The winner of next week’s US presidential election will find himself in an epochal fight with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
This fight will not be skirmishing in the borderlands or proxy wars of the Cold War era. Nor will it be jockeying for cell phone market share. Instead, the two sides are heading into an all-out struggle that will have a clear winner and loser.
Akin to the Mongols swarming into Eastern Europe in the 13th century? Or the Ottomans moving on Vienna three (and four) centuries later?
The PRC seeks domination. It will be regional at first by pushing the US out of Asia and then on to global domination. Old-school occupation of territory won’t usually be required.
Instead, technology, economic coercion, a military that operates globally, long-range missiles (and a willingness to use those weapons) and controlling the high ground of outer space are what’s needed. Psychological domination will do just fine.
And America could lose. That’s a concept few Americans alive are familiar with. And if the US loses, every other free nation on earth has bleak prospects.
Let’s take an oddsmaker’s view:
The PRC’s advantages: China has heft. It’s a big country with 1.4 billion people. And that heft manifests itself in economic clout, both outwardly and inwardly.
Outwardly, for example, China can produce all the steel the world needs (if it feels like it) and many other products. And unlike the former Soviet Union, the PRC makes things people want to buy. The Chinese can also innovate – contrary to popular belief.
Inwardly, the huge Chinese market seduces foreigners who supply raw materials and commodities or think they will sell one of something to everyone in China. This weakens their will to resist and encourages accommodation.
The PRC has pulled off the biggest, fastest military expansion since World War Two, if not in history. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a match for US forces in certain areas and surpasses them in others. One recalls US commanders snickering about the PLA 30 years ago.
The Chinese Communist Party’s ultimate objective is a Chinese version of today’s US military, and operating worldwide. That is not unthinkable.
Geography is an advantage for the PRC, but not as usually considered. How’s that? The PRC controls the headwaters of the Mekong, Brahmaputra and other rivers that flow southward through the Indian sub-continent and Southeast Asia. The extortion opportunities are thus immense. Humans must have water.
But perhaps the PRC’s main strength is the industriousness of the Chinese themselves. China’s progress over the last 30 years only required the CCP to relax the boot on its citizens’ necks a little. Not exactly rocket science. But it’s an industriousness unrestrained by law and often borders on rapaciousness, both domestically and overseas.
Formidable, not omnipotent
China is formidable, but also has serious weaknesses.
First, its currency is not freely convertible. So if China wants something from overseas, it needs to pay in US dollars or another convertible currency. Try funding the Belt and Road Initiative with the Chinese yuan. Choke off the flow of dollars and the PRC has problems.
Next, Communist Party rule is based on coercion, not consent. The party will not share power. This seems an advantage to some Westerners who should know better. But it creates a brittleness in the system.
And don’t forget that China lacks a proper legal system and secure property rights. This results in a lack of confidence in the system and breeds a sort of tribalism at the family or individual level.
Exhibit #1: rampant capital flight for everyone who can – including top CCP leaders – spiriting money overseas where it’s safe. Foreign real estate and green cards are time-honored insurance policies for Chinese elites.
One can’t think of a similar case of a powerful, aggressive nation’s most successful people putting their wealth (and relatives) into the countries they consider their main adversaries and whose governing systems they profess to despise.
As for the PLA, it is powerful and getting stronger. For now, it can’t project power far from its borders. But wait for two or three decades. Lack of combat experience? That’s more a soothing excuse for the people who squandered the US’s military advantage.
And finally, the PRC has no real allies that it hasn’t paid for. And it has bad relations with most of its neighbors. If Beijing gets into trouble, nobody is coming to its aid.
And on the other side
The US is resisting Chinese domination, fronting for other “free nations” (and even some less free ones).
America’s biggest advantage is that it seeks to dominate nobody and is defending an idea: human freedom. And it is also defending a global order in which countries have equal rights and don’t take territory that belongs to others or to everyone.
However imperfect in practice, that’s an attractive proposition for many countries. The Americans have partners and allies. And it is all voluntary.
As for all the foreign elites complaining about the US, none are ending their alliances with the US or telling the Americans to go home. If anything, the complaints are that Americans aren’t keen enough to die on their behalf.
Defense-wise, for all its problems and two decades of strategic floundering in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the US military is still immensely powerful and is finally focusing on the Chinese threat.
And the US has a geographical advantage. The PLA may have de facto control of the South China Sea, but it still has to break the First Island Chain to access the Pacific.
China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weaponry, which in China’s planning weaves together missile, sensor, guidance and other technologies, denying freedom of movement to stop potential adversaries from intervening in a conflict off of China’s coast or from attacking the Chinese mainland applies both ways.
The US and partners operating from the First Island Chain can hem in the PLA. And there’s a Second Island Chain beyond the first one. (See map)
This is an American advantage for now if the US can keep its allies, especially Taiwan and the Philippines.
The American economy is still the world’s strongest, the result of free markets, a real legal system and enforceable contracts, and a stable enough political system (for now). As a result, the US dollar is the world’s reserve currency. That is worth any number of aircraft carriers.
The big one: America’s business and financial classes are falling over themselves to get into China with other peoples’ money.
US financiers and businessmen are funding to the tune of tens or hundreds of billions of dollars annually the country that seeks to subjugate Americans. This is insane, if not traitorous.
And when facing an epochal adversary, some national unity is helpful. But these days you would think half of America wishes the other half would disappear.
One of these halves claims the US was flawed at its founding, is no better than the Chinese communist system, and not worth defending. But ask somebody in Hong Kong or Xinjiang what the alternative is like.
America’s alliances are also in need of work. But Donald Trump was mostly right on this score. The US can’t handle things by itself, it needs allies that can fight. Unfortunately, most of them got accustomed to American backstopping. Asking them to do more creates resentment or even a sense of defeatism.
However, if Washington holds firm, demands capability improvements and not money, and demonstrates its long-term commitment, more countries may be willing to stick their necks out. The Quad – the informal strategic forum among the US, Japan, Australia and India – shows what is achievable.
As big a weakness as any, US finances are a mess. The country has too much debt and is taking on more, and needs to get its economic house in order. There is nothing guaranteed about the US economy or the US dollar.
Sometimes a country needs to focus on the more serious external threat over domestic social issues. The US got a taste of this with President Barack Obama. He was more interested in a national dental plan than defending the US’s partners in Southeast Asia or worrying about China building islands in the South China Sea.
And the final weakness is the American tendency to think there is always a deal to be cut, even with the worst people.
The US tried for the last four decades with the PRC. How did it do? Look at the military balance and listen to PRC officials threatening the US.
Or even better, spend a couple of nights in Youngstown, Ohio, or Erie, Pennsylvania. The US handed over a good chunk of its blue-collar citizens’ livelihoods to “improve Chinese behavior” – leaving their countrymen with the choice of Wal-Mart jobs or opioids.
There is no deal to be cut with the PRC, if there ever was. America’s next President needs to understand that what’s going on with the PRC is epochal. Trump seems to have figured it out.
Biden? One hopes.
However, let’s imagine there was a fellow in Krakow in 1241 who remarked skeptically, when Subutai’s Mongol cavalry was three days away: The Mongols “are going to eat our lunch? Come on, man …. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks …. Guess what? They’re not competition for us.”
If there had been such a fellow, his confidence would have turned out to be an epic mistake.
Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy. This article originally appeared October 27 in And Magazine. It is republished with permission in this slightly edited version.