The United States must learn to wield power in the correct way if it wants to move toward a world defined by law and peace.
The rise of China as a world power is a particularly troubling issue. The country is the largest engine of global growth, the largest trading nation, and the largest destination of foreign investment. It has used the Belt and Road Initiative as a soft power mechanism to win greater influence in the world. China is also exporting surveillance tools, embedding technology in 5G communications networks, and using cyber-capabilities to both steal sensitive information and shape political discourse overseas. It is converting economic and political weight into military strength, using civil-military fusion to develop cutting-edge capabilities, and bullying its neighbors, including U.S. allies and partners such as Australia, India, and Taiwan. And at home, it is ruthlessly cracking down everywhere from Hong Kong to Xinjiang, with little concern about criticism from the United States and other democratic governments, as stated by writer Ryan Hass in his story "China is Not 10 Feet Tall."
Rise of the authoritarian politics, and the existence of totalitarian countries like China, are shaping our world. The "America first" policy of President Donald Trump made China more powerful in international bodies because the administration's policies made us much less powerful abroad. Despite the power accumulated by China, it's still less powerful than the United States. Hass does a wonderful job in his story of warning Americans not to view the Chinese as any bigger threat than they are. He reminded us of our history and the thoughts of Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger who warned Americans not to inflate the power of Soviet Russia. Hass said in this story: "concentrating on China's strengths without accounting for its vulnerabilities creates anxiety. Anxiety breeds insecurity. Insecurity leads to overreaction, and overreaction produces bad decisions that undermine the United States' own competitiveness. Seeing China clearly is the first step toward getting China policy right."
However, China represents the biggest challenge to American power since the Soviet Union and we must learn how to manage that power without directly confronting it with military force. China is becoming more powerful in international bodies, it demands its totalitarian system be respected, that there be no challenges to its conception of national boundaries, and it also wants to be a leader in new technologies like artificial intelligence and electric vehicles.
China's geopolitical competitors must remember that China faces challenges in the future. Its population is growing older and this will shrink its gross domestic product, it can't go any further economically just from the fact that it has grown more urban and educated, it's running out of infrastructure projects, and rising levels of debt complicate its path forward. China will also face soft power projection problems with more countries holding an unfavorable view of it. It must be added that China's military will most likely be very constrained in the future, and it won't be able to project much power beyond its immediate region.
The realities certainly don't match the rhetoric we hear in the U.S. with large defense budgets being justified via fear of Beijing. It's not as if Chinese power isn't being balanced in the region.
It is bordered by 14 countries, four of which are nuclear armed. These include an aging but wealthy Japan, a rising and nationalistic India, an authoritarian Russia, South Korea, and a determined Vietnam. All these countries have national identities that resist subordination to China or its interests.
On the economic front, China imports half of its oil from the Middle East and it lacks enough agricultural capacity to feed its own population. Hass currently points out that inflating the Chinese threat will encourage the political weaponization of the issue. China will also serve as a tool for politicians of various parties to accuse politicians of opposing parties of being weak.
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