What does Xi Jinping’s China want? The answer, in the wake of the 20th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress last October that left Xi firmly ensconced as the country’s supreme leader, seems to be: more—more power, more influence, and more territory. The territory it seeks includes much of the Pacific Ocean as well as the now de facto independent and genuinely democratic island of Taiwan. Because China’s expansive ambitions threaten the geopolitical interests and political values of the United States, as well as those of many other countries, a pressing foreign policy question all these countries face is how to check China’s ambitions so as to defend those interests and values.
That question, however, begs a different, less frequently asked, less urgent, but no less important one: Why does China to seek to expand its power, influence, and territory? What, to put it differently, is at the root of its aggressive conduct beyond its borders? Eliminating that cause (or causes) would, in theory, end the threat that China poses to the rest of the world.
China’s expansive ambitions have at least four plausible causes, which are not mutually exclusive. Because eliminating them offers at least the possibility of avoiding the conflict that seems set to dominate international politics for the next generation, those causes are important to understand.
One such cause is Xi himself. China’s increased international aggressiveness roughly coincides with his term as the country’s supreme leader. His two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, generally followed the policy that Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong’s successor, established of keeping a low international profile. Xi has broken with that policy. He has also set aside Deng’s dictum that the Party leader shall serve no more than two terms in office, and may have done so in order to continue to preside over China’s thrust for global power. It is possible that the reverse is also true: namely, that he has adopted an aggressive foreign policy as a way of remaining in power. Xi portrays China as locked in a dangerous conflict with the United States and the West and that portrayal lends itself to the claim that his country needs the ongoing, open-ended services of a strong leader—Xi Jinping—in order to defend itself.
This analysis suggests that Xi’s removal from power could make China’s approach to the rest of the world less belligerent. Removing him would be no easy task; like other dictators he has gone to great lengths to suppress all opposition to himself. Still, his removal is not beyond the realm of possibility. He certainly has enemies within the CCP who would undoubtedly like to see someone else occupy his position. Even in the unlikely event that Xi’s time as China’s leader were to end soon, however, a member or members of the Communist Party would be overwhelmingly likely to succeed him. In that case, the foreign policy he has pursued might continue because it has its roots not only in his personal preferences but also in the political needs of the Party.
While the 96 million Party members have political differences among themselves, they have a common interest in the perpetuation of the Party’s monopoly of political power. Party rule is the basis of their authority, their privileges, and—not least important—their wealth, all of which they are certainly averse to losing. In addition, Xi and other Communists say, and perhaps believe, that without the strong hand of the Party to guide and control the country, China would revert to the political disorder, economic stagnation, and international weakness that it experienced in the hundred years before the Communists’ takeover in 1949, a period the Party calls “the century of humiliation.”
The massive changes that three decades of rapid economic growth have brought to China do threaten the Party’s power, however, and in two ways. That growth has created a middle class that is likely to become increasingly restive at being excluded from any role in shaping its country’s political destiny, which Communist rule denies most Chinese. At the same time, the rate of economic growth is, for a variety of reasons, falling, which undercuts the Party’s assertion, which has become central to its hold on power, that Communist rule, whatever its drawbacks, will make all Chinese steadily richer.
Under these circumstances, it may be surmised, an aggressive foreign policy is intended to serve as a way to divert the Chinese public’s attention from the sources of its discontent. Moreover, the specter of a foreign threat, especially from the United States, a threat whose existence the Communist Party assiduously promotes, helps to rally the public in support of the government. By this interpretation it is China’s communism that underlies the policies that make the country dangerous to others.
Communist rule in China will not last forever but it is unlikely to end soon. The CCP is deeply entrenched in Chinese society and no plausible alternative to it presently exists, in no small part because the Communist government does all it can to prevent the development of other political forces that could exercise power. Moreover, even the end of Communist Party rule, should it come to pass in the near future, would not necessarily lead to a less disruptive Chinese foreign policy, which has a third potential cause: the particular Chinese version of nationalism.
China is the oldest continuous political community on the planet, and for much of their long history the Chinese considered their country to be the most powerful and sophisticated in the world, one to which all others should, and frequently did, defer. China’s era of primacy ended in the nineteenth century but the memory of it, and the conviction that it represented the natural, desirable political order in Asia, continued to be part of China’s global outlook. Mao Zedong, China’s founding Communist leader, and his great rival Chiang Kai-shek, whose forces the Communists defeated in the Chinese Civil War and drove into exile on the island of Taiwan after World War II, for all their bitter differences both believed in Chinese supremacy in East Asia, the Asia-Pacific region, and perhaps beyond. That belief has shaped the worldview of Mao’s Communist successors. The persistence of China’s particular form of nationalism suggests that even a non-communist government there would continue to pursue foreign policies that would give other countries cause for concern—especially if, as seems likely, that government were not a full-fledged democracy.
In addition to the personal preferences of Xi Jinping, the political needs of the CCP, and the basic assumptions of China’s brand of nationalism, the country’s aggressive approach to the rest of the world has a fourth plausible cause, one that has made the other three possible: Chinese power. None of the three could have produced China’s current foreign policy without the substantial military forces that the country’s three-decades-long growth spurt has underwritten. Indeed, according to one interpretation, China’s power alone explains its international behavior. Like rising states before it, China is challenging the incumbent international champion, the United States. The result is a “Thucydides trap” in which, like Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece, the two strongest countries on the planet are fated to oppose each other and very possibly go to war.
To be sure, a Sino-American war is not foreordained, nor does China pose a threat only, or even mainly, to the United States. It is the interests of the other countries of Asia that are most at risk. Moreover, as China’s economic growth rate declines, so too, in all likelihood, will the expansion of its military power. Even that, however, would not necessarily make China a less threatening, more accommodating presence in Asia and the world. Indeed, it may have the opposite effect. In their book Danger Zone (2022) Hal Brands and Michael Beckley argue that China’s prospective weakening will make it more rather than less aggressive in the short term, as it seeks to capitalize on its power before that power wanes.
That hypothesis, and the other three possible causes of the problem that China poses for the rest of the world lead to at least one firm if not particularly encouraging conclusion: The Chinese foreign policies that the rest of the world finds increasingly menacing have deep and varied roots, and will thus be with us for some time to come.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower (2022).
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