CHINA HAS the look of a self-confident superpower. Beijing is testing geopolitical limits and asserting its influence almost everywhere; it is no laonger content to accept second-tier status among the great powers. This much was clear from a stormy meeting between high-ranking U.S. and Chinese officials in Alaska in March 2021. After Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan began by briefly enumerating American grievances with Chinese behavior, their counterparts—Foreign Minister Wang Yi and foreign-affairs potentate Yang Jiechi—responded with a blistering critique of U.S. diplomatic and domestic practices. Their tirade was reminiscent of Soviet propaganda attacks during the Cold War. “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States,” Yang taunted. “The leaders of China have the wide support of the Chinese people.”
Over the past half-decade, it has become ever more difficult for foreign observers to deny what Beijing itself admits—that China is pursuing a dramatic revision of the U.S.-led international order in Asia and globally. Yet that hegemonic challenge is not simply bringing China into competition with the established superpower. It is also bringing Premier Xi Jinping’s regime up against the most deeply entrenched patterns of modern geopolitics.
The impression Chinese officials seek to create is that history is now firmly on the side of a rising Communist regime rather than a decadent American democracy. History, however, might beg to differ. It shows that autocracies like China have consistently been outmatched by more liberal states over the past 400 years. History also suggests that China confronts a daunting strategic geography—including a beleaguered but intact international order—that is more likely to obstruct than enable its efforts. China’s path to primacy is harder than it might once have seemed since one traditional lane of advance—military aggression—is riskier than it was in previous eras. Finally, China is going up against a country that has destroyed, physically or geopolitically, every one of its great-power rivals over the last century. China may be the most formidable competitor America has ever faced—but America is perhaps the most dangerous enemy the world has ever produced.
The fact that China has risen so fast, so far, and with—until recently—so little global resistance is a tribute to the creativity of Beijing’s strategies for addressing these challenges. Yet many of those strategies worked best in a world that had been complacent about China’s trajectory. Today, America and other nations are beginning to focus in earnest on thwarting Beijing’s ascent. One wonders whether Xi and his subordinates are really as confident as they seem.
WHEN XI JINPING publicly declared in October 2017 that China was ready to take “center stage” in the world and blaze “a new trail” for others to follow, he wasn’t saying anything new. He was just articulating longstanding Chinese aims. Five years earlier, Xi had resolved that China must wage a long struggle for geopolitical primacy: It should lay “the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.”
Beijing has been pursuing a grand strategy featuring four goals of escalating aspiration. First, Chinese leaders intend to make certain that the Communist Party maintains its iron hold on power. Xi’s fundamental purpose, one official explained in 2017, was “ensuring the leading role of the Communist Party in all aspects of life.” Second, they are determined to make China whole again, by reincorporating alienated territories, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, into the CCP-led state. Third, Xi wants to create “Asia for Asians,” a regional sphere of influence in which China dominates while outside actors, especially Washington, are pushed to the margins. Finally, Beijing is resolved to make China “a global leader in…composite national strength and international influence,” allowing it to weaken the U.S.-led international order and erect more Sino-centric arrangements. Beijing’s goal, said Xi, was a “stable international order” in which China’s “national rejuvenation” can be fully attained. These goals are connected. The imperative of defending an illiberal polity has solidified Beijing’s determination to reshape its regional and global environment.
In 2019, Xi described the CCP’s tangle with America as another “long march”—an epic struggle for survival and supremacy. China’s march is well underway.
It has already achieved the political reincorporation of Hong Kong and is issuing explicit threats, punctuated by menacing military exercises, against Taiwan. It has been building up its military for three decades; it put more ships, between 2014 and 2018, to sea than the Indian, Spanish, British, and German navies possessed combined. Looking forward, Beijing is seeking to dominate the high-tech industries that will produce economic and military power in the 21st century. It is using a multi-continental initiative, the Belt and Road, to propel its economic, diplomatic, and perhaps military influence into countries from Oceania to Latin America by greasing large-scale public-works projects. Not least, it is weaponizing its economic heft to coopt international institutions, deter other countries from challenging it, and suppress “hostile” speech in democratic societies around the world. In 2020, China used the COVID pandemic it helped create as an opportunity to aggressively push its agenda on multiple fronts at once.
