What Are the Sources of Chinese Conduct?

December 19, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaAmericaEventPanelGreat Power Competition

What Are the Sources of Chinese Conduct?

The debate over what China wants and why Beijing acts the way it does continues.

The Center for the National Interest recently hosted a panel of experts to discuss China's foreign policy. The transcript of the event can found below.

More than a half-century ago, George Kennan published an analysis of the sources of Soviet conduct that helped to shape US policy toward Moscow throughout the Cold War.  More recently, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff – an organization that Kennan founded and led – published an analysis of 21st-century Chinese conduct meant to provide the underpinnings for a new American approach to contending with Beijing’s growing might. 
Did Kennan’s successors hit the mark on China? What is the nature of our competition with China? And what should we be aiming for? 

To discuss these vital topics, the Center for the National Interest invited the following top experts to a debate on the matter:

Peter Berkowitz, Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, will present the case for its paper, “The Elements of the China Challenge.”  Dr. Berkowitz joined the State Department from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow.  He is the author of hundreds of books, articles, essays, and reviews on political thought, constitutional law, national security, and international politics. 

Elbridge Colby, co-founder and principal at The Marathon Initiative and former Pentagon lead for the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, recently co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs contending that the competition with China is not fundamentally about ideology – and that overestimating ideology’s role is dangerous for the United States. 

Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest, moderated the discussion.

Jacob Heilbrunn: It is my great pleasure today to welcome you to our symposium about a new State Department Policy Planning Staff paper called “The Elements of the China Challenge.” Today, I'm delighted to welcome Peter Berkowitz, the Director of the Policy Planning Staff, and Elbridge Colby, who is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and a valued contributor to The National Interest. And both of them are going to discuss this paper today. The paper itself is 70 pages long, and my assumption is that much of the audience has not pored over it in detail. So I've asked Peter to begin by giving us an eight to ten minute introduction to the paper, and then Bridge will respond, and then I will ask a few questions. But my greatest hope is that you in the audience will submit some probing questions to our panelists. I anticipate a very interesting discussion on “The Elements of the China Challenge.” And I'd like to welcome Peter now to begin the discussion.

Peter Berkowitz: Thank you very much, Jacob. It's good to be with you, good to be with Bridge, good to be with the audience. The essence of “The China Challenge” is easily stated. China's a great power. Like all great powers, China seeks eminence with preeminence within the established order. But distinctive to the People's Republic of China, governed by the Chinese Communist Party, China today seeks to transform the international order. That is the order established after World War II. The United States took the lead in establishing it. It's an order based on the principles of freedom, openness, and the rule of law. It's grounded in respect for human rights. China seeks to transform that order and to make the order-- a new order--serve the Chinese Communist Party's authoritarian interests and aims.

The challenge is easily stated. The elements take a little bit more work of the China Challenge. In the policy planning paper, we begin with explaining the break that the Trump administration effected with the conventional wisdom of China. For many decades, the United States, both right and left, have believed that after Deng Xiaoping’s opening up of the Chinese economy in the late 1970s that China would increasingly become, to use the stock phrase, a responsible stakeholder. That with economic liberalization in China, political liberalization would follow, and that the United States, other liberal democracies could encourage that liberalization by engaging with China and welcoming China into international organizations. Especially the last decade has shown that those hopes were ill-founded. The Trump administration, beginning with the national security strategy of 2017, began to see China correctly as China sees itself, as a great power rival to the United States, which aims to transform the international order. The Policy Planning Staff paper builds on the work of the Trump administration, both documents that articulate strategy as well as policy of the Trump administration. We in policy planning, in accordance with our mandate, take a step back, take a longer-range perspective, and attempt to see the challenge whole. We also attempt to sketch a framework for securing freedom.

