Chapter 2 Strategy (Week 2)

2.1 Discussion questions

Questions denoted with an * means they are not directly related to an assigned reading. They are generally designed to whet your appetite for next week’s readings.

  • Is China Germany before WWI? What evidence does Garver offer? Do you agree or disagree? Why?

  • Why did Weiss write this article? What is her main argument? Do you agree or disagree? Why? Is her argument still valid today?

  • Who is Xi Jingping? How is his leadership different from previous Chinese leaders? (*)

2.2 Is China Germany before WWI?

Garver (2015) offers an interesting comparison between China and Germany before WWI. Let us unpack his argument a bit. First of all, toward the end of the reading, he situates China’s quest for modernity in CCP’s embrace of communism. While economically China has moved away from Lenin-Stalin model, politically speaking the Lenin state survived the turmoils in the 1990s. Given the CCP’s view of the U.S. and the U.S. liberal missionary policy orientation, the future of China’s foreign policy as well as its relations with the major democracies hinges heavily on whether China will democratize and if not, whether China will be involved in a military conflict against Japan or the U.S. (and if yes, what happens if China wins or losses).

Note that this potential ideological battle could be averted, as Garver acknowledges, if these major powers can find a way of peaceful coexistence. This requires a different perspective of viewing China’s institutions (meritocracy rather than Leninist autocracy) and the liberal democracies (the U.S. in particular) to abandon their efforts in democratizing China. But Garver also argue that this may ran counter to the U.S. liberal foreign policy tradition and can encounter several difficulties. We will come back and revisit this point later.

That said, the core part of Garver’s argument is the analogy between pre-WWI Germany and today’s China. The most direct similarity is

“the resort to both aggressive and aggrieved nationalism to mobilize domestic support for the regime.”

— Garver 2021 p.759

Nationalism serves “both as the major legitimization of CCP authority and as an autonomous social force voicing foreign policy demands on the CCP” (p.766). One importance characteristic is the rise of anti-Western and anti-US nationalism in the 1990s (due to multiple factors including the post-Cold War experience of Russia, the success of East Asian “tigers”, the need of strengthening state, repeated clashes with the U.S., and the narratives by Chinese intellectuals). Driven by the rise of nationalism, CCP cannot afford to be seen as weak in response to national “humiliations”, particularly in the high-salient eye-catching hot conflicts (e.g. Taiwan strait crisis in 1995–1996, Belgrade embassy bombing in 1999, EP-3 aircraft collision incident in 2001), .

Concerning the role of nationalism acting as an autonomous social force, there are debates concerning whether they are state-directed or not. We do not need to delve too further into these debates. But it should be noted that the CCP elites are well aware of political rivals might exploit the opportunity to oust the paramount leader and that when people are on the streets blames are more likely to be shifted toward the party-state.

Aside from this similarity, there are many other factors.

  • “(T)he politically dominant elites in both countries are noncapitalist or even anticapitalist, yet both elites preside over extremely rapid processes of capitalist economic development … (They are) extrastate elites that maintain permanent control over the state.”
  • “fear of rebellion”
  • “the military’s role as protector of the authoritarian state”
  • “a strong sense of historically rooted national victimization”
  • “Bismarck’s and Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile and restrained diplomacy”
  • “assertive policies combined with great industrial and military power” which precipitate a countervailing coalition

Given the similarities, the historian’s answers to the above questions (i.e. whether China will democratize and whether China will be involved in a military conflict against Japan or the U.S.) are not hard to unpack.

2.2.1 The Crowe Memorandum

Rush Doshi, Biden’s National Security Council as Director for China, publishes a book (when he was at Brookings) that also invokes this comparison: The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order. Doshi draws upon the “Crowe Memorandum” by the British diplomat Eyre Crowe before WWI.

“Crowe’s second hypothesis was that important elements of German behavior were coordinated together through a grand strategy”consciously aiming at the establishment of a German hegemony, at first in Europe, and eventually in the world.""

— Doshi 2021 pp.3-4

Buidling on this comparison, Doshi puts forth the following arguments.

