We are hearing a lot these days from Americans who warn us that China’s intention is to dominate the world. To steal away America’s number one spot and replace us as global superpower. To expand its menacing totalitarian power to countries near and far. In other words, to achieve what the Soviet Union set out to achieve but failed.
I believe these fears are overblown and not based on observable facts. In fact, I’d go so far as to say – those who say this are projecting: The United States has dominated the world since 1945, and we assume any country that gains some wealth and power must be itching to take our place. I see no evidence that China’s leaders want to do that.
What really is “China’s intention”? Of course, none of us outside the courtyards of power in Beijing can prove what its leaders do or don’t intend to do.
What we do know is what the Chinese leaders say their intentions are. President Xi Jinping has championed the “Chinese dream,” his vision for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” To achieve this, he set two goals: to become a “moderately well-off society” by 2021 – with average income of $10,000 per person, one-sixth that of the United States—already achieved; and to become a “fully developed nation” by 2049. China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Jiankai, says China has a “legitimate right” to modernize into a “strong, prosperous country.” Others have spoken of “restoring China’s rightful place in Asia.” With Made in China 2025, China’s set a strategic plan to upgrade its manufacturing expertise, explicitly aiming to be a world leader in artificial intelligence, quantum communications, electric cars, advanced robotics, and biomedicine.
Militarily, China is also pushing ahead, with the goal of becoming a “world class” force within thirty years, self-reliant in production and modernizing its forces with anti-ship ballistic missiles, stealth fighter jets, cyber warfare, warships and submarines. China has opened one foreign military base, in Djibouti. The Chinese army has constructed and militarized tiny artificial islands in the South China Sea, projecting its power more than five hundred miles from its southern coast. And China demonstrated a new missile that can hit moving ships, such as aircraft carriers, and it has technology that can jam satellite communications. China is planning to double its stockpile of nuclear warheads in the next decade, although that would bring its total to only about 500, far fewer than the US total of about 3,800 warheads in active status. President Xi has rejected Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy of humility and is proactively lending money to other countries to help with infrastructure development.
But is that evidence that China’s intention is overtake the United States as the top world power? Is it eager to export its values and send its money and troops to support regime change in other countries? That’s the behavior that the Chinese Communists have long criticized as “hegemony” and “imperialism.” Never in history, even at the peak of power of previous dynasties, has China sent its armies and navies out to conquer the world—with the exception of the Mongols, who actually conquered China before moving on to Tibet, Central Asia, Russia, Iran, and even Hungary and Poland.
So who is China preparing to go to war with? Are they preparing to attack the United States, now vulnerable and destabilized? The likelihood is near zero that China would attack the US mainland; that would be suicidal. Two nuclear armed nations cannot afford such mutually assured destruction.
So what is its intention? This seems clear: to defend its land and seas so that foreign nations do not ever occupy it – or grab parts of its territory again. To understand this, it’s useful to look at world affairs from China’s point of view. China is a large, populous country that, when weak, was dominated and later invaded by foreign countries, suffering under brutal Japanese occupation from 1931 to 1945. Parts of their country—Hong Kong and Taiwan—were taken from them by British troops in the 1800s and kept away from them by the American Seventh fleet in the 1950s. They don’t want that to happen ever again. That mentality is hard for Americans to imagine, since the United States has never been occupied and we have never had territory wrenched from us. Now that China is strong, its leaders want to protect their land and nearby seas from hostile foreign forces.
From China’s perspective, it was European powers that sent armies and navies out to conquer the world, occupying lands in North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia. Japan did, too, of course. To most Chinese, that seems like a crazy idea. They have a big country with a lot of problems at home. Why would they want to occupy other countries, when they suffered that indignity themselves?
Today, the US has 800 military bases outside our country; China has one. US missiles are pointed at Chinese cities from bases in South Korea and Okinawa, less than 500 miles off China’s coast. For Americans, that’s the equivalent of Russian or Chinese missiles permanently housed in Cuba or Mexico, pointed at Chicago and New York and Seattle. A nation facing a noose of deadly missiles just off its coast—missiles controlled by a US president who is erratic and at times hostile—has a perspective that we Americans would do well to try to imagine.
But what about the Belt and Road Initiative? Isn’t that a nefarious attempt by Xi Jinping to buy friends and influence—an underhanded way of gaining controlling of in weaker countries? Look at it this way. China developed quickly from an impoverished nation to a relatively prosperous one by earning money from exports and investing heavily in roads, railroads, ports, and airports. It has learned that such infrastructure projects are a key to unlock economic development. Yet the World Bank refuses to lend money for infrastructure because it’s hard to get a payback. So China set up its own bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to lend money to poorer countries eager to develop. President Xi embraced this idea and presented it as a larger vision, to connect countries by peaceful trade and lower barriers at borders. How did that get twisted into evil intentions? Of course, China wants to gain goodwill by those connections. Their leaders call it win-win. No one lends money with the hope that the borrower will default. When debt-strapped countries could not repay, China did seize one asset—a port in Sri Lanka—but mostly it has restructured or forgiven loans.
Is Xi Jinping a good guy, all sweetness and light? No, obviously not. He is a powerful leader of a country with few checks and balances, no free press, no independent judiciary. Two years ago, he abolished term limits, so he could be president for life. Clearly, that system is anathema to Americans, which makes it hard to understand his perspective. Rather than freedom and democracy, President Xi values stability at home, reunification of his country, continued growth in living standards, a military that can protect the homeland, and technology that will ensure China doesn’t have to rely on foreigners who can cut it off on a whim. So do most Chinese citizens.
Dominating the world is simply not on their agenda.