The One-Man Master Plan to Avoid War with China

Timing is everything for U.S. strategy in the South China Sea.

Two ideas have been tirelessly hawked by commentators about the Asia-Pacific in recent weeks. The first is that President Xi Jinping is the second coming of Mao Zedong for the unmatched power he wields over both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and his country. The second idea, often accompanied by island-spotted satellite images, is that right now is the moment for U.S. forces to rush headlong into the South China Sea to stop Beijing’s island building and maritime claims, and damn the consequences. Both ideas, however, are wrong. If permitted to percolate through U.S. policy, each could lead to misunderstanding and perhaps to war.


Xi Isn’t Mao

In its April 2 issue, the Economist cautioned, “Beware the cult of Xi,” fretting that the Chinese leader “has acquired more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.” In case the point was lost on any reader, a video posted on the Economist’s Twitter account morphed the cover image of Xi into Mao and back. Articles making similar points have appeared in other major publications.

Megalomania à la Mao is often given in these articles as the root cause of Xi’s power grab. For these China watchers, Xi’s strategy is a consequence of temperament. “[Xi] has shown a taste for audacious decisions and a loathing for dissent,” the New York Times explained of the leader, who is on a “steely quest for dominance.”

A purple description, but also a wrong one. China’s current president has of course consolidated power since 2012, but the reasoning behind his strategy is the opposite of what drove Mao. Even comparing the two on the simple point of having built up power in the CCP muddles the opposing logic animating each leader’s strategy. Above all, Xi seeks to be a guardian of stability and continuity, whereas Mao was a provocateur of disorder.

“The Mao era really is fundamentally quite different from the current era, even though Xi Jinping kind of draws on some of the imagery of Mao and some of the language of that period,” Andrew G. Walder, author of China Under Mao, noted recently. In contrast to Xi, “[Mao] didn’t talk about stability. He never would have talked about stability maintenance. Mao really believed that disorder was the only way China would progress.”

“I think that Xi Jinping’s job is fundamentally different from Mao’s,” Walder went on to say. “Mao had. . . up to the late 1950s, he had a highly disciplined and unified system, really. And he set about to smash it. He smashed it to pieces in the Cultural Revolution. . . . ”

Xi is many things, but a smasher isn’t one of them. “I think Xi Jinping’s view of the world is really shaped by the China that he grew up in, especially his fear of disorder, his fear of instability,” Walder explained.

The point is not academic. To view Xi with the unbridled power of Mao assumes that the current Chinese leader is freed from making foreign policy decisions with an eye toward domestic politics. In such a view, Xi can move the pieces around the chessboard as he pleases, and U.S. policy is simply a matter of catching the leader’s capriciousness at the right moment.

If, instead, Xi is on the defensive in preserving a fracturing, legitimacy-starved party, and if he is single-minded about not becoming “China’s Gorbachev,” then Washington should anticipate that there will be moments when Beijing’s foreign policy is more dictated by its CCP politics, and moments when it is less so. There will be periods when maritime escalation readily allows Xi to consolidate domestic power further, and others when it is a risk with diminishing or negative returns to the gains that the leader has already amassed. In the case of the former, U.S. policymakers could be caught off guard by Chinese escalation well in excess of whatever minor-to-moderate incident triggered the initial crisis. In the latter, however, the United States can push harder, and to greater effect.


Getting the Timing Right

When, then, is the best time to push back in the South China Sea? In the Financial Times last week, Senator John McCain made the case for right now, arguing,

“The potential threats China will pose in the South China Sea in the coming months demand a change of course that can reassure the region of America’s commitment and demonstrate to Beijing that its pursuit of maritime hegemony will be met with a determined response.”

The plan McCain outlined—a more robust Freedom of Navigation program, challenging any Chinese claims of an ADIZ—makes sense as a specific response to Beijing’s maritime actions. And China, for its part, is flagrantly pushing ahead in the South China Sea, with military aircraft landing in the disputed Spratly Islands on Monday. But hitting back hard now is only half a strategy. What happens when—not if—the United States and China have a minor-to-moderate incident in disputed waters?