The Real China Challenge: Imperial Overstretch

February 24, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: National SecurityChinaLeadershipWarEconomy

The Real China Challenge: Imperial Overstretch

At some point soon, Beijing will be unable to fulfill commitments and therefore make itself vulnerable.

It is in this context that Trump’s National Security Strategy poses a threat to an increasingly turbulent and unstable China. The president perceives the world to be in a state of “continuous competition” instead of cooperation. The approach of the National Security Strategy is bad news for a China that still relies on an America that maintains generous, decades-old policies.

As more in Washington come to that realization, China will lose crucial American support. “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region,” the National Security Strategy states. The document also makes this not-so-veiled threat: “We are under no obligation to offer the benefits of our free and prosperous community to repressive regimes and human rights abusers.”

As views on China change, Americans’ perceptions of their own country will change as well. “The decline and decay of America is an old standby, not only in the foreign or hostile press, but the American press as well,” Waldron observes. “Bernard Baruch always said, ‘Never sell short the United States of America.’ As I survey the horizon I see no American decline. It is a recurrent delusion among foreign policy intellectuals.”

ONE FINAL point. The commonly accepted view that Trump is withdrawing from the world is at odds with his National Security Strategy. Yet even if America were abandoning global leadership, the notion that the United States is losing the ability to influence China is wrong. Paradoxically, American withdrawal would probably enhance its leverage.

The United States is in a period of renewal, something evident from its resurgent economy. At the same time, Beijing, eager for global influence, is rushing to fill what it perceives to be a vacuum. “As the U.S. retreats globally, China shows up,” said Maj. Gen. Jin Yinan of China’s National Defense University, as reported by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker. China, as we can see from General Jin’s gleeful comment, is stretching itself thin.

The Chinese think they can move to center stage, as Xi Jinping boldly announced in his three-hour, twenty-three-minute Work Report, delivered at the opening session of the Communist Party’s Nineteenth Congress in October. Center stage? At some point soon, Beijing will be unable to fulfill commitments and therefore make itself vulnerable. Yale’s Paul Kennedy called that “imperial overstretch,” and Beijing now has a bad case of it.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

Image: Reuters.