Managing China’s Rise

WRITTEN BY:  Andrew Scobell, Edmund J. Burke, Cortez A. Cooper III, Sale Lilly, Chad J.R. Ohlandt, Eric Warner and J.D. Williams
REVIEWED BY:  Patrick Swan, per Concordiam contributor


Whether an ascendant China represents a so-called Thucydides Trap for the United States and the West is an open question. Graham Allison, a scholar and former U.S. defense official, posits that a clash is inevitable because a rising power seeks to unseat a reigning power. But, although historical examples abound where this has occurred, nothing is foreordained. A 2020 Rand Corp. study on China’s grand strategy provides a blueprint for what ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu well advised two-and-a-half millennia ago: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

The Rand study, “China’s Grand Strategy,” examines trends, trajectories and long-term competition. The six-chapter, 135-page analysis is packed with sound assessments and recommendations from scholars and strategists for how the West can manage China’s rise.

The bottom-line conclusion is that China is not predestined to displace the U.S. and the West as global arbiters of international policy and actions. This is true even though the authors set 2050 as the year they expect China to reach its strategic near-term goals.

Chapters examine China’s potential grand strategies; its ability to frame the future through political control and social stability; its rebalancing of diplomacy and economics; its restructuring of national defense; and the 2050 scenarios and competitive trajectories for China and the West. The authors concede that China and the U.S./West will be engaged in a significant rivalry in world affairs for the foreseeable future — hence, 2050 as a marker in time.

The purpose of China’s grand strategy is what Rand dubs a “national rejuvenation” to produce a China that is “well governed, socially stable, economically prosperous, technologically advanced, and military powerful.” Whether China deploys this power as a responsible leader in the international community or as something less positive will determine whether this is good or bad for the U.S. and the West.

Rand traces four scenarios for what China might look like by 2050 in terms of its ability to wield instruments of national power to achieve its aims and ends. “Triumphant China” represents Beijing achieving its grand strategy; “ascendant China” is an achievement of some but not all of its goals; “stagnant China” means Beijing has failed to achieve its long-term goals; and “imploding China” posits a regime besieged by threats to its existence. Inside each scenario, the authors consider China’s ability to achieve its goals, the domestic and foreign conditions required, the outcome of each scenario for China’s global influence, and the scenario’s consequences for the U.S. and the West. Rand concludes that any of these four scenarios is possible by 2050.

Nevertheless, Rand finds “triumphant China” to be the least likely because it sees little margin of error for success. Conversely, “imploding China” is also unlikely because Chinese leaders, in Rand’s words, “have proved skilled at organizing and planning, adept at surmounting crises, and deft at adapting and adjusting to changing conditions.” Because China is likely to have achieved some of its strategic goals, if not all, the authors state that “ascendant China” and “stagnant China” are the more plausible scenarios.

What does this leave for the U.S. and the West to manage? According to Rand, each scenario could potentially produce specific trajectories in Chinese-U.S./West relations. These include the rivals becoming “parallel partners” or “colliding competitors,” or two nations heading in “diverging directions.”

“Parallel partners” returns the two countries’ relations to pre-2018 status. This is more likely, Rand believes, in the “ascendant” and “stagnant” scenarios, at least with respect to out-of-area operations and nontraditional security threats. In the “colliding competitors” trajectory, the authors envision a more competitive and contentious relationship that is likely in a “triumphant China” scenario. In the third trajectory, “diverging directions,” neither China nor the U.S./West would directly cooperate. But it would not lead to direct conflict. An “imploding China” scenario would feature a Beijing preoccupied with mounting domestic problems.

To manage its relationship with the U.S./West, the authors contend, China seeks to gain competitive advantages and to resolve threats without derailing its strategic priorities. In its own backyard, China seeks to control regional trends and changes to the regional status quo without awakening fears of a “China threat.” The challenge for the U.S./West is properly preparing for the “triumphant” and the more likely “ascendant” China scenarios. These represent the strategic challenges with the greatest potential to harm the interests of the U.S. and the West. In such a scenario, the U.S. military should anticipate threats to its forward-based troops in the western Pacific and the potential loss of routine air and sea operations in that region.

Countering this will require joint force capability improvements to mobile and integrated air defenses and to cross-domain fire-support capabilities, among other assets. The purpose would be to reinforce conventional deterrence and to keep competition from becoming conflict. To this end, the authors recommend more bilateral and multilateral training exercises with regional allies and partners, and marrying electronic warfare systems and capabilities with cyber or network attack operations. They support demonstrating sea denial and control operations, flexible communication and intelligence dispersal, and incorporating artificial intelligence at all levels. The U.S./West must employ highly capable, responsive and resilient maritime and air forces to effectively suppress Chinese military ambitions and keep them in a risk-averse posture.

Rand finds that the U.S. Army is best positioned to influence China’s People’s Liberation Army through military-to-military operations. Illuminating China’s concerns about its weaknesses can provide Western policymakers with a “more robust understanding of potential opportunities as they arise.” These opportunities could keep the relationship nonkinetic and help to manage China’s ascendancy to ensure Beijing does not become an existential threat to the existence of the U.S. and the West.

Rand is stark in its belief that it is essential to understand how China’s military strategy and restructuring efforts are integrated into China’s overall approach to building comprehensive national power: “China’s current perspective on its relationship with the United States is centered on competition that encompasses a wide range of issues, not simply geopolitical influence. … Perhaps as important as developing and deploying concepts and capabilities … is that applying a framework like the one used in this study can help to illuminate China’s concerns about its relative weakness in key areas. This, in turn, may provide U.S. policymakers with a more robust understanding of potential opportunities as they arise.”

Knowing one’s adversary and one’s self is important, at least in this case, because it can ensure that China does not defeat the U.S. without fighting a battle, what Sun Tzu called “the acme of skill.” There will be no maneuvering the U.S./West into a checkmate if the U.S./West modernize their defenses and steel their resolve to peacefully compete with China where applicable and to successfully counter Chinese adventurism and aggression when encountered. The Rand report is an excellent road map for that proposal.

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