President Xi may ultimately fail in his attempt to remake the PRC. His politically drive anticorruption campaign has created more than a few enemies. Many are fearful of being targeted next; at some point Xi may face a significant party challenge. The Chinese people also may grow more restive as they grow wealthier: the CCP has lost any moral claim to leadership, and raw power can go only so far so long.
Still, it seems naïve to imagine that China is destined to evolve in a more liberal direction. Which means America is likely to face a wealthier and more authoritarian China controlled by a president setting a consciously anti-Western course. As the Trump administration recognized in its latest National Security Strategy, the PRC looks more like competitor than collaborator. If so, then what?
That doesn’t mean Beijing poses a direct military threat. Historically China’s reach has been limited and there’s no evidence that the PRC as yet has global military ambitions. Moreover, it is encircled by potential adversaries: India, Russia, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam, all of which have been at war with China in the recent past. Finally, America possesses a significant military lead and will easily preserve the capability to deter the PRC from any aggressive moves on U.S. territory.
Even China’s apparent economic gains are less than they appear. Beijing, like the “Ugly American” of the Cold War, has found Africa to be tough going. The Belt and Road Initiative faces a multitude of challenges. Pursuing politically driven projects with poor, inefficient and corrupt governments around the world is a prescription for expensive failure. And the harder the PRC pushes, the more nations shove back, most notably in its own neighborhood, as Southeast Asian nations increasingly welcome Indian and Japanese military involvement.
Nevertheless, Washington cannot ignore the transformation taking place within China. While America’s influence over the PRC’s internal affairs is extremely limited, it would benefit from a more liberal Chinese society. Trade provides Americans with enormous economic benefits, but Chinese investment, even in civilian industries, raises increased concerns with Beijing appearing to consciously target liberal democracy. It is imperative for Washington to avoid war—the PRC would be no pushover, and even if the United States won the first conflict, the latter would be only the first one. A la Germany a century ago, nationalistic Chinese would likely be energized to initiate another round. Yet how to encourage the PRC’s often fractious neighbors to cooperate to constrain what threatens to be an overwhelming superpower?
U.S. policy must evolve. One of the only certainties is the importance of not treating the Chinese people as enemies. However, with events in the PRC moving dramatically in the wrong direction, Washington should consider its response. China remains far freer than it was when the Red Emperor ruled. But how far President Xi intends to go is not evident. The United States may eventually find itself facing a more rational version of Mao ruling a far more powerful China. We should start preparing for that time today.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.