Al Qaeda executed the horrific, unprecedented 9/11 terrorist attacks likely intending for the United States to intervene in Afghanistan and to be defeated there, as the Soviets were engaged in their long war. Al Qaeda made a gross miscalculation. U.S. intervention, however imperfect, never involved the level of commitment the Soviets deployed or that the terrorists sought.
At the same time, the events of 9/11 became a windfall victory for China. The attacks distracted the United States, centering its attention on the Middle East and away from China’s expansion. China took strategic advantage of that preoccupation to rise with few impediments, and often the active encouragement of many U.S. business partners, to its present position as the peer competitor and main threat to the interests and position of United States.
Since 9/11, the United States has expended prodigious military and economic resources in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq, Libya (in the wake of the Arab Spring) and, more recently, Syria and Yemen. Washington’s focus was devoted to winning the wars under Central Command’s rubric. But while it was so occupied, international politics did not stop. The United States did not get a “time out.” Relative changes in the balance of power continued unabated. The most significant of these was that China grew in power, capabilities, influence and intentions.
Washington appeared deaf and blind to peer-competitive threats during the height of its involvement in the Middle East. A major consequence of 9/11 was that the United States did not move to check Beijing’s rise when it might have done so at lower cost. Effective balancing only now is commencing against China.
Washington’s nearsightedness permitted China to change the status quo against the interests of the United States and its allies such as Japan in the East and South China Seas. It did not seem to notice that the People’s Republic of China’s economic growth allowed it to establish international economic institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative, which laid the foundation for a new economic order. Beijing has spread its influence in Africa, Central and South Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America.
In the military realm, China augments its conventional capabilities with cyber and space weapons, and with the development of hypersonic weapons. Equally important, China has professionalized its military and is preparing it for combined, joint operations against the United States and its allies.
Most momentous of all, the period of unchecked expansion allowed the formation of Xi Jinping’s ruling clique and the abandonment of Deng Xiaoping’s more cautious approach to international politics. With Xi’s rise, the United States faces a leader who has a grand strategy of Chinese dominance, though he says China won’t seek global economic dominance. He is a bold leader, determined to challenge the United States, and he likely intends to achieve victory by 2049, the centenary of the Communist Revolution.
As a thought experiment, we might imagine a world where 9/11 did not happen, and incidents such as the April 2001 Hainan Island incident provoked measures to preclude China’s unalloyed growth and expansion, as then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld desired at the time. The United States might have been able to ensure China’s economic growth continued but its territorial expansion in the East and South China Seas would have been denied by a powerful allied response. The United States and global community might have impressed upon Beijing that it could not achieve its aims through bullying, and territorial claims would have to be resolved through diplomacy.
Unambiguously, China is the strategic beneficiary of 9/11 and Washington’s decisions in its wake. China acted boldly to solidify its impressive rise while the United States had its focus elsewhere. Today China may be the most formidable peer competitor the United States ever has faced. Whether China defeats the United States is the dispositive question of the 21st century, but it is long past time that the United States recognizes the challenge and responds.
Bradley A. Thayer, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at the University of Texas, San Antonio. He is co-author, with John M. Friend, of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics” (Potomac, 2018).