Certain Chinese strategists and intellectuals are now openly advocating a “new China-centric global economic order” and saying that Beijing should cast aside a U.S.-led system that is no longer suited for its purpose. And given the zero-sum strains of Leninist thinking, the tendency for interests to expand with power, and the fact that the Chinese strategic tradition—like the American strategic tradition—has historically emphasized primacy rather than parity, it seems likely that Beijing will aim for something greater than a mere balance of power. “Empires have no interest in operating within an international system,” writes Henry Kissinger. “They aspire to be the international system.”
The question, then, is less what China wants than whether it can attain the things for which it is openly striving. Understanding the obstacles Beijing confronts simply underscores how ambitious—and fraught—its agenda is.
THE MOST OBVIOUS obstacle is that autocratic powers do not run the modern world. Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin and his Soviet successors all mounted serious challenges to the global equilibrium. All were eventually defeated by their more liberal rivals and the coalitions they rallied. For at least 400 years, relatively liberal countries (by the standards of their time) have been the most powerful states in the international system. Autocratic powers start fights for global leadership—often causing cataclysmic damage—but democracies finish them.
There are good reasons for this. Democracies can typically borrow money more easily than autocracies, because they have deeper financial markets and can make more credible promises to repay. Open political systems underpin the open economic and intellectual ecosystems that deliver sustained growth and innovation: Democracies sometimes grow more slowly than high-performing autocracies, but their performance tends to be steadier over time. Democracies likewise excel at building alliances because domestic habits of tolerance and compromise also lubricate their foreign relationships. There is strong evidence that democracies have a military edge over autocracies, because they allow the decentralized decision-making and local initiative that modern warfare demands. Democracies even have a long-term advantage in decision-making, because the same constraints that water down brilliant strategic ideas help waylay terrible ones. Autocratic regimes, by contrast, may soar geopolitically for a time, but they usually crash back to earth in the end.
The Chinese Communist Party cannot cease being autocratic without ceasing to be the Chinese Communist Party. But its leaders understand, or did for a time, that it takes a smarter authoritarianism to compete with a democratic superpower. Post-Mao reforms, such as the rise of collective leadership and term limits, protected against the personalistic rule that produced two epochal disasters—the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution—in a single decade. The turn to authoritarian capitalism was meant to reconcile the demands of the market with the power of the party—and succeeded, beyond anyone’s expectations, for two generations. The People’s Liberation Army has acknowledged that its officers still struggle to take the initiative and adapt to the unexpected, and it has been trying to address these problems.
Meanwhile, the Party stole intellectual property on a historic scale to narrow the technological gap with the West. And it marshaled the resources of society to make potentially game-changing investments in AI, 5G technology, and other critical areas. Perhaps most ominous, Beijing is seeking to reduce the economic costs of repression by using pervasive surveillance and a big-data powered “social-credit system” to enforce political loyalty more subtly but more systematically. Over the past 40 years, Chinese governance has revolved around the effort to squeeze greater performance out of the system without surrendering an iota of political control.
Aspects of this strategy have delivered such remarkable results that it is now common to wonder whether smart autocracies will rule the future. Some observers fear that China will turn repression into a strategic advantage by using control of a captive population to vacuum up data that will power world-beating AI algorithms.
But the geopolitical limitations of autocracy are not so easily overcome. The Chinese army can streamline command-and-control, but its personnel will still be spending lots of time undergoing political indoctrination and lots of resources guarding against internal upheaval. The high-tech surveillance state in Xinjiang may be the future of authoritarianism, but the horrors inflicted there on the Uighur population—torture, mass incarceration, rape, forced sterilization—resemble the timeless methods of tyrannies past. The clash between control and dynamism remains real, as shown by Beijing’s support for economy-clogging state-owned enterprises and the decision to subjugate Hong Kong politically even at the risk of undermining its status as a global financial center.
When it comes to innovation, an autocracy can throw massive resources at particularly technologies or problems, but it is hard to unleash the creativity of a society over the long term without allowing the intellectual—and thus political—freedom that the party dreads. And if many democracies are economically interwoven with Beijing, few seem genuinely enthusiastic about the rise of a hyper-nationalist, Leninist power that perpetrates horrifying atrocities at home and unapologetically bullies other countries abroad. In sum, optimizing autocracy for competition seems to require tempering the most basic characteristics of illiberal regimes—an exercise that is inevitably difficult to sustain over time.
