The Delusions of American Strategy

Washington looks for 'existential threats' in all the wrong places.

Notwithstanding the dangers posed by China at sea, Beijing’s real purpose may be to draw U.S. resources to the Pacific, while China focuses on the Eurasian landmass. Last year, President Xi Jinping announced construction of a road-rail-pipeline corridor to the port of Gwadar, Pakistan. Many China watchers consider this new “Silk Road” as but a single stride in a “long march” across Eurasia.

Alfred McCoy, the distinguished University of Wisconsin historian, contends that high-speed, high-volume railroads, capable of transporting not only commodities but soldiers and tanks, are part of Beijing’s plan to convert Eurasia into an empire “stretching 6,500 miles from Shanghai to Madrid.” McCoy (anything but a warmonger) contends Beijing would thus shift the locus of geopolitical power from the maritime periphery, dominated first by the British and then the American navy. The prospect of such a geopolitical revolution suggests we need to broker a deal to persuade Ukraine-obsessed Europeans to wake up. If Europe is distracted and Russia is allied with China, the latter will plow through Eurasia like a power running back.

As for “business opportunities,” China is promoting a mercantile import substitution policy in key industries such as software and semiconductors while subsidizing state-managed Chinese competitors. The policy discourages domestic companies from purchasing U.S. hardware, restricts American websites and apps, and engages in cyber-theft of codes, intellectual property and technology. Chinese hackers have stolen technology from private companies, four million U.S. government workers and more than twenty million Americans. Cyber attacks could cripple power stations, banking systems, cellphone networks and hospitals. In September, President Barack Obama warned of a cyberwar with China unless the latter curtails its activities.

China also aims to supplant the same international economic institutions that helped make Asia prosperous, the IMF and the World Bank. It has created an "Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank" and a "New Development Bank," neither observing the environmental, labor and procurement standards of traditional development banks. Furthermore, China is dangling financial and trade incentives to resurrect the old Silk Road trading route that once linked China and the Mediterranean. That could mean Pakistan and its neighbors will become Chinese vassals in the fallout of our Afghan war

Beijing, of course, is not without serious economic and social problems. But like other expansionist powers, it seeks to divert domestic dissatisfaction into external chauvinism. China watchers told us that China’s assertive new leader, Xi Jinping, would reduce domestic inequities and challenge Party corruption. However, his “anticorruption” campaign focuses chiefly on purging his rivals. Xi has emerged, Evan Osnos writes, “as the most authoritarian leader since Chairman Mao.” Xi is served by advisers (allegedly as corrupt as his opponents) who have tightened access to Western officials, and whose trademark is hostility to the United States. During Obama's visit last fall, Chinese state-controlled media banged out a drumbeat of anti-American conspiracy theories. All the while, its spies were reading State Department emails.

A “princeling,” Xi has vowed to “hold high the banner of Mao Zedong Thought forever.” Xi was both an activist in and a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where he learned to eschew its aberrations.

Both World Wars offer disturbing analogies. Before World War I, a rising Imperial Germany built a navy to rival Britain's. Before World War II, an one-party, totalitarian state portrayed itself as a victim of history, modernized its economy, stirred up nationalist grievances, covertly built an offensive military, made territorial claims against its neighbors and enforced them through blitzkrieg.

The Chinese leadership is far more nuanced and patient in seeking “lebensraum” than Nazi Germany, and today's world is more willing to accommodate a rising China than the Kaiser's Germany. Beijing’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back conduct suggests that its conjectured “protracted war” (Mao’s phrase) will, unlike that we have been examining, be subtle and deceptive if it is actualized. Michael Pillsbury recently documented that China sees its march to hegemony as a “marathon.” Can we afford to engage in two conflicts that promise to last for decades?


What Is to Be Done?