So what are the elements of China's conduct? We identify several. First, China is—the Chinese Communist Party rules China in a dictatorial fashion that reflects Marxist Leninist dogma of 20th century practice. As I said, in China, you find a one-party repressive state. They've created a massive surveillance infrastructure, in order to censor the people, in order to promulgate disinformation, in order to undertake schemes of ideological indoctrination. They repress religious and ethnic minorities; more than one million Uighurs in reeducation camps, in Xinjiang. Six million Tibetans are repressed. Increasingly, ethnic Mongolians in Northeast China are subject to tighter sanctions. And some 70 million Christians in China face challenges in practicing their faith. In addition to dictatorship at home, through brazen schemes of economic coercion and cooptation, China seeks to induce dependence in nations in all regions of the world. Moreover, China seeks to rewire international organizations from within, infusing them with Chinese—I should say the CCP's—authoritarian norms and standards. And not least, the Chinese Communist Party seeks to develop a world-class military that will equal and eventually surpass that of the United States.

These are the elements of China's conduct. They form a worldwide pattern. But to understand the meaning of China's actions around the world, to acquire a full meaning of them, one also has to understand the ideas that inform China's conduct. By understanding these ideas, one gets a better understanding of communism, the Chinese Communist Party's understanding of China's place in the world, and the proper order. We argue in the Policy Planning Staff paper that the Chinese Communist Party's sensibility is authoritarian, collectivist, and imperial, and it's nourished by two sets of ideas. One set of ideas, I've already mentioned, conventional Marxism-Leninism, but then refracted through traditional Chinese notions. The second body of ideas is an extreme interpretation of Chinese nationalism. Much of the time, we're accustomed to thinking of communism, which envisages a worldwide society, universal society, and nationalism, which focuses on the interests, the cultures and traditions, and the political destiny of a single people—most of the time, we're accustomed to think of nationalism and communism as conflicting schools. But the Chinese Communist Party reconciles these conflicting schools by understanding Chinese national rejuvenation to consist in not only repairing the state of the country after its century of humiliation from the Opium Wars of the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, but also through attaining great power status and reorganizing the world, again, to reflect China's authoritarian norms. This is what Xi Jinping refers to frequently as The Chinese Dream of National Rejuvenation, which will receive expression in a community of common destiny for mankind.

Now, we don't think that the ideas that inform China's conduct or China’s conduct are somehow inevitable. They're not a reflection of the Chinese people. We distinguish the Chinese people, the people of China, from the Chinese Communist Party, their reflection of ideas embraced by the party. We know that the ideas are not inevitable because we can see in other areas in the region, people equally steeped in Confucian culture who have chosen freedom and democracy. The people of Hong Kong, whose freedom was crushed this spring by the Chinese Communist Party. The people of Taiwan have chosen freedom and democracy. The people of South Korea have chosen freedom and democracy. Maybe one day, the people of China will, too.

Now, we also identify vulnerabilities that mark the regime of the Chinese Communist Party. Some of those vulnerabilities are endemic to all authoritarian governments. All authoritarian governments—here I should say, generally and for the most part, authoritarian governments throughout history have shown difficulty in maintaining innovation and correcting for weaknesses over the long haul, because of their suppression of dissent. Authoritarian governments throughout history have shown difficulty maintaining alliances, both because they're vicious, and because they're untrustworthy. And over the long haul, authoritarian governments have had to expend great sums in repressing dissent at home. So these are general weaknesses associated with authoritarian governments. Of course, there are weaknesses that are specific to the Chinese Communist Party. Various forms of economic instability beginning with the 600 million or so—yes, 600 million or so—Chinese people who still live as peasants on roughly $140 American dollars a month. There are demographic problems, there are problems of gross pollution, there are problems that are the costs of maintaining the massive surveillance state. And finally, for now at least, China faces the increasing problem that with a greater and greater understanding of its role in covering up the Novel Coronavirus that emerged from Wuhan and its worldwide disinformation campaign, there's a growing awareness in nations around the world that the Chinese Communist Party is unreliable, is not an honest partner.