The exercise is not, in fact, being sustained. In concentrating power, purging his rivals, empowering political commissars to oversee private firms, and building a Mao-like cult of personality, Xi is making the Chinese system more responsive to his demands. American observers lament the fact that Chinese firms undertake geopolitically salient projects at Xi’s behest, whereas Washington can only encourage—often ineffectually—U.S. companies to do business in strategic hot spots. Yet Xi is also raising the odds of a neo-totalitarian future in which loyalty trumps competence, command trumps spontaneity, and the overall competitiveness of the system erodes. Indeed, if the Chinese state is getting “smarter” because of ubiquitous surveillance technologies, its institutions are getting dumber thanks to the return of neo-Maoist ideology and political tactics. China has gotten tremendous mileage out of its political model, but it may be becoming more vulnerable to the burdens autocracy imposes.
If anything, the strains on the Chinese system are about to get worse. Countries that fall off a demographic cliff—as will happen to China in the next two generations—almost always struggle to grow economically or underwrite successful military-modernization programs. A growing debt burden, severe environmental problems, and levels of inequality that should make a “socialist” system blush will pose progressively sterner demands on a political model that is becoming less supple—all while democratic countries are, presumably, closing off avenues for illicit technology acquisition and otherwise exacerbating China’s external pressures. The CCP has dreams of breaking through into a new era of global primacy. Yet muddling through may be the very best an increasingly autocratic system can manage.
EXPANSION IS THE NAME of the game for rising empires. In that respect, Beijing’s strategic geography is more advantageous than the Soviet Union’s was: China looks out on the vital trade routes of the Western Pacific rather than the (once) ice-blocked passages of the Arctic Ocean. Nonetheless, Beijing’s surroundings are, on balance, disadvantageous to hegemonic designs. For hundreds of years, would-be hegemons on the Eurasian landmass have provoked potent balancing coalitions that link the continental states they threaten with offshore powers who seek to keep that landmass fractured.
China is particularly vulnerable to this dilemma. On its Pacific frontier is a strategic cordon of actors—South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines—each of which enjoys a strong relationship with the United States. To the south are rivals India and Vietnam. To its north, China has a long land border with another ambitious, continent-size autocracy. America can project power globally because it is surrounded by weak or friendly states, but China is ringed by countries that are comparatively formidable and, in many cases, ill-disposed to its hegemony. Simply by giving support to China’s neighbors, America can create persistent insecurity along its competitor’s frontiers.
The predicament is worsened because China is challenging an order that is under stress but still very much exists. America still anchors alliances in the Western Pacific and around the globe. The liberal order is still embodied in organizations and relationships that benefit so many countries. We don’t live in 1945, when Soviet expansion seemed so easy because there were power vacuums everywhere. Even a frayed liberal order binds together many countries that, as they come to appreciate China’s intentions, may be inclined to counter its rise.
Beijing’s answer to its predicament has been multipronged and remarkably creative. First, China has chosen to coopt or exploit aspects of the existing order rather than confronting it head-on. For years, China reaped the benefits of an open international economy while pursuing a more mercantilist policy meant to yield eventual economic and technological supremacy. Within global institutions, China patiently placed its nationals or other friendly candidates atop key bodies, thus subtly turning their norms and operations to Chinese advantage. Where China built its own institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, it focused on filling obvious seams—such as shortfalls in funding for developing countries—in the existing architecture. Across these initiatives, Chinese diplomats used the language and logic of the liberal order—win-win cooperation, complex interdependence—to conceal a mounting challenge to the order’s underlying principles. The agonizing debates many democratic countries are having about the costs of economic and strategic rupture with China attest to the impressive results this strategy has yielded.
At the same time, Chinese officials have sought to turn the country’s geography to its advantage. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative is many things, from a bid to export surplus goods and capital to an effort to develop overland lines of supply and communication. Most broadly, it involves using Chinese economic and technological influence—loans, telecommunications infrastructure, smart cities, and other projects—to create a vast Eurasian zone oriented toward Beijing and thus unable or unwilling to resist its ascent. Belt and Road can, for example, help China encircle rivals such as India with projects that convey influence—and potentially military access—in Sri Lanka and Pakistan; it can allow Beijing to build global influence without confronting America’s Pacific alliances directly.
Meanwhile, Beijing has endeavored to weaken those alliances through hard and soft measures. Warnings that U.S. friends might be caught in the cross-fire of a Sino-American war, the use of economic inducements to lure away wavering allies, and the employment of economic sanctions against countries deemed hostile to Beijing are counterparts to the massive military buildup and steady gray-zone coercion meant to convince key countries that American protection isn’t worth much anymore. If the countries of maritime Asia drift away from Washington, America will lose the regional footholds it uses to constrain Chinese power.
