Since World War II’s end, few years have been more consequential for the United States than 1989, 2008, and 2016. In the first, the Soviet bloc collapsed, leaving the United States primed for its unipolar moment. In the second, a financial crisis birthed in the United States and Europe brought the world economy to its knees. And in the third, the shock election of Donald Trump upended U.S. domestic and foreign policy.
The world, meanwhile, watched the latter two events, which seemed to portend U.S. decline, unfold with a mix of horror and schadenfreude. In 2008, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev declared the end of U.S. global leadership; Michael Ignatieff, the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, proclaimed “the noon hour of the United States and its global dominance are over.”
Yet as Rush Doshi, a former Brookings Institution scholar and current China Director on the National Security Council, shows in his excellent new book, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, no foreign capital followed the United States’s struggles after 2008 as closely as Beijing did. Indeed, Chinese leaders followed along so closely because they calibrated their challenge to U.S. global dominance with their perception of the United States’s strength. And as Doshi deftly shows by leaning on Chinese Communist Party (CCP) texts that he collected from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Beijing has since 2016 considered the United States a declining power, and the world ripe for change—for a Chinese reshaping of the international order. But Doshi misses the mark a bit when it comes to solutions. In some cases, his policy prescriptions for the United States are surprisingly detached from both the reality of U.S. domestic politics and of broader geopolitics. The Long Game is a powerful and important book; readers, though, may be left with more questions than answers when it comes to figuring out how the United States can actually meet the China challenge that Doshi outlines.
Doshi begins by dividing China’s grand strategy into three phases, each of which corresponds to Beijing’s view of U.S. power, and thus to the three aforementioned dates: 1989, 2008, and 2016.
The first, 1989, was the year of the Tiananmen Square crisis, which prompted Beijing to consider Washington more of a threat than it did before. The United States’ first Gulf War (1990–1991) and the Soviet Union’s collapse (1989–1991) only augmented the CCP’s concern. These events combined into what Doshi calls the “traumatic trifecta” that “reminded Beijing of the American ideological threat,” “the American military threat,” and the “American geopolitical threat.”
The result was a “blunting” strategy with which China sought to push back against the United States without unsettling Washington or the rest of Asia. China shifted to a “sea denial strategy” focused on limiting the U.S. Navy’s ability to traverse or control waters near China, while Beijing also invested in submarines, mine-laying, and missiles. China joined and stalled regional institutions, thereby limiting Washington’s ability to use them. China simultaneously preserved and enhanced its access to U.S. markets, capital, and technology—which Tiananmen-era sanctions had limited—by pushing bilateral and multilateral trade agreements that limited potential U.S. coercion and interwove the Chinese economy with much of the world. In Tiananmen’s aftermath, the United States had also threatened to revoke China’s most-favored-nation (MFN) status, which could have seriously hampered China’s economy. So, China pushed to remove its MFN status from congressional review, leveraging Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations to ultimately obtain it and to join the WTO.
China pursued what Doshi calls this “blunting” through the 1992 end of Deng Xiaoping’s time as paramount leader, as well as the era of his successor, Jiang Zemin, who formally stepped down CCP General Secretary in 2002 but retained many levers of power for years. It was thus Hu Jintao, who became paramount leader after Jiang, who took China into its second grand strategic stage of displacement—“building”—following the 2008 financial crisis, when U.S. (and European) bankers’ excessive risk-taking burst a housing bubble, shaking the global economy.
As the financial wave broke, Chinese scholars promptly began arguing that the power gap between the United States and China had shrunk, and that Beijing should revise its strategy from the Deng and Jiang eras. Hu made this change official at China’s 2009 ambassadorial conference, declaring that there had been “a major change in the balance of international forces” and that China now had to “Actively Accomplish Something.”
Over the next eight years or so, China—first under Hu, and then under successor Xi Jinping—shifted from blunting U.S. power in Asia to directly challenging it. China improved its sea control and amphibious capabilities, proposed and launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and elevated the previously obscure Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. With these and other steps, China began trying to construct its “Community of Common Destiny”: a Sino-centric Asian order.
This strategy remained in place until late 2016, when, in the wake of Trump’s victory (and the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote), Chinese leaders began waxing poetic about “great changes unseen in a century”—that is, the West’s decline.
The CCP offered this term ahead of Trump’s inauguration; within weeks, it had appeared in dozens of speeches by Xi and his team, and at the start of China’s foreign policy white papers. The phrase appeared not out of thin air, but, as Doshi points out, from 1872, when the Qing Dynasty general Li Hongzhang lamented Western predation by declaring that the world was experiencing “great changes unseen in a century not seen in 3,000 years.”
Doshi, for his part, argues that Xi repurposed the term to “inaugurate a new phase in China’s post–Cold War grand strategy,” writing: “If Li’s line marks the highpoint of China’s humiliation, then Xi’s marks an occasion for its rejuvenation. If Li’s evokes strategy, then Xi’s evokes opportunity. Both capture something essential: the idea that the world order is once again at stake because of unprecedented geopolitical and technological shifts, and that this requires strategic adjustment.”
