What Biden’s Top China Theorist Gets Wrong
A review of Rush Doshi, “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order” (Oxford University Press, 2021).
By one telling, the tensions and troubles that plague the U.S.-China relationship today can be traced back to the quiet departure of an unmarked C-141 military cargo plane from Andrews Air Force Base, shortly before dawn on a Friday in late June 1989. Less than 20 years after Henry Kissinger faked a stomachache and set off on a secret flight from Pakistan to Beijing that would lay the groundwork for diplomatic normalization after decades of estrangement, Brent Scowcroft was on a secret journey of his own to salvage Kissinger’s legacy.
Three weeks earlier, the People’s Liberation Army had cleared away protesting students, workers, and activists in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square with tanks and machine gun fire, killing hundreds if not more. Amid an outpouring of anger and grief among the American public, media, and Congress—as well as the suspension of arms sales and high-level contacts, and votes to impose further sanctions—Scowcroft was there to smooth things over. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who had ordered the crackdown, expressed mild appreciation for George H.W. Bush’s “cool-headed attitude.” But the United States was “too deeply involved” in the protests, too willing to “add fuel to the fire,” Deng told Scowcroft. “Such actions are leading to the breakup of the relationship,” he warned, and it was now Washington’s responsibility to “untie the knot.”
Thirty years hence, this same phrase would crop up again as the two countries jockeyed for position and leverage in a new, fluctuating post-Trump world. “Whoever tied the knot is responsible for untying it. The US side needs to change course,” declared China’s most famous “Wolf Warrior,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, following a series of meetings in July where Chinese officials presented their counterparts with a “List of US Wrongdoings that Must Stop” if relations were to be repaired. Later in September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Biden administration climate envoy John Kerry that “China-US cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-US relations.” Wang called on the United States to “stop viewing China as a threat and rival, and cease containing and suppressing China all over the world,” adding that “he who tied the knot should untie it. The ball is now in the US’ court.”
In “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order,” Rush Doshi, who works on China policy on President Biden’s National Security Council, offers a clear and compelling framework to understand why another series of knots have emerged in the U.S.-China relationship today. In fact, the one Deng referred to in 1989 was never fully undone. But while Doshi pulls back the curtains on the past 30 years of Chinese foreign policy, he fails to fully grapple with and apply his own insights, presenting a path for navigating the 30 and more to come that will likely end not only in failure but possibly something much worse: a century-defining tragedy.
“The Long Game” positions the Tiananmen Square massacre as the first in a series of successive geopolitical shocks—the others being the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1991 Gulf War, the three shocks together referred to as the “traumatic trifecta”—that led Beijing to perceive the United States, and the military, economic, and political order it leads, as its principal threat. As one does when feeling threatened and insecure, Beijing dedicated the decades that followed to shoring up its defenses and chipping away at the weak spots of American hegemony, while eschewing aggressive actions that might alarm its neighbors, an approach that Doshi calls “blunting.” China invested in the specific capabilities needed to counter American military intervention in the Western Pacific, sought to stall or limit the scope of regional institutions and organizations that the United States could turn on China, and reduced its exposure to American economic leverage.
The 2008 financial crisis, set upon the backdrop of a downturn in the 2003 Iraq War, caused Beijing to reassess its approach: American power and prestige were now wounded. Emboldened and sensing a moment of opportunity, Beijing went on the offensive, not only “blunting” American order but also “building” the foundations of its own, particularly in Asia. It acquired one and soon several aircraft carriers, as well as other vessels lending themselves more to power projection than countering intervention, and set out to secure overseas bases and facilities, eventually leading to the opening of its first official base in Djibouti. It also grew more assertive in the South and East China Seas, launched the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, and built China-led institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank while promoting the renminbi as an alternative to the dollar.
The lessons of 2008 were reinforced by another series of shocks—the rise of Donald Trump and Western populism, the coronavirus pandemic, and now the chaotic end to the war in Afghanistan. These have brought about a third and final shift to what Doshi calls “expansion.” Beijing now seeks to take its order-building efforts global and “displace the United States as world leader,” Doshi writes. Xi Jinping’s China hopes to “set the terms for the twenty-first century in the same way that the United States set them for the twentieth,” and “restore China to its due place and roll back the historical aberration of the West’s overwhelming global influence.”