Beijing has made some progress. U.S. alliances with Thailand and the Philippines are fraying, while Malaysia and Indonesia are desperate not to have to choose between America and China. Even Seoul might deny the Pentagon use of its South Korean bases in a conflict with China. Yet in other ways, the landscape is hardly reassuring. The growing cohesion and ambition of the Quad—a U.S.-Japan-India-Australia combination that unites democracies at nearly every point on Beijing’s compass—is precisely the strategic encirclement one might expect a country in China’s position to produce.
The Eurasian gambit faces great uncertainties, too. It requires, as a minimum condition of success, keeping Russia pacified—a task Xi and his predecessors have managed very well. But if history is any guide, the long-run prospects for cooperation between two revisionist, continent-size powers are not encouraging, and those prospects may dwindle further as the audacity of China’s Eurasian game comes into view. Meanwhile, Chinese resources are hardly inexhaustible, and the plunge in Belt and Road financing in 2020—after years in which announced funding significantly exceeded actual funding—raises questions about whether the project’s reality can match its hype. Even if it can, expansion creates vulnerabilities as well as advantages: Any strategy that involves major infrastructure projects in the roughest parts of Pakistan is begging for blowback.
That blowback could be quite severe. China needs Belt and Road because it is a resource-poor country that has badly depleted key assets such as arable land and fresh water in recent decades. This poverty makes China highly dependent on foreign imports of food, energy, and other commodities—the sort of dependencies a hostile superpower might squeeze in a conflict. Belt and Road is envisioned as a solution to this problem, but it cannot change the fact that Beijing is dependent on long, vulnerable supply lines it may have to pay a great deal to sustain. The project indicates China’s weakness—the fact that it is an increasingly barren country that must look elsewhere for sustenance—as much as its strength.
Finally, China is discovering what profound structural advantages Washington enjoys by dint of its position in the existing order. During the Trump presidency, America used existing relationships and institutions—whether NATO or the Five Eyes intelligence partnership—to begin building international coalitions against Chinese power. If Washington indeed constructs a liberal “tech coalition,” it may well do so by expanding the Group of Seven, a venerable club of advanced democracies. None of this will be easy, as Germany’s recent decision to cut an EU-China investment deal over American protests confirms. But the array of America’s strategic options for countering China’s ascent shows just what an uphill climb awaits Beijing.
CHINA’S PATH to the top is also impeded by another obstacle—the fact that outright military revisionism is more difficult than it once was. War, even great-power war, is not obsolete: If it was, the Chinese army wouldn’t be preparing menacingly to invade Taiwan, and Chinese and Indian soldiers wouldn’t be bashing each other with studded sticks high in the Himalayas. But since 1945, the combination of nuclear weapons and U.S. security guarantees has made it incredibly risky for a revisionist power to overturn the balance of power in a key region. Thanks to this intersection of technology and strategy, the postwar world has been biased toward the stability of a U.S.-dominated status quo.
Chinese strategists have fashioned two answers to this problem. One involves coercion short of war—for instance, the literal island-building and the subtler incremental pressure Beijing has used to assert control of the South China Sea without triggering a military showdown with the United States. This strategy exploits ambiguities along the front lines of geopolitical contention; it tests, but typically stops just short of, “red lines” associated with U.S. military commitments. The goal is to shift the calculations of regional states, by making them question whether their relationships with Washington are relevant to the most pressing threat they face—the continuing erosion of their maritime sovereignty. Over time, this strategy might produce a “win without fighting” outcome, in which Manila, Hanoi, and other players realize that resistance is futile, so they make their peace with Beijing.
The other strategy involves rupturing the status quo by preparing for short, sharp wars rather than an all-out rush for regional hegemony. Beijing has so far avoided the sort of nuclear-arms race Moscow lost during the Cold War (although that restraint may be slipping, given reports of a major nuclear buildup). Instead, the military has emphasized planning for limited, conventional wars meant to conquer Taiwan or subdue the Philippines in the South China Sea, while using anti-ship missiles, quiet submarines, and other “anti-access/area denial” capabilities to keep Washington from rushing forces to the rescue. One should never underestimate the potential for nuclear escalation in a confrontation between great powers. But insofar as the possibility of war figures in the PRC’s agenda, Chinese leaders appear to envision relatively quick, Bismarckian clashes that reorder the psychological landscape—and thus the strategic landscape—of Asia without triggering all-out conflict.
