In consideration of The Elements of the China Challenge, Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State
As The Elements of the China Challenge puts the case, the challenge posed by China’s Communist Party-state is fundamental to U.S. national security and values. It would be sobering enough if China were a “normal” rising power contending for global influence and resources, but China is a neo-totalitarian superpower deeply hostile to democracy. Even as Vladimir Putin gravely threatens freedom and security in Europe today, the internal cruelty of China’s autocracy and the external scope of its ambition make it the gravest long-term threat to the world’s freedom.
What exactly do China’s communist leaders want? Above all, Xi Jinping and his fellow party bosses are obsessed with preserving their own seven-decade-long monopoly on power. This goal requires waging a relentless battle to stifle the free flow of independent information and democratic values, ideas, models, and symbols. Hence, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must crush dissent and pluralism, even in areas on China’s periphery like Xinjiang and now Hong Kong. To secure its rule, the CCP has constructed an unprecedented apparatus of digital surveillance and control to censor domestic revelations or opinions that might damage the party’s reputation and inspire protests. More, it wages a massive information, geopolitical, and ideological campaign to shape global narratives portraying China as powerful and benevolent.
China’s leaders have a grandiose vision of “national rejuvenation.” The CCP’s ultimate goal is global hegemony—to make China the world’s leading power, dominating not only global trade (and, someday, finance) and resource flows but contested spaces like the Arctic, outer space, and international institutions. In the near term, China seeks to push the United States out of the Indo-Pacific, or at least greatly diminish its role, so that China can become the regional hegemon—dominating the resources and sea lanes of the South China Sea, sidelining the United States in trade and diplomacy, pushing U.S. military forces progressively further out into the distant Pacific Ocean, and eventually compelling Taiwan to “reunify with the motherland” under terms that will belie the promise of “one country, two systems.” But China is looking well past Taiwan and the first island chain, building strategic influence and presence across smaller and more vulnerable Pacific Ocean states and deep into the Indian Ocean. In fact, its economic and political presence is now felt in every corner of the world—and is already preeminent in much of it.
Beijing hopes to achieve dominance with as little conflict, and at as low a cost, as possible. Unlike the Soviet Union (or the CCP under Mao), China’s current rulers have no interest in fomenting revolution or bringing down democracies, so long as these regimes obediently submit to China’s rise or acquiesce to it as a juggernaut that is impossible to resist. To make the world “safe for autocracy,” China is working to upend international human rights norms and the principles and platforms of a free, open, and interoperable internet. It floods the zone of international negotiating forums with assertive representatives and mobilizes coalitions of illiberal states to marginalize independent civil society stakeholders in UN and other international forums. In a February 4 joint statement with Russia, Beijing challenges global democratic and human rights norms with threadbare appeals to “multipolarity,” “cultural and civilizational diversity,” and the preposterous claim that “democracy” can consist of any form of participation in a political system that claims to represent “the people.” On a broader range of issues, China dominates weaker nations by exercising its power bilaterally; and it stymies collective action in consensual regional bodies such as the EU and ASEAN by inducing individual members to act as spoilers.
China deploys a vast array of party, state, and non-state actors to burrow deeply into the soft tissues of open societies—universities, think tanks, mass media, NGOs, corporations, the arts (especially filmmaking), religious institutions, Chinese diaspora communities, and even elected officials at the national, state, and local levels. While some of these efforts utilize the transparent influence of “soft power,” they rely more heavily on the malign methods of “sharp power” to deceive, corrupt, or coerce their targets away from public view and accountability. The goal is not only to win friends and influence people but to intimidate opponents and create a more permissive environment in which to advance China’s interests.
China’s projection of sharp power is increasingly audacious. In February 2022, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation announced that it had foiled a covert plot attributed to the Chinese government to funnel money to candidates in Australia’s federal elections. Earlier this year, MI5 warned of a similar effort toward the UK Parliament. In 2021, China’s embassy in Washington sent letters to U.S. business leaders urging them to put their corporate bottom lines ahead of the national interest by lobbying Congress to drop or amend legislation aimed at bolstering U.S. competitiveness. In 2019, the Chinese government forced a Houston Rockets executive to remove a tweet expressing solidarity with Hong Kong’s democracy protestors—while the NBA itself issued an abject apology—in the face of a threatened loss of access to the lucrative Chinese market. In 2020, the Chinese government began to single out its critics abroad for punishment by sanctioning think tanks, EU bodies, and human rights organizations as well as dozens of scholars, human rights researchers, and legislators from the United States and Europe for questioning its policies.
