The core theme of Jonathan D. T. Ward’s recently published book China’s Vision of Victory is clear from its striking cover art: Lady Liberty struggles to hold her torch of freedom aloft above red waves, under which she has been almost completely submerged. The message is obvious: the United States, and the ideas it represents, are about to be swamped by the rising tide of a Chinese empire.
Only a few years ago this kind of imagery would have signaled to America’s foreign-policy establishment that the book could be dismissed out-of-hand, an alarmist screed to be set carefully aside like Peter Navarro’s “Death by China” (replete with a jagged, “Made in China” dagger plunging into the heartland of a bloody America).
Times have changed, however, and today the book no longer feels out of place. Indeed it captures better than any other the current zeitgeist in Washington, which finds itself rapidly reorienting to embrace a new era of “strategic competition” with Beijing. This helps explain why, despite being a relatively young scholar, Ward’s work has achieved a notable degree of attention and influence inside the U.S. government—and the Pentagon in particular, as evidenced by a foreword by Adm. Scott Swift and glowing endorsement by Gen. David Petraeus.
Ward sets out to document and explain the national objectives of China’s leadership. Veteran China watchers will find little new here, as the titular “vision” is the familiar “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” that constitutes Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”—or the goal of transforming China into the world’s top power by 2049. Ward’s slim volume does this in a concise, straightforward, and generally excellent fashion and it is thus primed to serve as a defining pocket guide for Washington’s new cold warriors in the years ahead.
Ward summarizes China’s national project as an obsessive “building up of the things on which a nation’s power consists, such that China can become, in many of our lifetimes, a global power ‘second to none.’” He concludes that, if successful, this “will mean a world in which China is de facto the world’s leading superpower, capable of extending its military, economic, financial, and ideological influence and power into every place on earth not limited by other nations or by coalitions of nations.”
He points out that we cannot expect China to grow into an economic behemoth yet somehow remain uninterested in flexing newfound military muscles to protect far-flung interests, indulging in coercive diplomatic influence, or remaking the international order in its own image. Indeed this would be thoroughly ahistorical. Every past empire has at least attempted to do the same—even if their empire was “accidental” and their original intent benign. “With economic supremacy,” Ward explains, “the rest will follow.”
This is one of the book’s major strengths: explaining that “the rise of China reminds us of something both very new and very old: the age of empire is not over.” Indeed it never left, despite any confusion engendered in Washington by America’s “unipolar moment.”
A second strength is in calling out the indecisive “engage but hedge” strategy that until recently dominated America’s foreign policy for dealing with Beijing. Ward demonstrates the utter insufficiency of such a lackluster strategy for meeting the challenge of a confident, determined, and rapidly developing China that is wholly uninterested in settling comfortably into an American-led liberal international order.
The book therefore serves as a counterpoint to the “open letter” recently published and signed by scores of influential China experts and foreign-policy veterans disapproving of the Trump administration’s more adversarial approach to China. It naively asserts that Beijing is not interested in or capable of displacing the United States as a global leader, and offers only a rather vague redux of “engage but hedge” as strategic alternative.
Ward, who does little to hide his disdain for those “established experts” whom he describes as having, inadvertently or not, “empowered” China’s rise, is clear about what he believes is the necessary course correction.
If “the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy is intended to deliver the creation of a new world system with China at its center—and the de facto end of an American-led world,” he writes, then: “The United States and other democratic powers must strengthen our connectivity, and economic, military, technological, education, and innovation potential, in ways which enable us to build ourselves and build each other, while closing China off from access to the things that pave its way to power.”
Ward, in essence, issues a passionate call not just for building up American power, but for what the Chinese would describe as “holding China down”— that is, for a full-bodied economic and military containment strategy.
But this is where the book’s main weakness becomes apparent. At times some readers, especially international readers, may naturally begin raising uncomfortable questions of basic fairness—sensing the unmistakable odor of American hypocrisy.
When Ward laments that “China is repositioning itself to be the centerpiece of the world economy, and eventually the leading economic power on earth,” and that its “intention to master future technologies and global markets is explicit,” the reader may wonder why 1.3 billion Chinese people shouldn’t have the right to enjoy middle-class prosperity, and whether the United States is simply scared of facing real economic competition.
Ward warns that China’s military is modernizing fast, that China’s many global trade routes may soon “be patrolled and defended by an expanded Chinese military that is ‘second to none’ as a maritime power,” and wonders how a person is able to “reconcile this growing military power with the profession of peaceful intentions.” This may prompt some readers to chuckle and recall the old slogan “America’s Navy: A Global Force for Good.”
When Ward complains that China often deploys rhetoric about peace and cooperation, when its diplomacy in fact has “everything to do with the advancement of its geopolitical interests,” the reader may scoff at America’s many adventures in regime change, not to mention “America First.”
Experienced readers will at this point be rolling their eyes at the “whataboutism” of the last few paragraphs—a favorite tactic of Chinese and Russian propagandists. The problem is that, by focusing primarily on China’s material rise and its economic challenge to American predominance, Ward’s book makes this kind of comparison all too easy.
His proposed strategy requires a united democratic front able and willing to contain China. But the world, not to mention the American voter, is going to need some convincing. And make no mistake: much of the world is today in no mood to accept the idea that they should help America remain top dog simply because it has enjoyed the position since 1945 and feels entitled to keep it that way. It’s going to take a stronger argument.
This is doubly true because the risk of a Cold War-style containment strategy sliding into a hot war is very real.
Toward the end of his book, Ward criticizes Graham Allison’s concept of “Thucydides’ Trap,” which suggests that China’s rise, and the fear this has instilled in America, will create structural tensions that push the two countries inexorably toward war. He believes Allison is more concerned with avoiding war than with “avoiding Chinese victory” and brushes over the possibility of conflict by suggesting that war can be prevented if China is held down by economic containment and a strong military deterrent.
But this is overly simplistic, if not disingenuous. Ward himself documents in detail how the dream of China’s “restoration” is “not the Communist Party’s alone,” but is the iron thread uniting two hundred years of deep Chinese nationalism and strong feelings of historic victimhood into an overwhelming sense of destiny. For China’s leaders, fulfilling this vision is a matter of life and death. The likelihood that China will greet its cancellation with sullen acceptance is low.
Instead the truth is that our leaders must convince the American people, and the world, that if war with China does come, then it will be worth fighting. Indeed, until an American president can do this, a coherent strategy and concerted U.S. national effort like that brought to bear against the Soviet Union will remain impossible.
Nor will we be able to deter Beijing. As Australia’s Hugh White has written, broad public buy-in is an “essential first step,” because if “US leaders cannot convince Americans that its leading role in Asia is worth going to war with China to defend, then they cannot convince the Chinese. And if they cannot convince the Chinese, then the Chinese will not be deterred from the assertive behavior which is so effectively undermining US leadership in Asia today.”
Thus the book helpfully illustrates, even for those who agree with Ward, how critical it will be to get the messaging right on what the real problem is with China’s rise. Focusing less on China’s growing prosperity, prestige, and power, and more on the Chinese Communist Party’s widespread human rights abuses and dystopian political ideology seems like it would be a much stronger platform for winning over the democratic world.