China’s primary strategic goal in contemporary times has been the accumulation of “ comprehensive national power.” This pursuit of power in all its dimensions—economic, military, technological and diplomatic—is driven by the conviction that China, a great civilization undone by the hostility of others, could never attain its destiny unless it amassed the power necessary to ward off the hostility of those opposed to this quest.
This vision of strengthening the Chinese state while recovering China’s centrality in international politics—both objectives requiring the accumulation of “comprehensive national power”—suggests that the aims of Beijing’s grand strategy both implicate and transcend the United States’ and China’s other Asian rivals, to replace U.S. primacy in Asia writ large. For China, which is simultaneously an ancient civilization and a modern polity, grand strategic objectives are not simply about desirable rank orderings in international politics but rather about fundamental conceptions of order .
Because the acquisition of comprehensive national power is meant to both increase the Chinese state’s control over its society and maximize the country’s overall capabilities relative to its foreign competitors, Beijing has consistently pursued four specific operational aims since the revolution—though the instruments used to achieve these ends have varied over time.
China’s Four Strategic Goals
- Maintain Internal Order
The first and most important aim pursued by China’s leaders since the founding of the modern Chinese state has been the preservation of internal order and the domination of the Chinese Communist Party.
- Sustain High Economic Growth
The goal of ensuring continued and unchallenged Communist rule leads to the second operational aspiration: sustaining the high levels of economic growth necessary to preserve social order.
- Pacify the Periphery
The external advantages arising from China’s high growth rates thus far have strengthened its capacity to achieve the third operational aim deriving from its quest for comprehensive national power: the pacification of its extended geographic periphery. Beijing has sought to accomplish this by deepening economic ties with its Asian neighbors to “reduce regional anxieties” about China’s rise; making common cause with some states, such as Russia, that have reasons to resist joining the larger balancing against China now under way in Asia; embarking on a concerted modernization of the PLA; and renewing older efforts to delegitimize the U.S. alliance system in Asia.
- Cement International Status
The CCP’s desire to preserve domestic control is enhanced by the final element of the strategic goal of maximizing comprehensive national power: enhancing China’s status as a central actor in the international system.
The fundamental conclusion for the United States, therefore, is that China does not see its interests served by becoming just another “trading state,” no matter how constructive an outcome that might be for resolving the larger tensions between its economic and geopolitical strategies. Instead, China will continue along the path to becoming a conventional great power with the full panoply of political and military capabilities, all oriented toward realizing the goal of recovering from the United States the primacy it once enjoyed in Asia as a prelude to exerting global influence in the future.
II. Xi Jinping as Dominating Leader
Xi Jinping has fundamentally changed the systems of Chinese governance. Under the preceding model, previous generations of Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping created a structure that embedded leadership and decision-making within a collective system of checks and balances that spanned a variety of bureaucratic institutions and included a substantial number of party elites. These bureaucratic procedures and prerogatives no longer function as before. Xi has introduced a new system by limiting collective leadership and marginalizing the traditional institutions of governance, relying instead on a small coterie of close advisors and an array of parallel structures to control policymaking. With respect to foreign policy, Xi has reduced the role of the State Council, Foreign Ministry and military in important decisions, giving him greater freedom from governmental machinery and the political and bureaucratic opponents that can influence Chinese foreign policy.
Because of Xi’s unprecedented power and influence, Chinese policy will increasingly be determined by his background and biases—and therefore will be significantly more unpredictable. The son of a revolutionary who fought alongside Mao, Xi reportedly sees himself and his fellow “princelings” as tasked with rescuing and reviving the Communist Party, to which he is dedicated. His dedication to the Party shapes his views on what he perceives as two of the largest threats to its longevity: corruption and liberalism.
Xi’s Foreign Policy
What sets Xi’s foreign policy apart the most is his willingness to use every instrument of statecraft, from military assets to geoeconomic intimidation, as well as explicit economic rewards, to pursue his various geopolitical objectives. In general, Xi’s policy has been characterized by bullying over territorial issues and selective beneficence on economic matters, with the looming application of geoeconomic coercion ever present. A third of my new book on geoeconomics analyzes China’s use of economic instruments for geopolitical purposes.