These strategies reveal serious dilemmas for the United States. One reason it was so risky for the Soviet Union to exploit its conventional edge in Europe during the Cold War was that Moscow’s conquest of the continent would have so changed the global balance of power that Washington might plausibly have used nuclear weapons to stop it. But precisely because the immediate stakes are lower in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, so is the credibility of any threat to use nuclear weapons to avoid defeat. Chinese strategy thus creates the prospect that America would have to make a huge conventional effort, potentially suffering heavy casualties and losing lots of expensive assets, to deny relatively limited territorial gains on the other side of the world. Meanwhile, American officials acknowledge that the creeping enhancement of China’s position in the South China Sea—the building of what Admiral Harry Harris called a “great wall of sand”—has given Beijing control of that body in all situations short of war. “America has lost” the struggle for East Asia, Prime Minister Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines declared in 2016.
Fortunately, it’s not that simple. Clever strategies aside, successful operations in the Western Pacific require projecting lots of power over lots of water—something that is extremely hard for any military, let alone one like China’s that hasn’t faced serious combat in generations. Darkening American assessments of what China wants have made it more likely that the United States would fight to defend Taiwan, while the Pentagon is making that scenario the centerpiece of its war planning and preparations. Defending that island would be incredibly demanding for the United States, but attempting to subdue it would still represent an existential gamble for the Party. And even if China succeeded in grabbing Taiwan, the geography of maritime Asia precludes a regional knockout blow of the sort that Germany administered to Europe in 1940. Other countries, namely Japan, would have the time and space needed to respond, perhaps by quickly building nuclear weapons that they would certainly use to defend their own soil.
Meanwhile, gray-zone coercion has pushed certain frontline states in Southeast Asia toward neutralism, but it has pushed other countries—notably the members of the Quad—toward stronger balancing with the United States. And as Beijing runs out of strategic space in the gray zone, it will face harder decisions about whether to test clearer American red lines—a dilemma the Trump and Biden administrations both worked to sharpen by clarifying what sort of Chinese behavior might trigger U.S. defense obligations to the Philippines or Japan. Even in the nuclear age, there is no easy way to defend U.S. positions in the Western Pacific. But there is no easy path to Chinese primacy, either.
FINALLY, CHINA is testing the patterns of history simply by taking on the United States. America is the most lethal competitor of the modern era, and it now has its sights set squarely on Beijing.
Consider the historical record. In an environment populated mostly by hostile autocracies, America became a continental behemoth and the world’s strongest economy within a century. It then achieved something no other modern great power has managed—lasting, if periodically contested, hegemony in its home region. During the 20th century, America or the coalitions it supported decisively defeated a series of illiberal powers—Germany (twice), Japan, the Soviet Union—that challenged its vital interests. Along the way, Washington peacefully wrested global leadership from the United Kingdom. For over a century, the surest path to destruction has been inviting the focused hostility of the United States.
America’s formidable record is the product of many factors. Vast resource endowments and uniquely advantageous geography have allowed America to project power globally without facing severe geopolitical threats near home. Similarly, the fact that America is powerful and far away leads countries all around the Eurasian periphery to ally with the United States against nearby predators that threaten their independence. The country’s relatively open economy has created great dynamism and innovation; its democratic institutions have allowed it, more often than not, to use its other advantages effectively. And the slowness with which America sometimes mobilizes to confront threats contributes to the single-mindedness with which it eventually combats them.
The type of superpower America is also matters. Because America is a liberal nation, it has taken a liberal approach to global power. Since 1945, it has delivered freedom of the seas, a global reserve currency, and a massive market for foreign goods, in addition to providing security and stability in key regions. Those attributes have made other countries support the American cause, which makes American hegemony even harder to overturn. Neither China nor any other country can compete on these dimensions: Beijing lacks the ability to act as a global security provider and the willingness (as a neo-mercantilist actor) to anchor a truly open global economy. It cannot fully open its market without exposing key industries to competition and wrecking plans to reduce strategic dependence on the West. Even if China’s raw power exceeded America’s, its ability to act as a comparatively benign and popular hegemon would not.
Having helped the United States defeat the Soviet Union, Chinese leaders understood the peril of provoking American hostility: This was the crux of Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum about “hiding” capabilities and “biding” time. Chinese statecraft in the post-Tiananmen era was meant to increase Beijing’s power while delaying an American response. The building of deep commercial and financial ties with the United States not only fueled Chinese growth; it also made it more painful for America to turn toward competition. The cultivation of American elites in academia, business, and politics strengthened supporters of continued engagement. Even as Chinese statecraft become more assertive after 2008, Beijing moved incrementally—in the South China Sea and elsewhere—to avoid giving America an eye-opening “Sputnik moment.” And even as the relationship deteriorated during the Obama years, the Chinese leadership used the lure of cooperation on climate change and talk of a “new type of great-power relations” to discourage a sharper pivot in American policy.
