Hal Brands
Bloomberg/The Japan Times

May 22, 2020

WASHINGTON – Can we pay the Chinese Communist Party the compliment of acknowledging that it means what it says and knows what it wants? That may be the key to understanding Beijing’s strategic ambitions in the coming decades.

A long-standing trope in the U.S. debate on that subject is that China itself doesn’t know what it seeks to achieve, that its leaders haven’t yet worked out how far Beijing’s influence should reach. Yet there is a growing body of evidence, assembled and interpreted by talented China experts, that the Chinese government is indeed aiming for global power and perhaps global primacy over the next generation — that it seeks to upend the American-led international system and create at least a competing, quasi-world order of its own.

It doesn’t take unparalleled powers of deduction to reach this conclusion. Top Chinese officials and members of the country’s foreign policy community are becoming increasingly explicit in saying so themselves.President Xi Jinping more than hinted at this goal in his landmark address to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017. That speech represents one of the most authoritative statements of the party’s policy and aims; it reflects Xi’s understanding of what China has accomplished under communist rule and how it must advance in the future.Xi declared that China “has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong,” and that it was now “blazing a new trail for other developing countries” and offering “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.” By 2049, Xi promised, China would “become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence” and would build a “stable international order” in which China’s “national rejuvenation” could be fully achieved.

This was the statement of a leader who sees his country not just participating in global affairs but setting the terms, and it testifies to two core themes in China’s foreign policy discourse.

The first is a deeply skeptical view of the existing international system. Chinese leaders recognize that the global trade regime has been indispensable to the country’s economic and military rise. Yet when they look at the key features of the world Washington and its allies have made, they see mostly threats.

In their view, American alliances do not preserve peace and stability; they stunt China’s potential and prevent Asian nations from giving Beijing its due. Seen through that lens, promoting democracy and human rights is neither moral nor benign, but propaganda supporting a dangerous doctrine that threatens to delegitimize the Communist government and energize its domestic enemies. U.S.-led international institutions appear as tools for imposing America’s will on weaker states.

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