Historians will remember 2018 as a landmark year in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The National People’s Congress (NPC – Chinese Parliament) abolished the constitution’s two-term limit for the President and Vice President. This was to re-elect the Communist Party of China (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping as the President after he completed two terms in office in 2022. Similarly, 1989, 2008 and 2016 are also notable years in the PRC’s history with consequential impacts on the world’s structures and systems. The first was the collapse of the Soviet Union, the second was the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and the final was the election of President Donald Trump – which disturbed the US foreign and security policies. Author Rush Doshi, who currently serves as the Director of the China desk in President Biden administration’s National Security Council, argues that these landmark years changed the course of Chinese foreign and security policy, as every year marked a strategic shift in policy decision-making.
Every strategic shift was unique, however, each was interrelated and incomplete without the other. The author defines this as China’s “blunting, building and displacing” strategy. It is China’s persistent and relentless strategy of using all elements of statecraft to blunt American power, bide time to build its capabilities and then displace the US across the DIME model (Diplomacy, Information, Military and Economics). Together, Doshi terms this as China’s grand strategy to move from being a regional power to either displace or share space with the US as the world’s military, economic and diplomatic superpower. Currently, China, according to the author, is in the displacement stage in some verticals. However, in specific sectors like information and technology and its military applications, China might have overtaken the US.
The first shift happened in 1989 in response to what Doshi describes as the “traumatic trifecta” between 1989 and 1991 – the fall of the Soviet Union, the Tiananmen Square crisis and the Gulf War I. These three events were important as they marked the end of the ideological-based political system – which has partially inspired the PRC, displayed the use of advanced technology like precision strike weapons by the US in the Gulf War 1 and demonstrated the loosening of the Party’s control leading to events in Tiananmen Square. This led to the then-party chief Jiang Zemin declaring that “from now on and for a relatively long period of time, the United States will be our main diplomatic adversary.” But this didn’t mean that China was immediately ready to challenge the US. Rather, China pursued a policy which is today known as “hide your capabilities and bide your time,” (taoguangyanghui, you suo zuowei). It manifested militarily with China introducing a new military guideline in 1993 titled “winning local wars under modern high technological conditions” – which it still follows with minor alterations. Politically, China entered US-led institutions like the World Trade Organisation, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN and associated regional forums) to blunt its influence. Economically, China lobbied extensively to gain permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status in an effort to minimise US economic coercive power.
The next shift that Doshi highlights came after the 2008 global financial crisis due to the US-based sub-prime mortgage crisis, which had ripple effects around the world. In 2008, Doshi argues, China adopted the ‘blunting strategy.’ The PRC leadership viewed the US as a declining superpower and found it an opportune time to increase its own sphere of influence in Asia and across the world. Doshi highlights that this change was marked by Hu Jintao’s speech at China’s 11th Ambassadorial Conference in 2009, where he insisted that the PRC should move from “hide and bide” to the strategy of “to strive for achievement” (fenfayouwei). For instance, China started investing in offensive military capabilities along with defensive. It started investing more in aircraft carriers, amphibious vehicles, long-range vessels, militarised islands in the South China Sea and started regularly venturing into the Indian Ocean. Politically, it started blunting the US-led international order by launching its own initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and Belt Road affiliated projects. Economically, it started loaning more and more money to developing countries at a very concessional rate of interest.
The final shift happened in 2016, after the rise of President Donald Trump and Brexit in Europe. There is a genuine belief in the Chinese leadership that the international balance of power is changing and China’s revival and the West’s decline are inevitable. Doshi highlights that Xi is the first President since Deng Xiaoping to have never used the term tao guang yang hui (hide capabilities and bide time). Under him, the policy to strive for achievement has crystallised into an ideology with a broad set of global interests and the political will to pursue them.
For instance, China has been rapidly increasing its sphere of influence globally since 2016 using AIIB. It has replaced the US and the West in multiple influential positions in the United Nations (UN) affiliated institutions and now controls four of the UN’s fifteen special agencies. Its military posture has moved from offshore power projection to protecting its overseas interests. It has moved away from Mao Zedong’s promise to never build a foreign military base to having a military outpost at Djibouti – and could possibly have a few more in the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans in the future. Doshi also highlights that China could lead the way for the “fourth industrial revolution” built around artificial intelligence, quantum computing, sovereign digital currencies, biotech, 5G and automation. As the CCP moves toward its goal of becoming a global superpower by 2049, it is looking to displace the declining superpower, the US, across multiple verticals, argues the author.
Doshi’s book not only explains the changing geopolitical realities but also gives policy recommendations on what the US could do to arrest and reverse its relative decline. For instance, the US, its allies and partners, he argues, should join Chinese-led international and regional institutions to dilute Beijing’s influence within them. The United States should train partner countries to assess the often opaque Chinese financing of development and infrastructure projects while supporting independent journalism to uncover Chinese corruption. The US Department of Defence should also follow its Chinese counterparts’ path by investing in denial weapons and spreading drones, missiles, and small bases across the Pacific. He argues that the US should take a leaf out of China’s book and adopt a blunting strategy to contain the PRC’s rise. These recommendations are intriguing as they come from a White House insider responsible for charting the course of the US-China policy under the Biden administration.
Suyash Desai is a research scholar specialising on Chinese security and foreign policies. He is currently studying Mandarin at National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan
The views expressed are personal