The writer is an
analyst and the
President of All
Since the end of the Cold War, China has pursued a grand strategy to displace American New World Order, at the regional and global levels. The grand strategy of international order explores how rising powers displace hegemonic order through strategies of blunting, building, and expansion. The Chinese Communist Party is the connective institutional tissue for China’s grand strategy. As a nationalist institution that emerged from the patriotic ferment of the late Qing period, the Party now seeks to restore China to its rightful place in the global hierarchy by 2049. As a Leninist institution with a centralized structure, ruthless amorality, and a Leninist vanguard seeing itself as stewarding a nationalist project, the Party possesses the grand strategic capability to coordinate multiple instruments of statecraft while pursuing national interests over parochial ones. China’s unprecedented economic expansion now exerts a gravitational pull on the world economy, gathering emerging markets in its orbit. Where Western leaders cling to outworn notions of the Westphalian nation-state, China is reimagining the world as a single complex network of supply chains and trade arteries. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature project, the multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) stretches across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, and represents the largest infrastructure project in history. Constructing a comprehensive trade network for Chinese goods, BRI offers a platform for China’s long-term strategic shift around advanced technologies. This includes electric vehicles (EV), telecommunications, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), semiconductors, clean energy technology, advanced electrical equipment, rail infrastructure, and maritime engineering. Building on commercial acquisitions and investments in the state-owned enterprise (SOE), Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” industrial policy seeks to position China as a high-tech global superpower. China is spending billions of dollars on science and technology, developing research in genomics, quantum computing, robotics, and advanced materials. Together, the Party’s nationalist orientation helps set the ends of the Chinese grand strategy while Leninism provides an instrument for realizing them. Now, as China rises, the same Party that sat uneasily within Soviet order during the Cold War is unlikely to permanently tolerate a subordinate role in American order.
China’s grand strategy of displacement, global expansion, which sought to blunt but especially build global order and to displace the United States from its leadership position.
The blunting phase of China’s post–Cold War grand strategy demonstrates that China went from seeing the United States as a quasi-ally against the Soviets to seeing it as China’s greatest threat and main adversary in the wake of three events: the traumatic trifecta of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Gulf War, and the Soviet Collapse. In response, Beijing launched its blunting strategy under the Party guideline of hiding capabilities and biding time. This strategy was instrumental and tactical. Party leaders explicitly tied the guideline to perceptions of US power captured in phrases like the international balance of forces and multipolarity, and they sought to quietly and asymmetrically weaken American power in Asia across military, economic, and political instruments. It shows that the trifecta prompted China to depart from a sea control strategy increasingly focused on holding distant maritime territory to a sea denial strategy focused on preventing the US military from traversing, controlling, or intervening in the waters near China. That shift was challenging, so Beijing declared it would catch up in some areas and not others and vowed to build whatever the enemy feared to accomplish it—ultimately delaying the acquisition of costly and vulnerable vessels like aircraft carriers and instead investing in cheaper asymmetric denial weapons. Beijing built the world’s largest mine arsenal, the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile, and the world’s largest submarine fleet—all to undermine US military power. At the political level, It demonstrates that the trifecta led China to reverse its previous opposition to joining regional institutions. Beijing feared that multilateral organizations like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF) might be used by Washington to build a liberal regional order or even an Asian NATO, so China joined them to blunt American power. It stalled institutional progress, wielded institutional rules to constrain US freedom of maneuver, and hoped participation would reassure wary neighbors otherwise tempted to join a US-led balancing coalition. Whereas, at the economic level, the trifecta laid bare China’s dependence on the US market, capital, and technology—notably through Washington’s post-Tiananmen sanctions and its threats to revoke most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status, which could have seriously damaged China’s economy. Beijing sought not to decouple from the United States but instead to bind the discretionary use of American economic power, and it worked hard to remove MFN from congressional review through permanent normal trading relations, leveraging negotiations in APEC and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to obtain it.