China’s “adjustment,” meanwhile, was to globalize its regional “building”—to transform its Asian “Community of Common Destiny” into a worldwide “community of shared future for mankind,” both of which are intimately associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s global development program. China’s goal is a Sino-centric “community;” the BRI is one of the many efforts that knits it together.
Other efforts, according to Doshi, include projecting leadership and advancing illiberal norms at institutions like the United Nations, turning the Chinese military into a world-class expeditionary force with bases the world over, and solidifying China’s place at the center of global supply chains. With the United States’ perceived decline, then, comes ambitious Chinese action.
This all may seem concerning from a U.S. policy perspective, but Doshi—thankfully, given his current job—has some practical solutions. Guided by Pentagon strategist Andrew Marshall’s 1973 suggestion that the United States compete with rising Soviet spending by “be[ing] as good as or better than its opponent in the effectiveness with which resources are used now that the Soviets are spending comparable resources,” he argues that the United States should turn China’s asymmetrical tactics against it. The goal is to compete with China while forcing Beijing to spend even more on competition than Washington does.
The United States and its allies, he writes, should join, rather than shy away from Chinese-led international institutions to dilute Beijing’s influence within them. The United States should train partner countries to better assess often opaque Chinese financing of development and infrastructure projects, while supporting independent journalism to uncover Chinese corruption. The Pentagon should follow its Chinese counterparts lead by investing in denial weapons and spreading drones, missiles, and small bases across the Pacific.
Most of his suggestions—like these ones—are sensible, but one wonders how realistic they are. Political winds have shifted: The U.S. public has little appetite for increased defense or foreign aid spending; voters are split on foreign aid, but a clear majority wants less defense spending. Doshi does not, however, grapple with this tension.
A few of his other recommendations are even more unworkable, being remarkably idealistic for a book that is anything but.
Doshi says that Washington should help partners develop anti-access/area-denial capabilities. He names Taiwan, Japan, India, and Vietnam as a few that might accept; being already aligned with the United States, they might. But the others he names—the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia—intend to balance the United States and China, which requires not antagonizing Beijing. These countries will not risk their economically vital relationships with China by accepting such provocative U.S. help (especially given that Biden still has not spoken to any Southeast Asian leader).
Doshi also argues that the United States should undermine China’s efforts to establish overseas military bases by “alert[ing] countries that are considering hosting Chinese facilities [...] that those bases could be targets.” At best, developing world leaders will ignore such comments, taking them as a limited slight. At worst, though, certain countries, especially those with less-than-positive experiences with the U.S. military—like Cambodia, where China reportedly intends to have a base—could take these comments as something of a threat, thus undermining the United States’s image and influence.
More curious, though, is Doshi’s suggestion that the United States push governments like those in Taiwan and Australia to reform their open libel laws, which favor plaintiffs more than U.S. law does. In Australia, defendants must prove a statement is true, while in the United States plaintiffs must prove that a statement is false; in Taiwan, defamation and public humiliation are criminal offenses, meaning that subjects of unfavorable coverage can press criminal and civil charges directly against journalists and media outlets for defamation. China, like many Australian and Taiwanese plaintiffs, uses these open laws to harass journalists and scholars, trying to influence coverage by financially pressuring and otherwise targeting them. Doshi is right that “simple regulatory reforms could put an end to the practice,” but the United States is hardly in a position after the last four years to tell even close partners how to improve their democracies. One expects the reaction in Taipei and Canberra might be less than positive.
These are relatively minor quibbles; a more serious one, though, is the lack of attention The Long Game pays to actually challenging Chinese financing in the developing world, which remains the backbone of Beijing’s “community of shared future for mankind.”
This financing remains so important precisely because the United States has not yet matched it and will likely not soon do so, primarily because U.S. voters have no interest in spending such grand sums of money abroad. But in the developing world specifically, money talks, and for years nobody has been as loud as China: From 2008 to 2019 China’s development financing funds totaled $462 billion—essentially matching those of the World Bank, and far surpassing those of the United States.
Most likely, then, whether developing countries like it or not, they will “have to go to the Chinese” for infrastructure support, as former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad once said. Developing world leaders are certainly concerned about China’s weaponization of economic ties—only the “irredeemably corrupt or terminally naive” take seriously Beijing’s “win-win” rhetoric, in the words of former Singaporean senior diplomat Bilahari Kausikan—but they accept Chinese money because it solves problems and there is no obvious alternative, particularly when even longtime donor and financier Japan has curtailed some of its spending in Asia. Where poverty and underdevelopment are the most pressing issues, governments cannot say no.
Biden cannot match Xi’s seemingly endless ability to marshal state funds, but by coordinating with partners like Japan and Australia, his administration can put the American system’s liberal credentials on display by offering compelling alternatives. Doshi is right that “the United States cannot and should not provide a counter to every project Beijing chooses to support,” but Washington will truly challenge China in the developing world only once it begins contributing to these countries’ bottom lines.
Nonetheless, The Long Game is a vital and remarkably thorough work; it fills in key gaps in Washington’s understanding of what’s going on in Beijing, and what that means for the United States. The picture Doshi paints should indeed worry American policymakers, including Doshi himself. One hopes that this boss, President Biden, is listening, and willing to act.
Charles Dunst is an associate with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro practice and a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington.