The following is adapted from remarks given on Sept. 13, 2022, at the National Conservatism Conference.
China is the biggest challenge that the United States has faced in its entire history. Unfortunately, it is not the type of challenge we are used to.
To start with, the gross domestic product of China, measured as the rival GDP of a great power compared to the United States, is at a whopping 77 percent, up from 13 percent in 2001 compared to any systemic rival America has faced previously, including Imperial Germany (35 percent), Nazi Germany (26 percent), Imperial Japan (13 percent) and the Soviet Union (roughly around 40 percent).
America wasn’t dependent on her former great-power rivals for trade or manufacturing. If tomorrow the dollar isn’t the reserve currency of the world anymore, China will choke us by aligning with the European Union, just like we’re choking Russia now with sanctions. Wars, need not be fought.
According to Statista, in 2017, China had 4.7 million new science, math, and engineering graduates, while India had 2.6 million. The United States had 568,000 and Russia 561,000. There are now three new Chinese universities in the top 20, compared to one European, with the rest, Anglo-American.
China, the world’s second-largest military spender, allocated around $300 billion to its military in 2021, an increase of 4.7 percent compared with 2020, with spending that grew for 27 consecutive years. Chinese shipbuilding is currently outpacing the Anglo-German naval race.
Chinese carrier groups are concentrated in Asia, and American warships are placed in places such as Bahrain and the Baltics, where there are no hegemonic threats present in the near future, and where local powers are capable of balancing any adversaries on their own if they so choose. But they do not, because they know America is there to break the glass during a fire.
China is stockpiling food rapidly. By the end of this year China, with 20 percent of the world’s population, will have 65 percent of the world’s corn and 53 percent of the world’s wheat.
A study found around 160 incidents of Chinese espionage, with nearly a quarter of those between 2000 to 2009 and another three-quarters between 2010 to 2021. The study reports, “42% of actors were Chinese military or government employees. 32% private Chinese citizens. 26% were non-Chinese actors (Americans recruited by Chinese), 34% of incidents sought to acquire military technology, 51% of incidents sought to acquire commercial technologies, 16% of incidents sought to acquire information on US civilian agencies or politicians, 41% of incidents involved cyber espionage.”
A recent National Association of Scholars report stated, that, of the 104 Confucius Institutes that have closed or are in the process of closing, at least 28 have replaced it with a similar program, and at least 58 have maintained close relationships with their former partners.
Socially, China is doing the exact opposite of what they are preaching abroad, often on social media. China’s government banned feminine men on TV and told broadcasters to “resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal aesthetics.” China’s Education Ministry published plans to “cultivate masculinity” in boys from kindergarten through high school with more effort on physical education. A crackdown was ordered on any feminist activism or movements like “Me Too.” China also cracked down on “immoral activities” and “misinformation from abroad.”
Meanwhile, a new TikTok press release stated that they are opening a new election integrity center in the United States that will influence American elections by countering “misinformation.”
The Reason for Realism
So, the Chinese challenge to the United States is a little more than a seaborne invasion of Taiwan. But how does realism help design an effective response to China? Realism in foreign policy is a framework based on material evidence of threat and power distribution, predicated on some core assumptions.
First, the world is anarchic, in the sense that there is no fixed hierarchy and global policemen. The reason great powers rise and fall are due to conflicts, insecurity, or ideological crusades abroad, and nothing is more important than survival and avoidance of catastrophic great power wars, unless the homeland is directly threatened. That is the reason smart great powers should always prefer internal security over utopian misadventures abroad. One might hate the game, and the actors might change, but the game will remain the same.
Second, alliances are the means to an end, not an end in itself. Consider that the United States joined the two world wars, not because of some lofty ideals of human rights used as war rhetoric, but as Hans Morgenthau wrote, to prevent a hegemon from dominating the whole continent, either in Asia or Europe. The core motivation was strategic, not ideological.