Chinese grand strategy took place under a modification to Deng’s guidance to hide capabilities and bide time, one that instead emphasized actively accomplishing something. This building strategy demonstrates that the shock of the Global Financial Crisis led China to see the United States as weakening and emboldened it to shift to a building strategy. It begins with a thorough review of China’s discourse on multipolarity and the international balance of forces. It then shows that the Party sought to lay the foundations for the order—coercive capacity, consensual bargains, and legitimacy. This strategy, like blunting before it, was implemented across multiple instruments of statecraft—military, political, and economic—each of which receives a chapter. At the military level, recounting how the Global Financial Crisis accelerated a shift in Chinese military strategy away from a singular focus on blunting American power through sea denial to a new focus on building order through sea control. China now sought the capability to hold distant islands, safeguard sea lines, intervene in neighboring countries, and provide public security goods. For these objectives, China needed a different force structure, one that it had previously postponed for fear that it would be vulnerable to the United States and unsettle China’s neighbors. These were risks a more confident Beijing was now willing to accept. China promptly stepped up investments in aircraft carriers, capable surface vessels, amphibious warfare, marines, and overseas bases. The Global Financial Crisis caused China to depart from a blunting strategy focused on joining and stalling regional organizations to a building strategy that involved launching its own institutions. China spearheaded the launch of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the elevation and institutionalization of the previously obscure Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). It then used these institutions, with mixed success, as instruments to shape regional order in the economic and security domains in the directions it preferred. The Global Financial Crisis helped Beijing depart from a defensive blunting strategy that targeted American economic leverage to an offensive building strategy designed to build China’s own coercive and consensual economic capacities. At the core of this effort were China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its robust use of economic statecraft against its neighbors, and its attempts to gain greater financial influence. Beijing used these blunting and building strategies to constrain US influence within Asia and to build the foundations for regional hegemony. The relative success of that strategy was remarkable, but Beijing’s ambitions were not limited only to the Indo-Pacific. When Washington was again seen as stumbling, China’s grand strategy evolved—this time in a more global direction. China’s grand strategy of displacement, global expansion, which sought to blunt but especially build global order and to displace the United States from its leadership position.
The dawn of China’s expansion strategy emerged following another trifecta, this time consisting of Brexit, the election of the U.S. President, and the West’s poor initial response to the coronavirus pandemic. In this period, the Chinese Communist Party reached a paradoxical consensus: it concluded that the United States was in retreat globally but at the same time was waking up to the China challenge bilaterally. The ways and means of China’s strategy of expansion show that politically, Beijing would seek to project leadership over global governance and international institutions and to advance autocratic norms. Economically, it would weaken the financial advantages that underwrite U.S. hegemony and seize the commanding heights of the fourth industrial revolution. And militarily, the PLA would field a truly global Chinese military with overseas bases around the world. The US response to China’s ambitions for displacing the United States from regional and global order critiques those who advocate a counterproductive strategy of confrontation or an accommodationist one of grand bargains, each of which respectively discounts US domestic headwinds and China’s strategic ambitions. An asymmetric competitive strategy, one that does not require matching China dollar-for-dollar, ship-for-ship, or loan-for-loan. Technology has transformed the global economy. Over the past two decades, technology has introduced a pivotal shift in the nature of power with emerging economies gaining a competitive advantage. Leveraging this geo-technological shift is China’s grand strategy. Bolstered by its commercial heft, China’s global ambition is now built on ports, highways, and pipelines in the expansion of its supply chain empire. More to the point, China’s grand strategy is built on developing new markets for advanced Chinese technology. China’s industrial policies have been groundbreaking but also opaque. Regardless, China is becoming the main power in Africa and Latin America, providing desperately needed infrastructure and connectivity. China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) now rivals the World Bank and its BRI ensures China’s long-term leadership across emerging economies. But now it is China that appears destined to lead. In Africa, Chinese conglomerates are well-positioned to capitalize on the continent’s need for technology, trade, and manufacturing. China’s investments encompass utilities, port construction, and agriculture but also telecommunications. Chinese telecom providers now dominate Africa’s billion-user mobile phone market. In Latin America, China is the single largest creditor. While Asia receives the majority (66%) of Chinese investments, Latin America is China’s second-largest recipient of FDI (at 12%). Chinese corporations are building dams and hydroelectric power plants in the Amazon and Patagonia, as well as thousands of miles of rail in Peru, Brazil, and Venezuela. China’s development banks are financing state-of-the-art nuclear power in Argentina, and Chinese venture capital is driving Latin America’s tech boom. Notwithstanding criticism of China’s “neo-colonial” role in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere, the reality is that Chinese infrastructure ensures significant opportunities for knowledge-based goods and services. And this is precisely what China is banking on. Beyond infrastructure, the future of Chinese goods in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is healthcare technologies, robotics, industrial parks, manufacturing technologies, autonomous vehicles, and clean energy. China’s investments in emerging economies are providing a vast platform for new markets in financial services, insurance, legal services, education, human resources, venture capital, and entertainment. In the West, anxiety is growing. Policymakers around the world worry that China’s state-led model threatens entire technology supply chains— and for good reason. As the policymakers of the United States face challenges at home and abroad, the U.S. is pursuing order-building, reinvesting in the very same foundations of the American global order. It can still secure its interests and resist the spread of an illiberal sphere of influence—but only if it recognizes that the key to defeating an opponent’s strategy is first to understand it. After more than a century of poverty and isolation, China is now delivering enormous investments to developing countries around the world. Assuming China is successful in its bid to shape emerging markets, it will be a masterstroke of geopolitical strategy.