The attempt to understand the emerging rivalry between China and the United States has born numerous historical analogies that have included the Cold War, the Great Game, the tensions in Europe prior to the First World War, and the so-called Thucydides Trap. The central problem of these analogies that they all refer to competition between powers or systems of Western origin. The rise of China poses conceptual and strategic challenges that do not lend themselves to ready-made analogies from the official canon of Western military and diplomatic history. The conceptual and geopolitical dimensions of the Chinese threat are not accounted for the historical and theoretical explanations to which Western scholars and commentators are accustomed.
Western interpretations of Chinese history have similar limits when used to project ancient identities onto the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These overemphasize an alleged exceptionalism from an idealized ancient past and overlook the modern ideological and geopolitical roots of CCP rule in China.
The most significant geopolitical outcome of the world wars was decolonization. The most dynamic and deadly manifestations of the competition between the new superpowers that emerged after the world wars occurred in the contested spaces left behind by the former empires. The most dynamic and deadly manifestations of the competition between the new superpowers that emerged after the world wars occurred in the contested spaces left behind by the former empires. What was once the greatest prize among these spoils has become the largest player among them and the character of its resulting challenge to world order represents the axis of contemporary geopolitics. A civilizational struggle of the “rest” versus the West articulated by Mao and embraced by Xi is at the very core of the ideological foundations of the grand strategy of the Chinese Communist Party.
Mao’s Revolution and the Rise of the Third World
The reemergence of China into the international system occurred amidst the struggle by colonial and post-colonial countries to secure their independence from the colonial empires that had ruled them and the superpowers that superseded them in turn. China’s geopolitical position among these countries was unique in the sense that it could count itself among these colonized countries while historically being an empire itself. This feature of Chinese history led Mao, as well as subsequent Chinese leaders, to view themselves and China as the natural leaders among the post-colonial countries in a way that was not considered plausible for the United States or the USSR.
The paradoxical interplay between China’s superiority complex as a former empire and victim mentality as post-colonial framed a set of ambitions and grievances for Mao that would set him at odds with the superpowers. The first task at hand for Mao, as the leader of this emerging colossus caught between the superpowers, would be to secure freedom of action in a bipolar system. The second task would be to leverage China’s sovereignty and status to claim a position as leader and champion of the post-colonial spaces over which the superpowers were competing for influence. This, in turn, would lay the ground for the third task of world revolution, in which colonialism, as much as class struggle, would be a theme. China would regain a central place in international affairs through this process. In other words, world revolution would be the vehicle for world domination.
As U.S. diplomat Christopher Ford described Mao’s vision for world order, it was “essentially self-organizing around the moral pinnacle of civilization, now envisioned as the enlightened socialist leadership of the CCP under its visionary and virtuous chairman.” The Soviet Union relegated China, however, to the task of the “Eastern Revolution” while Moscow would remain the engine of revolution everywhere else. Mao accepted, for the time being, a “lean to one side” approach in which China would align itself with a European-based empire that continued to exercise tsarist-era extraterritorial privileges in Manchuria. A temporary alliance of convenience that functioned as an unequal partnership until China recovered strength would be a tactic that Mao would repeat again with the United States after ending his dalliance with the Soviet Union.
The tensions and contradictions in Mao’s alignment with the Soviet Union became fracture points after Stalin’s death. Mao’s seniority among the world’s revolutionaries and his credentials as an anti-imperialist resistance fighter mirrored his understanding of China’s historical memory and geopolitical perspective. The Soviet Union, for all intents and purposes, was still seen as a European imperial power. China, on the other hand, was a country that had been subject to colonial pressures in common with the rest of the “oppressed peoples” in the post-colonial spaces. No European power, including Russia, was considered to have the same degree of moral authority.
The Rise of Xi and the “Rest” versus the West
The relationship between the United States and China that emerged after the Sino-Soviet split has similarly encountered tensions and contradictions following the end of the Cold War. Mao’s vision of geopolitics has seen its greatest comeback under the highly personalized rule of Xi Jinping. A civilizational-scale challenge from the CCP has now emerged that goes beyond simply competing with U.S. strategic and commercial interests.
China under Xi is emulating Mao’s call for Chinese leadership of the ‘rest’ against the West while simultaneously working to undermine the societies and institutions of Western countries. The former has been articulated by Xi Jinping’s argument that the Chinese model of government and development is a better example for developing countries than the West because it will “speed up their development while preserving their independence” from Western influence. The latter is manifested by the use of corruption, espionage, and disinformation by agents of the CCP, including Chinese academic researchers and business ventures, in what FBI Director Christopher Wray described as “a whole-of-society threat” posed by Beijing.
The overarching premise of Chinese grand strategy is not simply a return to great power status or the vindication of an ancient civilization after a “century of humiliation.” In spite of protests and declarations to the contrary, a civilizational struggle is an intrinsic and inevitable staple of the CCP’s ideology and grand strategy. Whereas the original manifestations of Marxism in Europe sought to reinvent the West, the Chinese interpretation of Marxist ideology aims to displace the West altogether. The Party in Beijing understands the emerging rivalry between America and China not just as great power competition, but as a civilizational struggle of the “rest versus the West.” In this vein, the CCP seeks to build a Eurasian-based counter-civilization that can subsume the Western-led world order.
The Geopolitical Axis of the Clash of Civilizations
Since the original thesis for a ‘clash of civilizations’ was popularized by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington as a prediction for the international system after the end of the Cold War, it has become deeply controversial and unfashionable to suggest that ideas and perceptions about culture and identity might play a role in future tensions and conflicts. U.S. diplomat and scholar Kiron Skinner drew intense criticism for suggesting in 2019 that the wider civilizational gulf that exists between China and the United States than between the United States and the USSR would require a vastly different understanding and approach than what was applied to the Soviet threat.
The purpose for this focus is not “othering” the CCP or the billion and a half people subject to its rule. It is to reveal the “center of gravity” through which China under the rule of Xi seeks to displace the West and thus point to where and how U.S. strategy must change.
The first step must be to realize that it is not in the U.S. national interest to provide security and start-up capital for the CCP’s hegemonic ambitions over the developing world. American engagement in these regions, from foreign aid and investment to military intervention, should be urgently reviewed for any role they might play in providing undue advantages to Beijing. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan, for instance, should be subject to a drastic revision considering its close relationship with both the CCP and the Taliban in Afghanistan. All the same though, the United States should not be withdrawing from involvement in these regions altogether. The Belt & Road Initiative has strategic implications for U.S. primacy that involve the CCP gaining unprecedented leverage over the rentier autocracies of Central Asia and the Middle East while gaining gradual access to a land bridge across Eurasia. Any proposal to simply “pivot” away from the Eurasian heartland towards the Indo-Pacific misses the mark regarding the full scope and extent of the geopolitical implications of Beijing’s grand strategy. The United States should scrutinize and publicize instances where Beijing is involved in corruption and subversion in its would-be client states in Central Asia and the Middle East. This could include not just reports released by U.S. officials and diplomats but also providing tools and technical skills to local journalists and political activists to access and distribute this information. U.S. support, meanwhile, for allies such as Israel and the Gulf states is important in maintaining leverage to discourage these countries from bandwagoning with the CCP. Similarly, sanctions and deterrence against regional adversaries such as Iran will remain critical in thwarting Chinese ambitions to extend its influence and presence through the Eurasian landmass.