Washington needs a realistic understanding of the Chinese regime

Washington needs a realistic understanding of the Chinese regime

At the dawn of intense security competition with China it is important to consider U.S. assumptions about the nature of the Chinese government. For decades, U.S. assumptions have been that Beijing accepted the present international system, and that by getting rich it would moderate its politics, and perhaps even democratize.   

Those assumptions were horribly wrong and caused incalculable damage to U.S. security, the security of its allies, and to the foundations of international order. Whatever their provenance, because of the harm they have inflicted on U.S. national security, these naive assumptions must be replaced by a realistic understanding of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leader, Xi Jinping. There are four components of such a comprehension.

First, China is a foe of the United States. The political principles, interests and vision of contemporary international politics possessed by Beijing and Washington are irreconcilable. This is a fundamental fact. The dispositive question of the 21st century is which side will win.  


Second, the U.S. came to know the Soviets in the course of the Cold War. After understanding little at the outset of that long struggle, Americans came to develop “Kremlinology” and better explain and predict Soviet behavior. The U.S. knew that, whatever it did, the Soviets would oppose it. In contrast, America’s understanding of the CCP and its decision-making at the highest levels appears to be poor. In a classic case of mirror imaging, the West assumed that the CCP’s preferences would be commensurate with their own. Until the Trump administration, the U.S. was unwilling to confront China, or even to recognize the scope of the challenge. The decades of cooperating with China, effectively aiding its rise, soon may be seen as a blunder of epic proportions and lost opportunity.    

Third, the CCP is illegitimate. A consequence is that it must pursue social imperialism, sustaining hatred of other states and peoples in order to generate popular domestic support. By doing so, the CCP ensures its position. However, just as Newton’s third law of motion requires an equal and opposite reaction, the corollary in international politics is that such belligerence always increases tension with other states — as the world has witnessed with India, the U.S., Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, among other countries.   

Fourth, the regime is acutely aware of its insecurity. This insecurity is anchored in its lack of legitimacy, and thus the world should expect that the CCP will be hostile and may resort to aggression to advance its interests in global politics and keep its grip on the Chinese people.  

All of this is deeply dangerous for international stability. The growth of China’s power threatens its neighbors and the world order. That is bad enough for the prospects of world peace and suggests the 21st century will be as dangerous as its predecessor. But the insecurity of the regime causes a domestic motivation for China’s hostility and aggression. International stability is subject to the ideology and personal interests of Xi — who apparently seeks to become the new Mao Zedong — as well as the need of a regime to bolster its ability to remain in control by forcing territorial changes, threatening other states, and beggaring its own populace.   

The implications for the U.S. are significant. In the new long struggle with China, the U.S. must not underestimate the challenge it confronts. China possesses the greatest latent power of any of America’s competitors over the past century. What has been latent is transitioning to the sharp end of power. Its military growth has been prodigious, as have its ideological warfare and diplomacy campaigns. But tellingly, Beijing is focused upon ensuring dominance of information systems, including those of the U.S. and its allies such as the United Kingdom.   


Second, the U.S. must anticipate strategic surprise — the CCP regime will not be reticent about attempting to force changes that adversely affect Western interests and international peace. This will generate multiple, deeper and more precarious crises, the parameters of which the U.S. has not seen for almost a half-century. The U.S. must ensure that it can respond adroitly to a crisis or a surprise move by China. To aid this preparation, and before the lessons pass from living memory, the U.S. government should compile advice and lessons learned from participants in order to understand the diplomatic and military causes of crisis de-escalation.  

Third, the Trump administration has begun to change assumptions and policy regarding China. But these must be institutionalized throughout the government and American society, as well as allied governments and societies. The overdue volte face of China must be grounded on these principles and the recognition that the Western order is superior to the Chinese alternative.  

Bradley A. Thayer is a professor of political science at the University of Texas-San Antonio and the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”