Compared to his analysis of blunting and building order regionally, Doshi’s expansive claims about Beijing’s global ambitions are overstated and imprecise, and the evidence marking a clear, more assertive shift in Beijing’s behavior is comparatively thin. Doshi references Xi’s statements that China is “moving closer toward the world’s center stage” and will “become a leading country in comprehensive national strength and international influence” by taking advantage of “great changes unseen in a century.” He points out Chinese scholars who say that the oft-mentioned goal of “national rejuvenation” requires “approaching” or “surpassing” the United States over the next 30 years. But these statements do not establish that China wants to be “the sole superpower,” as Doshi often seems to imply and at one point says is how “many [Chinese elites] see the end of its grand strategy.” China certainly seeks to exercise greater influence globally and is doing so in a more aggressive manner, but it has come nowhere close to being able to genuinely rival or match, let alone replace, the 75-year project of American hegemony; many readers may be left with a different, and inaccurate, impression.
Despite these flaws, Doshi’s overall analytic framework is still sound: China has long perceived the U.S.-led order as its principal threat, and has pursued a strategy for decades to limit its exposure and build up points of leverage and influence. Where “The Long Game” truly does go wrong is in outlining what it all means, and what the United States should do next.
To start, Doshi repeatedly gestures at, but never fully comes to terms with, how a more ambitious and less deferential shift in Beijing’s behavior was expected and all but inevitable as China rose. America’s global dominance was a product of particular economic and geopolitical circumstances that arose after the two world wars, supercharged by the collapse of the Soviet Union to give birth to a “unipolar moment,” or era of true American hegemony. The keyword here is “moment”: As the developing world rode the waves of global capitalism and returned to an economic position concomitant with its share of the global population, it was always going to force some semblance of balance back into the system. In fact, this rebalancing is the best validator of American order itself: Only an unhealthy order would’ve kept such a large portion of the world’s population confined to a position of subservience and marginalization in perpetuity. Perhaps a liberal, democratic China not ruled by the Communist Party would have been less suspicious of American power, but nationalism and historical grievances against the West (and Japan) would still exist, and China was always going to seek its moment in the sun. Regardless, this is not how history played out, and the Communist Party and its deep-seated anxieties about Washington appear unlikely to go away anytime soon.
To a greater degree, Doshi also fails to capture just how imbalanced the global order remains today, despite Beijing’s apparent efforts to upend it. The United States counts dozens of countries the world over as formal treaty allies or erstwhile strategic partners, collectively accounting for a substantial portion of global economic output and diplomatic influence. China’s sole treaty ally is North Korea and its only true friend is Pakistan, while its circle of real partners is strengthening but still comparatively small and uninfluential.
America’s vast geopolitical network is underwritten by hundreds of military installations scattered across the globe, allowing for an unrivaled projection of power whenever and wherever necessary. China’s one overseas military base—in Djibouti—is supplemented by a small but growing number of strategically useful ports and other facilities. And even after decades of soaring growth in China’s defense budget, it still spends a third as much as the United States; the year-over-year cumulative effect of this gap belies a disparity that is even larger. The Department of Defense warns that China’s nuclear warhead stockpile will “double in size” over the next decade—from roughly 200 to 400—while America today counts 3,800 active warheads, along with 2,000 more awaiting dismantlement.
The dollar remains the world’s dominant reserve currency—accounting for 59 percent of central bank reserves, compared to the renminbi’s 2.5 percent—while China’s alternative to the SWIFT financial transactions network that gives American sanctions teeth is as of yet no real challenger. According to Forbes’s annual ranking of the world’s top-2,000 publicly traded companies, 590 are in the United States, while only 351 are in China or Hong Kong; among the top 20, 11 are American, and only five Chinese. Some of these firms, such as Google and Facebook, have established a global, monopolistic presence in key domains that will prove difficult to displace due to first-mover advantages.
According to one top Chinese education consultancy, 40 of the top 100 universities, and eight of the top 10, are in the United States. Tsinghua University is China’s best at 28, and only six others are among the top 100. Universities remain strong bastions for liberal thought, and democratic values and institutions still command healthy levels of support among large majorities in many countries. “Xi Jinping Thought,” by contrast, is an empty, alienating ideology that is nothing but a stand-in for one-party rule and centralized state power, offering little of the revolutionary, liberatory appeal of Maoism. Xi himself continues to rank behind Vladimir Putin as a leader expected to “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” at least among the publics of developed countries.
