The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Xi is leading China’s aggressive new strategy, but he didn’t invent it

On a screen, Chinese President Xi Jinping leads other top officials in a pledge to the Communist Party in Beijing on June 28, at a gala event leading up to the 100th anniversary of the party’s founding. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

Is it Xi Jinping or is it China? Is the aggressive, illiberal and triumphalist direction that China has taken over the past decade a result of one man, “the chairman of everything,” the Chinese Communist Party general secretary? Or does Xi’s bumptiousness reflect something larger, perhaps more frightening and permanent: the united will of the 80 million-member Chinese Communist Party?

The answer to this question is not merely academic. It’s crucial as the United States seeks to fashion a policy to deal with China. And it forms the subtext of the most important book on China in years: Rush Doshi’s “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order.”

Doshi’s central argument is that Xi is not new and different. And that the woeful direction he’s taking China constitutes far less a fundamental change than a logical expansion on his predecessors’ policies. Xi may be an accelerant on China’s nasty turn, but, Doshi argues, China is following a trajectory that has long been in place.

In Doshi’s view, Xi’s policies of standing up to the United States, breaking international agreements concerning Hong Kong, militarizing islands in the South China Sea, threatening Taiwan and locking up hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in Xinjiang build on the work of his predecessors. And the main goal, at least in foreign policy, Doshi argues, remains to replace the United States as the preeminent power not only in Asia but across the globe.

Doshi’s conclusion mirrors that of former Defense Department official Michael Pillsbury’s 2015 bestseller “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower.” But Doshi’s book differs from Pillsbury’s in several important respects. First, “The Long Game” is a scholarly work, rooted in a close reading of authoritative Chinese texts. Pillsbury’s book was anecdotal; critics pointed out multiple errors. Second, for years, Pillsbury’s theory was popular mostly on the far right. Doshi’s book represents the first time a prominent Democratic policymaker has joined in concluding that China is out to replace America. Finally, while Pillsbury floated for years on the margins of the China policy establishment, Doshi is in the White House; he serves as the director for China at the National Security Council.

In constructing his argument, Doshi identifies three turning points in China’s recent history that set Beijing on the path toward the confrontational relationship with America that it has today.

The first strategic shift was occasioned by what Doshi calls the “traumatic trifecta” that occurred between 1989 and 1991, when anti-government protests rocked China, the United States showed off its military superiority in upending Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and the U.S.S.R. disintegrated. Beijing’s takeaway from this tumult was that the United States was no longer a quasi-ally countering the Soviet Union. Instead, after the threat from Moscow vanished, America became (once again) China’s main foe.

As China’s then-preeminent leader Deng Xiaoping said in the run-up to the Soviet collapse, “The problem now is not whether the banner of the Soviet Union will fall . . . but whether the banner of China will fall.” This new threat perception, Doshi writes, became “the crucible in which a new Chinese grand strategy would be formed.”

In 1993, party chief Jiang Zemin addressed the first Ambassadorial Conference, one of China’s foremost meetings on foreign policy, and announced that “from now on and for a relatively long period of time, the United States will be our main diplomatic adversary.” But Jiang did not advocate challenging America then. Instead, he called on the party faithful to pursue a foreign policy known today as “hide and bide,” under which Beijing would minimize U.S. antipathy by “hiding capabilities and biding time.” The goal was to continue China’s beneficial trading, scientific and technological exchange relationships with the United States and lull the American eagle to sleep.

China threw out its old military doctrine that called for preparing for “local wars” and embraced a new one. It began investing millions of dollars in developing asymmetric methods — an anti-ship ballistic missile, the world’s biggest fleet of submarines and a record number of sea mines — to keep U.S. forces in Asia at bay.

Politically, China, which had previously downplayed multilateral institutions, began joining international organizations as a means to blunt U.S. dominance. In Washington, China worked tirelessly to weaken U.S. leverage over Beijing by obtaining permanent most-favored-nation trading status with America in 2000 and, a year later, joining the World Trade Organization. While American leaders framed the entry into the WTO as a path to turn China into a more liberal trading nation, their Chinese counterparts saw it as a way to get out from under America’s thumb. These policies touched off an economic boom the likes of which the world has rarely seen. China’s economy grew from a small fraction of American might to 70 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product today.