Historians will one day marvel at how well this strategy—combined with America’s post-9/11 distraction—worked. It took two decades, from the time serious observers began warning about the Chinese challenge, for the United States to adjust its statecraft decisively. During that time, China gained access to technology, capital, and markets that powered its ascent; there emerged an incredibly complex interdependence that continues to retard multilateral mobilization against Beijing. If the United States loses the competition with China, it will be—in no small part—because Beijing successfully anesthetized Washington to a growing peril.
The bad news, from Xi’s vantage point, is that the game is up. Predatory economic behavior that America once tolerated has become more threatening as Beijing worked its way up global value chains. Small nibbles at the status quo eventually added up to larger, more alarming shifts. The Chinese government prematurely let the mask slip after the 2008–09 financial crisis, with more assertive diplomacy that gradually made the thesis of America’s engagement policy—that Beijing would mellow over time—impossible to defend. And by the Trump era, China had simply gotten tired of waiting and disguising its ambitions. COVID then did more than any Committee on the Present Danger could ever have done to reveal both the utterly cynical nature of the CCP regime—which sought to stymie the virus’s spread within China even as it allowed continued travel from Wuhan to the world—and the fact that this behavior could mortally imperil Americans’ well-being.
China is no longer the “stealth superpower”—there is now a bipartisan consensus that America must thwart its global designs. From here onward, Beijing must forcefully wrest influence from a dangerous hegemon that is alert to a new authoritarian challenge.
STRUCTURAL CONSTRAINTS don’t determine everything: History wouldn’t be very interesting if they did. The United States always had profound advantages over the Soviet Union, but it wouldn’t have won the Cold War had it not worked feverishly to shore up Western Europe in the late 1940s and maintain a military balance that made Soviet aggression seem suicidal. Strategic urgency and commitment were what ultimately allowed America to make the most of its strengths.
That’s worth keeping in mind today. The fact that Chinese power and influence have grown so markedly in recent decades and that the resulting challenge has become so stark show the impact that determined, innovative strategy can have. The dilemmas that the United States confronts, in areas from 5G technology to the military balance in the Taiwan Strait, illustrate the costs of strategic lethargy.
Indeed, America is fully capable of squandering its advantages if it degrades or destroys its own democracy, declines to make domestic reforms and investments to maintain its competitive edge, fails to rally the overlapping coalitions needed to resist Chinese ambitions, or delays in driving the military innovation required to shore up a sagging balance in the Western Pacific. The list of hard policy problems America must urgently solve to prevail against China is itself long and formidable. And even if Washington does prevail in that rivalry, America may absorb significant setbacks—and the international order may absorb significant damage—in the process.
Yet as rough as the road ahead looks from Washington, it ought to look even rougher from Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party runs a profoundly illiberal regime that is trying to overcome centuries of liberal dominance. China is straining against a strategic geography and international system that surely seem more constraining than inviting. Chinese strategists must find a way of breaking America’s position in the Western Pacific while avoiding the potential cataclysm of major war. And Beijing is taking on a superpower that has thrashed all previous comers. Smart strategies have permitted Beijing to do remarkably well, so far, in managing these problems. But many of those strategies face an uncertain future, in part because the international complacency that allowed them to flourish has been replaced—gradually, but increasingly—with international concern.
This isn’t to say that China’s ambitions are hopeless illusions. In the coming years, there will be an intense interaction between an America that is adapting its strategies to deal with a pressing threat and a China that will have to adjust its own approaches in light of that response. Even American success in this interaction could bring new dangers: If Chinese leaders perceive that their window to achieve grand geopolitical goals is closing, then the regime could become even more aggressive in seeking to revise the global order while it still can.
Much thus hinges on the quality of decisions made in Washington and other capitals around the world. But the fact that so many characteristics of modern great-power politics seem to favor the United States probably gives the reigning superpower better options and more room for error than its autocratic challenger. Nothing is predetermined: Beijing may still succeed in displacing the United States as the primary power in Asia and, eventually, the world. Yet if it does, that outcome will represent a catastrophic failure of American statecraft—or an awesome triumph of Chinese strategy in overcoming the great obstacles that litter Beijing’s path to hegemony.
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