“A hegemon’s position in regional and global order emerges from three broad”forms of control" that are used to regulate the behavior of other states: coercive capability (to force compliance), consensual inducements (to incentivize it), and legitimacy (to rightfully command it). For rising states, the act of peacefully displacing the hegemon consists of two broad strategies generally pursued in sequence. The first strategy is to blunt the hegemon’s exercise of those forms of control, particularly those extended over the rising state; after all, no rising state can displace the hegemon if it remains at the hegemon’s mercy. The second is to build forms of control over others; indeed, no rising state can become a hegemon if it cannot secure the deference of other states through coercive threats, consensual inducements, or rightful legitimacy. …

China’s first strategy of displacement (1989– 2008) was to quietly blunt American power over China, particularly in Asia, and it emerged after the traumatic trifecta of Tiananmen Square, the Gulf War, and the Soviet collapse led Beijing to sharply increase its perception of US threat. China’s second strategy of displacement (2008– 2016) sought to build the foundation for regional hegemony in Asia, and it was launched after the Global Financial Crisis led Beijing to see US power as diminished and emboldened it to take a more confident approach. Now, with the invocation of “great changes unseen in a century” following Brexit, President Trump’s election, and the coronavirus pandemic, China is launching a third strategy of displacement, one that expands its blunting and building efforts worldwide to displace the United States as the global leader."

— Doshi 2021 pp.3-4

2.3 Now, what do others scholars think?

Not all scholars agree with the above comparison. For instance, Henry Kissinger in his 2012 book On China argues

“The essence of what Crowe described (and the Chinese triumphalists and some American neoconservatives embrace) is its seeming automaticity. Once the pattern was created and the alliances were formed, no escape was possible from its self-imposed requirements, especially not from its internal assumptions.”

— Kissinger 2012 p.522

Ryan Hass, also from Brookings, has a similar take, but with a heavier focus on America’s own strength in his recent book Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence. For a shorter reading, you can also check this report: Avoiding a Sino-American confrontation: Why the US should accommodate a rising China.

In early 2020, Robert Blackwill, former U.S. ambassador and current CFR senior fellow, published a report for CFR : Implementing Grand Strategy Toward China: Twenty-Two U.S. Policy Prescriptions. He points out in the report

“The key to reestablish Asian stability for the period ahead is for the United States, with its allies, partners, and friends, to successfully balance Chinese power, and at the same time to conduct artful diplomacy with Beijing. … If both foolishly continue to actively seek primacy in the Indo-Pacific, few consequential compromises will be advanced or accepted by Washington or Beijing.”

In particular, his list of policy recommendations include the following two points

  • accept that for the foreseeable future the United States and China will have incompatible political systems and two fundamentally opposed concepts about the sources of political legitimacy and how best to organize societies; and
  • reject regime change as a policy objective in word and deed

This points back to the qualifications that Garver proffer toward the end of his book.

2.3.1 Is nationalism an autonomous force in China?

King et al. (2013, 2017) offer more detailed studies of how the Chinese government navigate the social media strategically:

We will not delve into the details of these studies. Our main focus, however, is to reflect upon the state-directed vs non-state-directed debates concerning the autonomous role of Chinese nationalism. Aside from these two possibilities, the Chinese government can also play a behind-the-scenes role.

2.3.2 What do Chinese scholars say?

Yan Xuetong, in a recent Foreign Affairs article Becoming Strong: The New Chinese Foreign Policy, suggests that

“Beijing’s newfound confidence does not mean it will challenge Washington in every single domain. China rejects U.S. leadership on some issues, but as a developing country, it will limit competition to areas in which it feels it has an advantage, such as the fight against COVID-19, poverty reduction, trade, international infrastructure and development, digital payment systems, and 5G technologies, among others. Across the board, however, a post-pandemic China will make its voice heard with greater determination than before and will push back forcefully against any attempts to contain it.”

Yan 2021

In a different article The Plot against China?: How Beijing Sees the New Washington Consensus, Wang Jishi suggests the key problem is the diverging views between the two.

“Many in Washington argue …China has forced the United States to take a firmer stance. … The conventional wisdom in Beijing holds that the United States is the greatest external challenge to China’s national security, sovereignty, and internal stability. … Better understanding these diverging views of recent history would help the two countries find a way to manage the competition between them and avoid a devastating conflict that no one wants.”

Wang 2021

Pointing to recent issues concerning Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Wang further argues that

“The CCP believes that all these perceived U.S. attempts to foment dissent and destabilize China are part of an integrated American strategy to westernize (xihua) and split up (fenhua) China and prevent the country from becoming a great power.”