Yet even this does not fully capture the basic imbalances of the present order. Many of America’s closest allies, and much of its firepower, are located in China’s own backyard, forming a ring along its periphery buttressed by Guam. Not only does China have nothing of the sort in the Americas, but it lacks the natural security buffer created by America’s two weak and unambitious neighbors to its north and south, and the vast oceans to its east and west. Although the continental United States would not be entirely out of harm’s way in the event of a war, it would start and mostly stay in Asia, by design.
The long-standing justification for America’s military presence in Asia is one of balancing. “The United States has historically sought to prevent the emergence of a hegemon in maritime or continental Eurasia,” Doshi writes, and this “must once again drive US China policy.” But sustaining such a balance on the regional level, far from America’s shores and without a time horizon, rests on and otherwise signifies the existence of a fundamental and permanent imbalance on the global level, one in which it is the United States, not China, that is effectively the “hegemon in maritime or continental Eurasia.”
Ultimately, it is Doshi’s lack of attention to the basic and unsustainable imbalances of today’s order, and how this might look from Beijing’s perspective, that proves the book’s greatest weakness. Its most revealing passage in this regard comes in its final chapter. “The United States pursued a largely benign and welcoming policy toward China under the policy of engagement,” Doshi writes, deeming it “the most accommodating in American history.” Despite this, “top Chinese officials nonetheless continued to write in Party texts that they believed the United States was pursuing a strategy of ‘peaceful evolution’ and containment.”
The United States facilitated and fueled China’s economic rise and entry into international institutions, and did not challenge the status quo regarding Taiwan and other sensitive issues, says Doshi. This benevolence should have been acknowledged and rewarded by Beijing, seemingly by doing what it did not: accepting the reality of American dominance; a permanent imbalance of power; and a vision for global economic, political and military order set on Washington’s terms. Of course, a China led by the Communist Party was never going to accede to this unequal state of affairs, unless it democratized and came to see its interests as squarely aligned with American order, or it concluded that facing down American power was a losing game. These two outcomes are, respectively, quite close to Beijing’s definition of “peaceful evolution” and “containment,” a fact that eludes Doshi completely.
To counter Beijing’s long game, Doshi outlines an “asymmetric strategy” designed to “rebuild” and “reinforce” American order “without competing dollar-for-dollar, ship-for-ship, or loan-for-loan.” Some of this is about strengthening the United States at home, a worthwhile goal, while most else is about maintaining and upholding the global imbalance. Doshi proposes a shift in America’s force posture in Asia, hardening and retooling it in such a way that nullifies many of China’s strategic gains, all for the sake of being able to defeat or outmaneuver China in a conflict at its doorstep whenever necessary.
Doshi speaks the language of a more defensive, denial-oriented posture but does not explicitly call for limiting the primary targets of offensive power-projection capabilities in order to reduce the risk of miscalculation and escalation. Some proposed capabilities, such as “long-range precision strike” and “high-speed strike weapons,” might be aimed at Chinese ships attacking others far from China’s shores but could possibly be launched at the Chinese mainland itself. He outlines a list of countries surrounding China—“Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and India”—that the United States should arm with these same capabilities and otherwise coordinate with.
Doshi calls for the “multilateralization” of the Belt and Road Initiative to give the United States and others a seat at the table, diluting Beijing’s influence and limiting it as a source of political leverage. If this fails, Washington should “empower or finance local journalism abroad” or “expand the reach” of American propaganda outlets like Voice of America to expose political corruption in any deals. Otherwise, it should “provide select alternative financing” to “those projects that have the greatest strategic potential” such as dual-use ports—a criticism often lobbed at Beijing.
This is in line with Doshi’s desire to “stifle” and “spoil” China’s various efforts to attain institutional power: playing a “spoiler role” when China puts forward candidates for posts in international bodies and promoting those preferred by Washington, joining the institutions Beijing created to “shape and sometimes stall their development,” and elevating and empowering others not led by China. Completely lost on Doshi is that the very reason Beijing built alternative institutions to begin with was because it feared Washington would indeed try to play the spoiler. Relatedly, he calls for Washington to “undermine China’s efforts to establish overseas bases and logistical facilities,” including by using regional institutions to “set norms or raise concerns” over possible bases in Asia. He would remind potential hosts “that those bases could become targets” in the event of a conflict, and make “side payments or infrastructure payments to discourage those countries from hosting Chinese facilities.”
