Three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States is in a new great power competition with China. Since taking office, Chinese President Xi Jinping has put his country on a more assertive path, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated rivalry. On the surface, China seems confident, with a recovering economy, modernizing military, accelerating technological development, and growing diplomatic influence around the world.
In a timely and insightful new book, The China Nightmare: The Great Ambitions of a Decaying State, Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute delves into China, examining its capacity and strategic goals. In this way, he illuminates the paradox of modern China: it is an assertive, ambitious power, but also one with underlying weaknesses that could accelerate its rise or, as the title suggests, accelerate its decline. In his words, "The main argument of this book is that, despite (or perhaps because of) China's growing internal weaknesses, it advances great strategic ambitions."
Blumenthal's China study began years ago at the Pentagon's China desk and brings with it a deep understanding of the developments that have changed the country since then. Scientists are debating whether China wants limited regional hegemony or dominance of the global system. Blumenthal's answer is clear: China's ambitions are global. He referred to the work report of the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress submitted by Xi in 2017. The report predicts that China will be a "prosperous, modern and strong socialist country with a world-class military" by mid-century. According to Blumenthal, Beijing's "battle for geopolitical championship will not be limited to Asia" because "China wants to lead a new world order centered around Chinese power and governed by Chinese rules."
While the CCP is primarily concerned with the survival of the regime, it sees a Sinocentric international order as essential. The perception of China as the natural center of the world has always been an important source of domestic legitimacy.
However, China's global ambitions believe in the underlying weaknesses. Blumenthal notes that the CCP itself "has found that its own internal and external security situation is indeed an overwhelming challenge." Blumenthal cites a litany of economic, social and political challenges facing Beijing, including a burgeoning demographic crisis that is slowing GDP growth as the party reaffirms state control of the economy, capital flight with wealthy Chinese hundreds of Billions of dollars moving offshore, environmental degradation affecting Chinese agricultural production and population health, the prospect of a middle-income trap from China's struggle for innovation, and fears of separatism and domestic unrest. As Xi tries to win China to a vision of national renewal and realize the country's great ambitions on the world stage, he is hindered by the reality of China's shortcomings.
Blumenthal is right that China is weaker than many understand. His analysis agrees well with that of one of the authors of this review. In his new book, Kroenig argues that China's autocratic system of government is a fundamental handicap in its rivalry between great powers and the United States. Historically, from ancient times through the Cold War, autocratic powers did poorly in long-term great power competitions against democratic rivals. Autocratic systems of governance inhibit economic growth and innovation by emphasizing conformity cultures and restricting free enterprise. In the diplomatic field, dictators struggle to build deep and lasting international alliances and partnerships. When it comes to military affairs, they spend more resources on oppressing their own people than on defending against external threats. China faces each of these challenges: a slowing economy; few true friends abroad; and domestic insecurity.
Blumenthal elaborates on the CCP's struggle to restore new sources of domestic legitimacy. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's transition to a market economy undermined the ruling party's Marxist-Leninist roots. As Blumenthal writes, "China today makes up for the lack of attractive political principles or ideologies by creating a new realm of fear." Instead of Marxism-Leninism, it offers "ever stricter appeals to an imperialist nationalism".
For these reasons, China, a much more fragile power than it appears, poses a serious threat to the United States and its allies. Blumenthal notes that "falling powers are no less dangerous than rising ones," citing Russia's invasion of Ukraine as an example of a weak power aggressive against its neighbors.
Blumenthal is therefore developing an important third way of thinking for China. Many in Washington see ten-foot competition in China and competition from the great powers as a top priority for the United States. Others describe a China with serious internal problems that is not a major threat and with which Washington can continue to work. In contrast, Blumenthal's China is both weak and dangerous.
Towards the end of the book, Blumenthal asks: "What kind of world do we want to live in?" The CCP has a clear answer if not the long-term means to achieve its vision. "The CCP may have a straight answer, but Washington does not. The United States National Security Strategy for the United States of 2017 correctly diagnosed the problem of the great powers' competition with China, but did not articulate the desired end state of this rivalry.
Blumenthal outlines a victory theory for the United States: "This means convincing China that such a competition is too costly and could come at the expense of Beijing's ultimate goal of regime survival."
This is a good and clearer answer than other Chinese observers. We have previously argued that the United States should seek to revitalize, adapt, and defend the US-led, rules-based international system. In the long term, the United States would like China to be a cooperative member of this system. But that won't be possible in the near future, maybe not while the CCP is in power in Beijing.
In the short term, therefore, the United States and its allies must protect this system from the economic, governance, and military threats posed by China, and impose serious costs on the CCP if it violates widespread international standards. This strategy will succeed if it changes the minds of China's leaders and, as Blumenthal also argues, convinces them that it is too difficult and costly to challenge the US-led system.
Successful implementation of such a strategy requires a deep understanding of China's strengths and weaknesses, as well as its hopes and fears. This is exactly what Blumenthal's important book offers. It should be a read for anyone who wants to better understand China, and especially for the government officials responsible for protecting us from this weak and dangerous nation.