western-style democracy it would collapse. Lee, whose advice was sought after by heads of state from around the world, including U.S. presidents, asked in an interview, “Where are the students of Tiananmen now? They are irrelevant. The Chinese people want a revived China.”
The Chinese National People’s Congress broke with tradition in March 2018 and voted to remove presidential term limits from China’s constitution. The change means that Xi could be president for life. This move dovetails with the October 2017 inclusion of Xi’s political thought into the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution, a move that places him in the pantheon alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
This new heavy-handed approach to domestic policy is engineered to concentrate power and to maintain internal stability while delivering a revived China. But it remains to be seen whether these neo-authoritarian tactics will work, or result in diminished support from the citizenry. Nothing matters more to China’s government than continued economic growth. Without that, the hundreds of millions of Chinese who still aspire to China’s middle class—already the largest in the world—could well become restive.
The United States is blessed with many advantages: an open democratic society, the rule of law, abundant natural resources, a culture that has welcomed immigrants and spawned innovation, and the protection of two vast oceans. By contrast, China shares its borders with more countries—many of them unstable—than any other, is dependent on imported oil, and remains—at least on some levels—a closed society.
Yet the Chinese already rival the U.S. as a global power in parts of the world and may well overtake it as an economic power in the coming years. While China’s rise may yet be upended by internal problems, it is unlikely that it will jeopardize its ascent by pursuing the kind of interventionist foreign policy that the U.S. has pursued for much of the last 50 years.
China’s foreign policy, as demonstrated by the BRI, is rooted in realism, self-preservation, and a desire for influence and power. They are building railroads, pipelines, roads, factories, schools, and hospitals around the world. These are all things that the U.S. used to excel at. One need only remember the transformative Marshall Plan that rebuilt much of Western Europe, an investment that continues to pay dividends for the U.S. According to one analyst with access to China’s senior policymakers, the Chinese have conducted exhaustive studies of the Marshall Plan to understand how the U.S. used it to secure its own hegemonic empire following World War II.
In contrast, U.S. policymakers seem to pay little attention to the lessons of the past. The failed invasion of Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan should be foremost in their minds. Instead, a Trumpian foreign policy looks increasingly short-sighted, scattershot, and reflective of the status quo.
Even if the U.S. lurches to the left in the coming election cycles, the Chinese have little to fear. Interventionism is likely to remain the default response of U.S. policymakers, regardless of which party occupies the White House. And, it may just be its Achilles heel.
As the world’s oldest continuous civilization, the Chinese can and do draw from a rich corpus of writings on strategy. Among these is the 6th century BC Chinese text, the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao-Tzu, which articulates a strategy that enables the weak to defeat the strong. A key component of this nuanced understanding is letting your enemy defeat himself, of using his own power against him. The Tao Te Ching describes this paradoxical understanding: “should you want to contain something you must deliberately let it expand.”
So the Chinese will bide their time, do what they can to avoid conflict, grapple with their internal problems, invest in their infrastructure and citizens, build external alliances, and wait for the U.S., through continued overreach, to weaken and—finally—exhaust itself.
Michael Horton is a foreign policy analyst who has written for numerous publications, including Intelligence Review, West Point CTC Sentinel, The Economist, The National Interest, and The Christian Science Monitor.