After decades of placing a heavy bet that the People’s Republic of China would peacefully rise to take its rightful place in the global system, the Washington policy community has finally awakened to the dangers of that brash wager. This inversion of the consensus on Beijing’s strategic objectives has been tectonic in scope. Barely a decade ago China’s steady gains against the West in the economic and military realms were seen as signs of a relatively benign transitional phase, after which the country’s export-driven modernization strategy would yield a democratic transformation. If only…
In reality, over the past four decades the Chinese party-state has leveraged its access to open democratic market economies, as well as our knowledge base and educational systems, to drive its own grand strategic project aimed at regrowing the sinews of global economic, military, and political power. The immediate impact of Chinese mercantilism has been felt across the West, reflected in the progressive deindustrialization of the United States, inroads by Chinese capital into European markets, and the narrowing of the technological gap between China and the U.S. in both civilian and military sectors. Most recently, Beijing’s heavy investment into the Belt and Road Initiative—a land-cum-maritime trade infrastructure that, once completed and in combination with Beijing’s effort to build a world-class blue-water navy—reflects China’s strategy to achieve a “grand disconnect”—that is, to finalize the current phase of globalization by ending its dependence on Western technology. China’s goals include establishing an alternative supply chain that is insulated from the current global maritime routes and has the potential of reversing core assumptions about what constitutes the core and the periphery in relations between Eurasia, Europe, and the United States.
For close to half a millennium, the ascendency of the West has rested on the primacy of naval power over land power. The West’s ability to leverage its supremacy in the maritime domain—by Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, and, since the last century, the United States—has been the sine qua non of both the colonial and post-colonial eras, undergirding the seemingly unstoppable worldwide expansion of democracy and market capitalism after the Cold War. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s core argument—that having a great navy is a precondition for national prosperity, as it ensures military and economic expansion while sea power arbitrates contests between nations—is still taught in strategy courses at our War Colleges today. Indeed, 15th-century improvements in the seaworthiness of naval vessels and the attendant reliance on cross-ocean shipping as the cheapest way to move goods between continents lay at the foundation of the Era of Discovery, which ensured the rapid economic growth of maritime powers and, ultimately, the rise of the West as the dominant global civilization.
Beijing’s current strategy aims to weaken America’s traditional advantage as the dominant naval power not only by building a blue-water navy of its own (something which the Soviet Union also accomplished during the Gorshkov navy of the 1970s), but also, perhaps more importantly, by seeking to transform its vulnerability as a land power into a strategic asset by creating an alternative supply chain across Eurasia and into Europe through its Belt and Road Initiative. China’s accumulation of capital, coupled with a massive transfer of knowledge from the United States over the past 50 years, has allowed it to pursue a two-pronged, long-term approach in which the Chinese navy will seek to draw the United States into a maritime contest for control of the Indo-Pacific theater while, in a potential game-changer, Beijing continues to develop its “Big Eurasia” project across the continent.
Analysts differ as to the actual investment in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with current estimates ranging between $1 to $8 trillion and some 70 countries involved, but there can be no debate that the new infrastructure network, once completed, has the potential to fundamentally alter the global supply chain. In the event of a military conflict in the Indo-Pacific, China’s strategy aims to insulate its supply and manufacturing chain across “Big Eurasia” into Russia and Europe, giving it a potentially decisive advantage in war. Launched in 2013, the combination of the overland “belt” across Eurasia, Eastern Europe, and into Russia, and the maritime “road” across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and deep into Europe—and in the future also heading into the High North and across the Arctic—is likely the single most important strategic enterprise in world politics since 1945. As envisioned by President Xi during its unveiling in 2013, the BRI involves the creation of a vast network of railroads, highways, communication networks, and energy pipelines cutting west and south/southwest. The planned 50 new special economic zones to emerge, modeled after the Shenzen Special Economic Zone, would allow China to manufacture in place for both local, European, and Eurasian markets. Further corridors for the BRI are envisioned moving north; Beijing’s investment in a new crop of nuclear-powered icebreakers are clear evidence that China is eyeing the Arctic trade route, passing Scandinavia into northern Europe.
Once completed, the BRI will allow the PRC to challenge U.S. global maritime supremacy without courting a direct confrontation with U.S. naval power. It will ensure Chinese domination of Eurasia and allow Beijing to make ever-deeper inroads into Europe. BRI projects are built with low-interest loans, not aid grants, giving Beijing the option to “collect on the debt” through forfeiture of land assets if the government is unable to repay the loan—as has been the case in a number of African countries. Once finished, this “New Silk Road” will fundamentally change our assumptions about the global hubs of growth, innovation, and ultimately military might. The long-term impact of China’s expansion into Eurasia and its growing influence in Europe—not just along the Mediterranean but further North, including the Continent’s most developed economies—threatens to flip the global polarity of the past 500 years. To quote Nicholas John Spykman, “Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.”
If the West does not mount an all-out push against China’s predatory behavior on trade and intellectual property rights, our core assumptions about whose rule book will determine the future of the international system will begin to come undone. In the realm of global power distribution, as in any area where human agency remains paramount, trends need not become outcomes. China’s rise to global preeminence is not a forgone conclusion. It is time we stop contemplating the consequences of our past misguided policy decisions, as though they were now a force of nature, bound to prejudge the outcome. The West must come up with a coordinated response.
The United States, Europe, and our democratic allies in Asia have on balance assets that all but ensure a winning hand, given a modicum of coordination and resolve. We need to rewrite the rules to ensure that market access does not continue to favor Beijing’s predatory policies, that China’s access to our educational and research institutions does not give it an unfair advantage, and that our values and our intellectual property laws are respected. The West has ample resources to stop China’s rise. What has been missing is a clear-headed diagnosis of the problem and the political will to craft and implement a solution.