Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Li Gang/Xinhua
Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display by the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Xinhua

China’s decisive advantage, Professor Wen Yang of Fudan University wrote in a recent essay for The Observer (guancha.cn), is its lack of ambition for global hegemony. The Observer website often acts as a sounding board for the State Council.

The Soviet Union fell, Wen argued, precisely because it attempted to become a hegemon, a concept that Professor Wen finds alien to Chinese civilization.

“Even though the history of modern international relations has emphatically pointed to the undefeated record of ‘the Anglo-Saxon countries,’ the real reason for this is not to be found in the boast of liberal theory that liberal democracy and the free market must prevail,” he wrote. “

“The real reason for the failure of the Russian-Soviet empire is certainly not to be found in errors of Marxist theory and the socialist system. It should be regarded as the inevitable result of the misguided goal of pursuing hegemony.” 

This, of course, is the diametric opposite of the usual American view of Chinese intentions. American analysts take for granted China’s intention of “displacing the United States as the world’s leading state,” as National Security Council official Rush Doshi argued in his 2021 book The Long Game

“Beijing would project leadership over global governance and international institutions, advance autocratic norms at the expense of liberal ones, and split American alliances in Europe and Asia,” he wrote.

Former Trump Defense Department planner Elbridge Colby claimed China wanted to subjugate the countries of the First Island Chain (Taiwan or the Philippines, as convenient) to drive America from the “Second Island Cloud” and thence to the blue oceans.

Americans think that China aspires to world hegemony, while Professor Wen contends that the aspiration to hegemony as such is the fatal flaw of empires past and present. Americans will dismiss Wen’s analysis as Chinese dissembling, but they would be mistaken to do so.

China’s exaggerated assertion of sovereignty in the South China Sea, its island-building campaign and attempts to intimidate its neighbors give Washington reason to assume the worst about China’s intentions. But China never has been a hegemonic power in the past, certainly not in the sense of the British Empire or Soviet Communism. Nor does it intend to become such a power in the future. 

America’s Cold War triumph, Wen believes, was simply “the most recent decisive victory” in a long series of contests with other putative hegemons, including “the Spanish Empire, the Dutch Empire, the French Empire and the German Empire.”

China, adds Professor Wen, was a bystander to the Great Power competition for hegemony during the 1960s and 1970s. This in turn was a contest within a “small world,” between Western civilization and Eastern Orthodox civilization, in which the non-Christian civilizations – Chinese, Indian and Islamic – had limited stakes.

This “battle for world hegemony within ‘Christian civilization’ is unacceptable,” he concluded: “World hegemony exercised in the name of liberalism must be opposed by the people of the world, and world hegemony exercised in the name of communism also must be opposed by the people of the world.”

Hegemons have an invariant characteristic. Real empires run deficits. Imports made up half of the food supply in Pericles’ Athens, paid for by tribute exacted on threat of annihilation.

A view shows details of the sculptures on the Trajan’s Column in Rome, erected in AD 107-113. Photo: AFP / Andreas Solaro

Profesor Graham Allison notes in his 2017 book Destined for War, “Athens [during the Thirty Years’ Peace] continued to use its powerful navy to dominate – and extract gold from – its own subjects throughout the Aegean. It amassed a strategic reserve amounting to the previously unheard-of sum of 6,000 talents of gold, and was adding 1,000 talents per year in revenue.”

When the island of Melos resisted, Athens massacred its population in 416 BCE.

The Roman Empire kept between 5 and 8 million slaves, requiring 250,000 to 400,000 new slaves per year, in Walter Scheidel’s estimate. That required ever more wars of conquest.

The Spanish Empire, Fernand Braudel reported in his classic study The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II, sent all the bullion wrung from the conquered New World to China to pay for silks and spices.

And all the wealth accumulated by China returned to the West when Britain compelled it at cannon-point to buy Indian opium. Opium in 1837 accounted for 57% of China’s imports,  and opium smokers paid 100 million taels (about 130 million ounces of silver) yearly for the drug when the Imperial government stood at just 40 million taels.

America doesn’t force its trading partners to buy opium, but its chronic trade deficits have produced a $13 trillion negative net foreign asset position. America’s borrowings from the rest of the world include $8 trillion of Treasury securities held by foreigners and about $16 trillion in dollar-denominated foreign bank deposits, which constitute de facto loans to the United States.

Historic China accumulated vast wealth through the exports of silk, tea, porcelain and other goods, but it never built an imperial economy like Athens, Rome or Britain. Agriculture was centered on the extended family farm rather than slave-based latifundia.

Unlike Rome, which constructed roads to speed its armies from Mesopotamia to Britain, China built walls to keep invaders out. The Qin dynasty which gave China its name, consolidated power through infrastructure, including the Dujiangyan on the Min River that turned the Sichuan plain into China’s breadbasket.

Unlike Greeks, Romans, Spaniards, Englishmen and Americans, the Chinese never sent their armies or large numbers of colonists around the world.

When I wrote of “China’s plan to Sino-form the world” in my 2020 book, I referred to the export of China’s digital infrastructure to the Global South, in the ultimate exercise of soft power.

Its 5G broadband, fast trains, e-commerce, e-finance, telemedicine and other Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies well may transform backward economies into little Chinas, starting in Southeast Asia.

China surely aspires to return to first position in world manufacturing technology, which it held from the beginning of recorded history until the 18th century, and it will try to extend its influence and power by dominating the new technologies enabled by fast broadband. 