The next turning point, Doshi writes, came in 2008 with the onset of the global financial crisis. China saw this as an opportunity not only to continue blunting American power but to begin fashioning a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia. The financial crisis profoundly shifted Beijing’s views of American power; now it saw America as significantly weakened as its economic model of freewheeling capitalism took a once-in-a-generation hit.

Doshi points to a speech by then-party boss Hu Jintao at China’s 11th Ambassadorial Conference, in 2009. In the address, Hu modified China’s policy of “hide and bide” with the strategy of “actively accomplishing something.” The addition of the word “actively” meant a lot, Doshi argues. “This seemingly mundane semantic shift,” he writes, “was momentous.” He breaks with the generally accepted view of Hu as a colorless leader with no direction, noting the fundamental transformation between Hu in 2006, declaring that mutual accommodation was the key to U.S.-China relations, and Hu in 2009, who called for “more offensive moves” around the world.

On the military level, the global economic crisis accelerated China’s push to build a regional order centered on Beijing. China switched its focus from countering the U.S. military to enhancing its own offensive capabilities. It invested in aircraft carriers and amphibious vehicles (for invading Taiwan). It militarized islands in the South China Sea. It began building more surface ships for its navy.

At the political level, China switched its focus from participating in international organizations to blunt U.S. influence. Instead, it started to launch its own organizations, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It also began many signature projects, such as construction of a port in Sri Lanka, that were later attributed to the Belt and Road Initiative, the global infrastructure-building enterprise peddled by Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping.

The third juncture, Doshi writes, occurred in 2017, following the election of Donald Trump. In a speech to the 19th Congress of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi announced a “new era.” He vowed that China would lead the world in innovation, governance and military development. He declared that China had been presented with “a period of historical opportunity.” Not only did Xi no longer feel the need to modify the “hide and bide” policy of the past, he dispensed with it completely. With Xi’s ascension to power, Doshi writes, “ ‘the struggle for mastery,’ once confined to Asia, is now over the global order and its future.”

The thinking in China, Doshi argues, is based on the premise that the United States faces grave challenges. Washington’s woeful response to the coronavirus pandemic, America’s fractious domestic political landscape and, most recently, its ignoble retreat from Afghanistan all point to serious problems with the American superpower and more opportunities for Beijing.

Doshi writes that Xi has set China on a course to own the future. He announced a “fourth industrial revolution” revolving around artificial intelligence, quantum computing, sovereign digital currencies, biotech, 5G and automation. He’s overseeing continued massive investments in research and development, and has vowed that China will seek to dominate global supply chains and set the standards for emerging industries. In the military realm, while planning for an invasion of Taiwan remains central, the armed services are also focusing now on building China into a power both in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world. China already has a naval base on the coast of East Africa. Its navy will probably secure similar privileges in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. While a decade earlier China’s leaders preached accommodation with the American superpower, Xi has declared that “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia.”

To Doshi, however, Xi’s policies do not represent a break with the past. As party chiefs saw opportunities to contain, weaken and challenge America, he writes, they took them. “Many important policies . . . that occurred under Xi,” he writes, “were likely first set in Hu’s administration.”

Doshi’s view is not shared universally. In mid-August, George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist, published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that accused Xi of devoting “his life to undoing Deng’s influence on the development of China.” To Soros, Xi is a pox not only on China but on the rest of the world, and represents a break with the far friendlier autocrats who ruled before him. Soros wasn’t the first in line to implicate Xi as the source of China’s problems. No sooner than Joe Biden was elected president, Politico and the Atlantic Council ran an essay by a writer identified as a “former senior government official with deep expertise and experience dealing with China” who argued that Xi was responsible for China’s woeful turn. “To counter China’s rise,” the writer argued, “the U.S. should focus on Xi.” Behind both of these views is the old China-watching chestnut that contends that deep within China’s Leninist system, there are good guys who really want smooth relations with America. It’s just up to America to find them.

Doshi thinks that to counter China, the United States should give such notions a rest. The focus should not be on managing China’s rise or weakening Xi, but on containing (he calls it blunting) China. And on rebuilding U.S. power. In short, the United States should, in its interactions with China, become more like Beijing.

The Long Game

China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order

By Rush Doshi

419 pp. $27.95