Foreign Policy

China's Middle Kingdom Wants to Be on Top

Beijing has conveyed this message implicitly and explicitly over the course of the past two decades.

John J. Bastiat · Nov. 13, 2018

Anyone who thinks China doesn’t take “the long view” has never seen the Great Wall. It is this long view that permeates every fiber of Communist leadership in the once-great empire known as the “Middle Kingdom.” Fabled as the land chosen by destiny to be situated in both the physical and metaphysical center of the world, it was surrounded on all sides by natural barriers and “uncivilized” enemies. Indeed, the Great Wall was built to stop constant invasion from these unwashed hordes. But the Middle Kingdom has since had a comeuppance — actually, many — calling into question China’s once-preeminent status. The message from Xi Jinping, president of the grossly misnamed People’s Republic of China (PRC), to the rest of Planet Earth on how it should view China is, “We’re Number One: Get used to it.”

Beijing has conveyed this message implicitly and explicitly over the course of the past two decades. For example, China’s military budget has been rising exponentially — from less than $10 billion in current dollars to almost $200 billion projected in 2018, with double-digit budget increases year-over-year. China’s aggressions — especially those within its region of influence — have likewise seen dramatic upticks that have only recently been addressed.

Until the arrival of the Trump administration, for example, China’s imperial expansions in the South and East China Seas remained unchecked, with nations’ territorial waters blatantly violated by offshore oil exploration rigs protected by the Chinese navy (as with Vietnam), or else losing territory outright through dredging and “island-making” operations (such as those suffered by the Philippines). These “islands,” dredged into existence from nowhere, are then paved with airstrips, equipped with military support, and declared the “sovereign” territory of China. China uses these faux islands as instrumentalities through which to bully other nations (notably the U.S.), by demanding foreign-flagged vessels gain permission to enter China’s “territorial waters” — a buzzword commonly used in international law but misappropriated by China in its “sea-grab” for what would otherwise be freely navigable international waters. China’s goal, of course, is regional hegemony — at least, this is China’s ostensible starting point.

China’s real endgame is parity with, if not outright superiority to, the U.S. as a superpower. But China is also well aware that it still lags the U.S. in both economic power and military might. Undeterred, China continues unabated its military buildup, all while testing U.S. resolve indirectly and globally through covert cyber warfare and intellectual property theft, challenges in the international waters of the South and East China Seas, and enemy-of-my-enemy economic and military alliances.

In September 2015, China and the U.S. jointly pledged that neither nation would “conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage.” For China, that pledge lasted roughly a week. Just kidding: It was being broken by China even as it was being announced on the lawn of the White House Rose Garden. Indictments two weeks ago against Chinese industrial espionage agents and a Chinese state-owned company for stealing sophisticated memory chip technology from U.S. semiconductor manufacturer Micron were only the latest in a host of state-sponsored industrial espionage operations against the U.S.

Moreover, China has been quietly acquiring seaports, shipping and supply depots, and communication and energy facilities in more than a dozen countries globally, and it is accelerating its acquisition pace. U.S. military vessels are well aware they will be subject to Chinese cyber-surveillance if they dock at ports controlled by Chinese companies, and this threat poses a deterrent to the scope of U.S. naval operations. This deterrent was purposefully crafted under China’s “anti-access/area denial” strategy (commonly referred to as “A2/AD”), a strategy designed to undermine U.S. military power without directly confronting the U.S. Navy.

Fortunately, albeit belatedly, the U.S. is finally sobering to the realization that it may have erred in welcoming the unholy marriage of capitalism with communism in China. The hostile hybrid hardly resulted in the opening of China to trade and Liberty as hoped for, but rather resulted in the economic analog of giving an alcoholic a booze-for-life membership card: Whatever the ultimate outcome, things certainly aren’t going to become better in the short run.

Some see the latest trade war as an attempt by the U.S. to put a governor on the engine of China’s martial buildup, and some evidence to that effect seems to exist. More accurate, however, is the fact that the U.S. is simply tired of China’s blatant flouting of its status as “member-in-good-standing” in the World Trade Organization (WTO), through such anti-free-trade measures as demanding foreign industries “partner” with Chinese agent companies whose primary goal is to steal intellectual property for the good of the PRC. China’s overt contempt for adverse rulings from the WTO — as well as the courts of countless nations and other international administrative and judicial bodies — hasn’t exactly overwhelmed the U.S. with warm fuzzies about China’s ability to play well with others in the economic sandbox, either.

Most military experts estimate China is still 10-15 years away from approaching U.S. military capability. While the “experts” are very often wrong — especially when it comes to predicting the future, given the enormous number of variables in play — at least for the time being China also believes it isn’t quite there yet. Otherwise, based on its belligerent activities over at least the last decade, China would likely already have started a hot war with us somewhere — say, Taiwan, for instance, which of course China considers part of its territory, much to the trepidation of the Taiwanese. That the U.S. recognizes the threat China’s indirect warfare method poses to world order and Liberty is finally evident. Whether the U.S. has the backbone, might, and savvy to deal with this threat remains an open question.

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