Wang 2021

2.4 So, what exactly are China’s strategic intentions?

The above debates boil down to the interpretation concerning China’s strategic intentions. There are many different perspectives. In 2019, Drezner has a paper at Security Studies that is considers a potential Chinese strategy without resorting to a great-power war: Counter-Hegemonic Strategies in the Global Economy. Drezner first lays out a set of rational strategies (short of major power war) a revisionist state can undertake to challenge the hegemon and argues that it should start from the ideational dimension. Tracing the recent policies by Russia and China, he finds that “In sharp contrast to Russian’s official rhetoric, however, Chinese rhetoric toward the current hegemonic order was not revisionist” (p.527). And “Contrary to the rational revisionist pathway, the security dimension has been the pillar where China has been the most aggressive” (p.528). He therefore concludes that China “seems far less interested in revisionist strategies”(p.528).

Brookings recently undertakes a two-year project to assess China’s regional and global ambitions: Global China: Assessing China’s Growing Role in the World. There are many useful resources here. For instance, you can check out this podcast where Hass and Doshi reflect on this project: Global China is contesting the US-led order. At around 10 minutes, Doshi talked about how China is challenging U.S. led global order.

2.4.1 Weiss’ argument

Jessica Weiss, in this week’s reading, discusses a different view on China strategic intentions. We are going to read her recent IO piece with Wallace that discusses Liberal International Order (LIO) in a different fashion. But the key research question concerns what China thinks of the LIO and what (optimal) strategies it is going to take.

Weiss tackles the following question: is China’s grand strategy built upon the effort to undermine democracy and spread autocracy? If the answer is positive, then the policy recommendations around containment can be justified. Weiss, however, argues that this is not the case.

  • Neither China’s economic nor political model is well suited for export.
  • China does offer an alternative to autocratic regimes. But this should not be equated with an intentional effort to remake regimes abroad.
  • Most people across the world still prefer U.S. leadership.
  • China’s policies have backfired (international image, domestic dissents, and “fear and suspicion in the very societies whose goodwill China needs if it is to maintain access to foreign markets, resources, and technology”).

In short, Weiss offers a similar take to some scholars mentioned above (Hass and Blackwill, for instance). Policy makers should avoid exaggerating China’s role in the recent democratic backsliding. A more balanced strategy (for the U.S.) is to recognize that this is not an ideological battle and work with China in areas of common interests (climate change). The U.S. should also welcome China in advancing global goods, while pushing back on areas that it is falling short.

2.4.2 Additional resources

For global perception of China, see a recent CSIS report here: Making America Great? Global Perceptions of China, Russia, and the United States: The International Scorecard. See also

For China’s internal security spending, see here: China’s Domestic Security Spending: An Analysis of Available Data.

For China’s PLA airplanes into Taiwan, see this Thread.

Paul Poast unpacks the meanings and implications of referring US-China rivalry to “Strategic Competition” instead of “Great Power Competition” in his recent Twitter thread. See also a related FA article: Biden’s ‘Strategic Competition’ Is a Step Back A switch from Trump administration language does nothing to clarify U.S. policymaking

For Chinese economy outlook, Michael Pettis’ recent thread talks about the “bearish” views of China’s economy model and financial system. See also China’s Economic Reckoning: The Price of Failed Reforms. For investors’ enthusiasm on China, see also

For China’s military power, see The Challenge of China’s Rising Power on the Seas: A naval arms race has surfaced in the Pacific, forcing the U.S. to find ways to counter Beijing’s ambitions without spurring a conflict.

China tests new space capability with hypersonic missile.


On China’s military deployment in SCS, see here.

What did China test in space, exactly, and why? These components would probably boost China’s nuclear deterrence

See below for some other topics.

Why the Quad Alarms China: Its Success Poses a Major Threat to Beijing’s Ambitions.

When Germany Was China Attempts to explain Berlin’s militarism tells us something about how analysts approach Beijing.

How China Exports Authoritarianism Beijing’s Money and Technology Is Fueling Repression Worldwide.

The Significance of Evolving Sino-Russian Relations with Alexander Gabuev. China and Russia Have a Shared Playbook for Afghanistan Experience in cooperating in Central Asia offers a fruitful model.

History of China’s Foreign Relations with John Garver