Finally, Doshi says Washington should maintain the dollar’s dominance and form a liberal-democratic bloc that can not only set rules and norms and swing diplomatic heft but also bypass global bodies such as the World Trade Organization and the International Telecommunications Union, “where China has influence” to create an entirely parallel order. “Entire industries—or even supply chains—might be organized around these democratic or allied coalitions,” Doshi writes.
Taken together, Doshi’s proposed strategy represents a concerted, decades-long, likely multi-trillion-dollar effort to escalate this competition over order, to counterbalance Beijing’s rebalance, and contain its influence at both the regional and global level. The future Doshi envisions all but confirms that Beijing was right to fear American order all along. Doshi offers only small hints at what the ultimate goal of this campaign might be, or where or how it might come to an end. He admits his approach “cannot be guaranteed to change Chinese strategy” but says it may achieve “a ‘mellowing’ of Chinese power less through an internal change of China’s politics or an effort to reassure Beijing than through external constraint on China’s ability to convert the sources of its power into political order.” If Beijing’s internal politics drive it to view American power as an inherent threat, an end goal of “mellowing” sounds an awful lot like holding the line indefinitely until Beijing’s internal politics do in fact shift.
Beijing’s more likely response—which Doshi’s own argument gives credence to—is that it will escalate this competition over order. It will invest in, and if they do not yet exist invent, military capabilities to make America’s strategic gains in Asia moot; double-down on its efforts to secure its institutional position and create a parallel order beyond Washington’s reach; and drive wedges in a liberal-democratic bloc, if not organize a counterbalancing one of its own.
A glaring, and for Doshi damning, contradiction fuels this dynamic: “The Long Game” effectively portrays American hegemony and control over global order as critical to U.S. security and prosperity, while simultaneously asking China to accept a world not only where it cannot dominate but where it can be dominated, including in its own backyard.
This incoherence, and the coming decades-long competition over regional and global order that is likely only just getting started, would not necessarily be a problem were it not for two factors. First, Washington faces immutable constraints in waging such a campaign. Polarization, inequality, gridlock, and a thriving right-wing populism have eroded the foundations of democratic order at home and America’s appeal abroad. This political reality appears unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, dramatically limiting Washington’s ability to maintain the consistent, measured approach that will prove necessary to successfully and safely see this competition through to the end.
Moreover, climate change will continue to be a major threat to humanity, and preventing worst-case scenarios will require all energy and resources to be levied against it. Climate change should thus be a major element of any grand strategy toward China, considering the nation’s role as the leading carbon emitter. Doshi references the need for cooperation on a handful of occasions and calls for “delinking” it from competition, but these are empty gestures; he mentions climate change but twice.
Second, the never-ending escalatory spiral that this competition over order will kick off carries with it the constant risk that rising tensions will spark unforeseen crises, which may suddenly and swiftly metastasize into a conflict fought using the most sophisticated and deadly weapons systems to ever exist, and others yet to come. Doshi barely if at all addresses this dilemma, and offers no real plan for how to slow down the escalation train in Asia. His is merely one of hope, that the train will not suddenly and swiftly run right off the tracks.
None of this should be read to imply that China is not an increasingly ambitious and brutal power that will use its global influence for anti-democratic ends. But trying to keep China down and undermine its influence simply will not work, and will most likely end in disaster and tragedy. Washington does indeed need a new long game of its own, not to counter, contain, and “mellow” Chinese power, but to find ways of mitigating and ultimately bringing to an end this unsustainable, self-perpetuating struggle in its entirety. No such strategy yet truly exists; those that have been put forward are insufficient, outdated or otherwise unlikely to work. Part of the reason is that the sharpest minds in Washington, like Doshi, have been singularly focused on finding the best ways of maintaining American dominance, assuming it to be synonymous with American interests and the only way of organizing the world. These arguments reinforce themselves in Washington’s echo chamber, shielding them from having to grapple with the reality of domestic decay, and the two ticking time bombs of climate change and the slow-motion security dilemma in Asia.
Many authors of these arguments—Ely Ratner, Mira Rapp-Hooper, Kelly Magsamen, Melanie Hart, Tarun Chhabra and Lindsey Ford—have secured top jobs in the Biden administration. Together, they represent a new, rising generation of policymakers who seek to reorient American foreign policy around competition with China, and Doshi serves as their foremost theorist. They will now get their chance to put their ideas to the test, but expect the U.S.-China knot to end up tighter than ever before, leaving it up to others to find a way of untying it.