China is the single most formidable peer competitive threat faced by the United States. It alone has the potential to replace the United States as the world’s hegemon, an ambition the Soviets may have possessed but never could have achieved due to their weaknesses, particularly economically. We can foresee a future where China has the ability to force Washington to yield and cede its regional and global interests in favor of Beijing’s. China’s greater willingness to use coercion to advance its interests provides a window into that future, as its territorial expansion and militarization of the South China Sea illuminate. Whether the United States can remain the preeminent force for free and open societies in the face of a rising China is the defining element of international politics in the twenty-first century, and the most immediate U.S. national security policy interest.
An understanding of the future of the Sino-American confrontation entails an understanding of why both China and the United States are motivated for conflict. Despite the importance of the issue, the nature and scope of the threat are still not fully grasped in America. However, there are three ways to understand Sino-American confrontation. First, there are the causes: the change in the balance of power in China’s favor and the conflicting ideologies of the two states. Second, the United States leadership and the American people must understand “Why China Fights.” That is, what the Chinese leadership want, and why they are willing to fight America. Third, Americans must grasp “Why the U.S. Fights,” to maintain freedom and other liberal values and to preserve its dominant position, while comprehending the fundamental advantages Washington possesses. Illuminating the two conceptions of victory demonstrates the ultimate and irreconcilable gap in the visions for international politics between Washington and Beijing, and consequently why conflict—certainly cold, and very possibly hot—is inevitable.
The Causes of the Sino-American Conflict: Shifting Balance of Power and Ideology
From both the Chinese and American perspectives, two fundamental factors explain the source of the conflict. First, the Sino-American struggle is material—economic and military power matter, particularly the shifting balance of relative power from the United States to China. This shift feeds ambition in China and fear in Washington. Given its strongly nationalistic and ethnocentric beliefs, China as a rising hegemon would challenge any dominant state—as it did the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It is of historical importance that this is the first time in its long history that China is a rising hegemon. In its past, it was the dominant state in Asia—the primary world it knew. Even after its defeat in the First Opium War, China maintained the pretension that it was still dominant until colonization by Europeans, Japanese, and Americans forced the abandonment of its pretensions. Now, for the first time in its history, China is the challenger to the dominant state. This is something new in the history of empires because the example of China shows you can be on top, lose it all, and return to greatness or even dominance. In historical context, this is a remarkably impressive feat—unmatched by any empire in history.
Second, the cause of the struggle is also inherently ideological. Ideology illuminates what will be gained for the victor—the return of the Middle Kingdom or the triumph of freedom—and what will be lost for the defeated. It inspires the leadership and population of both sides. It also provides an understanding of the intensity of passion on the Chinese side—the hatred for America for hindering China’s return to its rightful position and for Washington’s arrogance. Beijing and Chinese citizens are also upset with Americans for not realizing its time is past, and so it must yield gracefully to the new hegemon. Yet so far, a concomitant level of strategic focus and passion is absent on the U.S. side. That needs to change.
“Why China Fights:” The Return of the Middle Kingdom
The Chinese seek confrontation in order to achieve their conception of victory—the return of the Middle Kingdom’s suzerainty and the replacement of Washington by Beijing as the dominant power in international politics. This ambition is a natural one for the Chinese leadership and population, and is caused by their conception of China’s place in the world. For the Chinese, or more particularly, the majority Han population, there is the supremacist belief that the Han are the greatest people, the creators of the most sophisticated polity, and to whom other peoples and states should be deferential.
For Han-supremacists, it is right and proper that China dominates international politics because China was the most advanced, culturally refined, and humane civilization in history. Han-supremacy is anchored in millennia and is a core component of Chinese political culture. Consequently, it is a far deeper force than Communism or capitalism. Han culture is viewed as the epitome of civilized life and contains traditional values of industriousness, discipline, patriotism, love of the Han and their history.
In essence, the Chinese seek a Warren Hardingesque “return to normalcy,” where they resume their position as the epitome of civilization and the world’s fountainhead of economic and political power. For its adherents, the United States is a malevolent force which seeks to prevent the natural and right order of international politics—Chinese hegemony—from returning. This perspective is not likely to change.
Beijing will fight the United States because it is the single major impediment to China’s strategic objectives. With America removed, there is no single power, or constellation of powers such as Australia, Japan, and India, that could prevent Beijing from achieving its aims, which Xi Jinping transparently and boldly advances in his conception of a hegemonic China by 2049. The United States is the barrier to the realization of China’s ambitions and is its ideological opponent, and so it is the focus of China’s enmity.
“Why the U.S. Fights:” Preservation of Freedom
U.S. leadership seeks to maintain its position because that is best, first, for U.S. security; second, the security of its allies; and third, for the promotion of its ideology. America’s ideological push is vital to ensure that freedom and democratic government, open societies, and free markets are the dominant values of international politics. In sum, Washington fights for the international order it created after World War II, and which it expanded after the Cold War.
America seeks to maintain the status quo, its position and the order it has known, and that both Washington and the American people expect to continue. That expectation was conceived and conditioned in the calm geopolitical seas of the 1990s and 2000s. That time is past. As China has risen, Washington must now battle to maintain its place in the world and the dominance of its military, economy, ideology, and technological leadership. Indeed, America is forced to fight to defend its position, allies, and values. But this cannot be wholly a defensive war, the United States must actively confront China in each realm, and put China on the back foot in order to ensure the United States and its allies triumph in each aspect of the competition.
While the military and economic components are essential, ideology is their equal. Ideology is critical for Washington as it motivates the U.S. response to China with a comprehension, energy, and vigor that material forces cannot. As the U.S. Navy historically contends: “ships don’t fight, men do.” People fight to defend their country and ideology. Accordingly, the value of the ideology of the United States is the spine that supports U.S. power. U.S. ideology unifies and inspires the American people, as well as ideological sympathizers around the world, and explains why China’s ideology and vision for the world should be resisted.
In explaining “Why We Fight,” the United States must contrast its dynamic, innovative, free, and open society, with the wealthy and increasingly prosperous, but ethnocentric, racist, and closed society of the Chinese. The West went through a Civil Rights Movement to create cultures of anti-racism throughout their societies. In China, the idea of a Civil Rights Movement that would aid the condition of women and minorities, and so undermine Han-supremacy, is unthinkable. That stark recognition captures the profound differences between the two societies. Equally importantly, U.S. ideology may serve to undermine the legitimacy of the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party of China in the minds of the Chinese people.
Ideology also provides Washington with key advantages. As a free and open society, the United States is a better ally for states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, than China, whose alliances are frequently characterized by abuse of its erstwhile ally’s people and resources. In contrast to China, U.S. decision-making is transparent to allies, it is a dynamic and inclusive society, and has a long history of protecting the interests of its allies, and treating them as equal partners. America’s free and open political principles make the United States a more valuable and dependable ally.
Moreover, as U.S. power declines relative to China’s, Washington is likely to depend more on ideology than economic and military power. Consequently, the United States will have to depend more on its allies and other cooperative states, in Europe, Asia, and Africa. This situation plays to the United States’ ideological strength and is a great advantage for Washington. China seeks resources globally, offering infrastructure development and foreign direct investment to the many states willing to partner, if not yet align, with it. Thus far, the United States has chosen not to match China’s ability in these categories, but it does—hands down—far exceed China’s ability to inspire the people of the world.