China’s global power is surging in part through trade and investment. With its rapid growth, inexpensive manufactured goods, and insatiable thirst for raw materials, China has become the largest trading partner of countries in Africa, ASEAN, the Middle East, South America, and much of the rest of the world. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has become the world’s largest official lender and builder of infrastructure. The terms of its international loans and contracts (like its university partnership agreements for Confucius Institutes) are often secret, known only to a handful of executive authorities. Internationally and domestically, China resists transparency and, thus, accountability.
In shielding its loans and investments from public scrutiny and debate, China has a corrosive impact on democracy and good governance around the world. A 2021 study by AidData found $385 billion in hidden debts owed to China by countries like Zambia, which recently defaulted on its external loans and revealed in the process that its debts to China were double the previously disclosed sums. Huge infrastructure and mining projects sail through decision-making processes without economic feasibility or environmental impact studies. Corruption mushrooms as government officials seek under-the-table payments and accountability mechanisms are bypassed. Many BRI contracts also contain confidential provisions that compel debtor governments to cede sovereign rights or assets.
China is the vendor of choice for governments looking to shore up their grip on power with the latest mass surveillance gear, like AI-enabled camera networks, facial recognition software, internet censorship tools, and paramilitary policing equipment. Alarmingly, China’s regulatory norms and political values accompany these exports. The importation of China’s “safe city” systems and other surveillance and control technologies coincides with marked declines in human rights and the quality of democracy across Africa and other emerging market areas.
More generally, China is using the power of its immense market and its BRI network of ports, railways, data centers, transcontinental fiber optic cables, and trading arrangements to re-center the global economy around itself. It is establishing a stranglehold over supply chains for critical technologies and commodities like industrial minerals, electronics, and pharmaceutical ingredients. It is far ahead of other major economies in the development of a central bank digital currency that will lower economic transaction costs, facilitate new forms of mass surveillance, and potentially blunt the financial tools of U.S. foreign policy, including sanctions.
A key dimension of China’s sharp power projection for the last several decades has been its relentless campaign to acquire—through international research cooperation and training, coerced commercial transfer, espionage, and outright theft—the technologies that will determine future commercial and military dominance. These include artificial intelligence, semiconductors, robotics, hypersonics, biotechnology, and alternative energy. A rich ecosystem of rewards drives these technology transfers and incentivizes illicit behavior to deliver them. Universities are especially vulnerable to these methods because of their commitments to openness and collaboration, and China has found rich pickings within them to accelerate the realization of its ambitions.
China’s capacity for indigenous innovation is also surging, as it pours huge sums into R&D and human capital, through initiatives including its notorious “Thousand Talents” program. It lavishly subsidizes the commercialization of technologies by Chinese firms in order to seize a first-mover advantage, establish self-sufficiency, or force established foreign players out of the market. Few industries in market economies can withstand this type of state-directed assault.
These elements make up a brief overview of what China’s rulers are seeking globally and the means by which they are seeking it. China’s quest for dominance is diffuse, patient, and methodical. So must be the response of the United States and its democratic allies. As we suggested in a 2018 report, countering China’s quest for inappropriate influence and control requires a robust policy of constructive vigilance. First, we must demand transparency in all transactions with China, including loans, investments, cooperation agreements, and research partnerships. Second, the world’s major democracies should demand reciprocity: access to China’s markets, media, universities, and other institutions in reasonable proportion to the access China enjoys, as well as trade penalties when China threatens to restrict access to its market for geopolitical ends. Third, we must strengthen and invigorate our own institutions so that they can better recognize and rebuff China’s efforts to exert sharp power and compete more effectively against China in global commerce, finance, governance, technological innovation, and military prowess.
Countries with fewer resources and weaker institutions need help to recognize the threats that China’s sharp power poses to their freedom and sovereignty and to develop the institutional capacity to defend against them. They need help to strengthen government accountability mechanisms and the capacity and financial autonomy of mass media. In some cases, they need more concrete assistance—for example, to police illegal, unreported, and unregulated overfishing by Chinese trawlers. Strengthening these sovereign and democratic capacities must become a higher priority of American aid and diplomacy, including public diplomacy. More than that, emerging market countries need alternative sources of lending and investment, including investment in physical infrastructure, telecommunications, and public health, to enable them to avoid excessive dependence on China.
It is not useful to frame the challenge before us as a “new Cold War.” Still, this is a protracted global contest in which we will be required to compete with or confront China whenever fair and transparent cooperation is not possible. And now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with its wanton physical destruction and human displacement, has raised both the stakes and the opportunities for a public diplomacy offensive centered around values of freedom, openness, and the rule of law. China’s refusal to condemn Russia’s aggression shows it is on the wrong side of history. And it underscores: So long as China remains a neo-totalitarian state with ambitions for global hegemony, this is not a contest that we and our allies can afford to lose.
Larry Diamond, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute. Glenn Tiffert is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. They co-chair the Hoover Institution’s project on China’s Global Sharp Power.
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