Finally, and the most crucial point of them all, “buck-passing” is a smart strategy. One might not like that in our post-modern world of “liberal rights promotion,” but the smartest way to fight an absolutely unavoidable great power war is to rely on foot soldiers of allies instead of a forward presence everywhere. Being the final “offshore balancer” is the smart way.
All of these lessons were internalized by our wise elder statesmen. All of these lessons we have forgotten in the last 30 years of unipolarity.
What Realism Requires
Realism, therefore, dictates the following course of action.
First, arm Taiwan to the teeth, but avoid the Thucydides Trap of a civilization-ending great power war. Asia in 2022 isn’t similar to Europe in 1949, with the balancing powers broken, and no one to stop the march of the Soviets.
China is surrounded by Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and India — all powers that are either treaty allies, or in tactical alignment with the United States against China. That is a structural advantage. It is tough to imagine a scenario where China is on a blitz with simultaneous wars in the Himalayas and in the South and East China seas. Having a sense of proportion is crucial.
The “area denial” strategy that is an advantage for China is also an advantage against Chinese sea-borne invasions with proper weapons and platforms. Taiwan is a heavily armed, rich, capable, advanced, and a big island of 24 million people. If armed properly, it could turn out to be China’s own 20-year misadventure and imperial graveyard.
Second, husband resources. The biggest cause of great power collapse isn’t war, but atrophy, internal decay, and overstretch. Funding utopian crusades abroad, whether promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan or LGBT rights in Ukraine, to the point of insolvency is a fundamental danger to an exhausted republic. A smarter strategy is to force allies to shoulder a larger share. We have to remember that allies will always free-ride as long as they can free-ride.
Third, and a crucial point, understand the ideological roots of our current grand strategy. Consider that Soviet state universities were extremely diverse and included top students from China, Kazakhstan, Syria, Poland, and East Germany, but they were all hardcore communists. There’s a tendency to project a certain rationality among people when it is rarely the case.
Surely, corporates are smart enough to see that wokeness is hurting capital and country? Surely, activist professors are rational and can be persuaded with reason? Surely everyone can see that spending an unlimited amount on foreign aid can result in a crippling inflation?
Soviet history suggests otherwise. Some of the most intelligent people can be extreme ideologues, and the detached majority are often led by a handful of extremely irrational ones.
The bias in favor of assumed mass rationality is almost always flawed. Politics is top-down. A common mistake in America is to conflate “meritocracy” — a system where merit and quality is favored, which could happen under any system of governance, either imperialism, aristocracy, or democracy — with credentialism, a rule by ideologues and experts, which we have now.
It is our universities that are the primary drivers behind the activist mentality of “promoting liberal rights,” either abroad or at home. The root causes of crusading interventionism abroad to the point of bankruptcy are the same behind a crusading wokeness at home. It’s a universalist desire to “ensure social justice” everywhere. Our rivals understand that and are willing to exploit that.
In sum, the realist option is to avoid direct escalation or indefensible red lines, and instead prop-up local actors to be the front line of deterrence, while building up strength and focussing inward. The Cold War playbook can be applied here, and the post-Cold War playbook to be avoided.
The challenge of China is far more complex than a simple Churchillian binary, and America’s internal problems added with the post-Cold War crusading impulse are bigger threats to the future of the republic than China invading and occupying Taiwan and trying to pacify a brutal insurgency with their blood and treasure. Crusade abroad, insolvency, and internal decay at home, on the other hand, will rot America from within.
You are familiar with George Washington’s farewell address warning against entanglements abroad and foreign influence at home. The second part is often forgotten but equally important: “since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” Washington said, and we forgot, “the great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible … our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course.”
I’d end with one of my other favorite Georges. George Canning’s guiding principle for post-Napoleonic British grand strategy argued for “non-intervention; no European police system; every nation for itself, and God for us all; balance of power; respect for facts, not for abstract theories; respect for treaty rights, but caution in extending them…”
We should re-learn the old wisdom of the two Georges, as we face an old type of global rivalry returning to form.