An ancient power-wheel shelter on the bank of a man-made canal in Kiangsu province, China. Photo: WikiCommons

In a sense, China’s strategic use of infrastructure, physical as well as digital, bespeaks a certain continuity from the Qin era. Massive investment in flood control, river transport and irrigation created China, and the export of Chinese infrastructure well may hard-wire a great deal of the world into China’s economy.

But China is indifferent to how we barbarians govern ourselves. Elsewhere Professor Wen has compared the character of the Chinese, a settled people for thousands of years, to that of Westerners, who (as he put it) only recently walked out of the jungle.

I think that he is quite unfair to us. But the point is that the Chinese have no intention of imposing their political system on the United States; they do not believe we are capable of such enlightened governance. 

The Soviet Union, I should add, fell not only because it overreached, but because the United States responded to its hegemonic ambitions by starting a revolution in military technology. From this we derived every important invention of the digital age, from mass-produced computer chips to optical networks.

China is well aware of this: Its promotion of dual-use technologies, as I wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2020, is adapted from America’s best practice. 

If China has no hegemonic ambitions, Western analysts ask, why has it built a navy worthy of a hegemon? With 355 ocean-going vessels, the Peoples Liberation Army Navy has more ships than the US – although much lower tonnage.

A November 2021 Pentagon report warned: “As of 2020, the PLAN is largely composed of modern multi-role platforms featuring advanced anti-ship, anti-air and anti-submarine weapons and sensors … This modernization aligns with the PRC’s growing emphasis on the maritime domain and increasing demands for the PLAN to operate at greater distances from China.”

At this writing, China has only one overseas military base, on the Horn of Africa at Djibouti, built for anti-piracy operations. The US has 750 bases. There have been unconfirmed reports of Chinese attempts to build military facilities in the UAE and Equatorial Guinea, but they do not add up to a campaign for global military supremacy.

Chinese soldiers in front of a PLA flag at the force’s base in Djibouti. Photo: PLA Daily

China wants to dominate its coasts and has invested massively in surface-to-ship missiles, submarines, missile boats, aircraft and other weapons to prevent the United States from projecting power in the Western Pacific. A December report from Harvard’s Belfer Center under the direction of Graham Allison argued that it had already succeeded.

Military superiority near Chinese territory – including Taiwan, which China considers a rebel province – is one motivation for China’s naval buildup. Another is China’s long-range vulnerability to a blockade.

They have read Edward Luttwak’s book The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Grand Strategy, which argued that an American-led coalition can strangle China just as the Allies encircled Germany during World War I.

China depends on Middle Eastern oil and African as well as South American raw materials, and Western strategists daily draw up contingency plans for naval interdiction of supplies to China. That raises at least the theoretical possibility of naval engagements between Chinese and American warships near the Persian Gulf. 

Luttwak’s World War I analogy, to be sure, has one Gargantuan omission: Germany would have crushed Britain without the intervention of the United States. If the United States has to play the part of Britain, who will play the part of the United States?

It is worth taking the World War I analogy a bit farther.

Two charts provide context for our national debate over war with China. The first shows the population of Germany (adjusted for present territory) versus France in the century before World War I, and the second shows the number of science and engineering graduates in China versus the world’s other technological powers.

The general staff who prepared the Great War used demographic tables to estimate the number of infantrymen they could deploy and the casualty rate they might sustain. In our era of high-tech war, the balance of science and engineering graduates gauges better the relative strength of prospective adversaries.

Comparisons between China and other countries are inexact because definitions of STEM degrees vary, but the chart captures the broad trend.

Revanchist France, determined to reconquer Alsace and Lorraine, had almost no population growth since the Franco-Prussian War, while the German Empire’s population had risen by 40%.

In another decade or two, France would lack the manpower to fight Germany. French leaders seized their last chance to wage a successful war against Germany in 1914, and succeeded thanks to American intervention, but at the expense of 1.5 million dead and 4.3 million wounded.

In 1940, France decided that another sacrifice of this magnitude wasn’t worth it and folded in a few weeks of fighting.

Today, China graduates 1.2 million scientists and engineers a year, according to the National Science Foundation, roughly double the combined total of the United States, Germany, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Taiwan.

The quality of Chinese universities, moreover, has risen to international standards during the past 10 years. China now surpasses or is poised to surpass the United States in several realms of technology that bear on military power, including Artificial Intelligence and quantum computing, according to a Harvard University study directed by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Professor Graham Allison.

They wrote: “China has become a serious competitor in the foundational technologies of the 21st century: artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, quantum information science (QIS), semiconductors, biotechnology and green energy. In some races, it has already become No 1. In others, on current trajectories, it will overtake the US within the next decade.” 

Professor Allison is rightly celebrated for his “Thucydides Trap” argument that an established power will choose war to stymy a challenge by a rising power. In some ways, the Peloponnesian analogy is strained, as I argued in a  review of his book, but his warning is valid and timely. He might have titled it The Poincaré Trap after France’s belligerent president in 1914.

China has only itself to blame for provoking its neighbors in the South China Sea. “Wolf warrior” diplomacy and the perceived bullying of its neighbors lend credence to Western accusations about Chinese hegemonic ambitions.

As Professor Allison warns, though, many in the United States will risk war to prevent China from displacing the United States from first position among world powers. For this current of American opinion, it doesn’t matter whether China is hegemonic; its offense is being China.

Follow David P Goldman on Twitter at @davidpgoldman.