Time running out in China’s waiting game — The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order by Rush Doshi review

A goal for China which had recently seemed attainable is beginning once more to recede into the distance, argues Rush Doshi.
China propaganda poster
Propaganda poster for the Chinese Communist Party. Credit: mccool / Alamy Stock Photo
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In the late 1960s, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was asked what he made of the French Revolution. He famously replied that it was ‘too early to tell’. Since then, many Western observers have marvelled at the Chinese capacity to take the long view of history and of the struggle for mastery between states. Like these voices, Rush Doshi’s The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order credits the regime in Beijing with a transcendent vision, that has made great strides in the half century after Zhou spoke. But unlike many of them, he does not believe that the realisation of this strategy is inevitable. 

The author is very well-qualified to write this book. He is currently serving as the Director for China on the US National Security Council and is an acknowledged expert on the PRC. His approach, which is a detailed exegesis of official pronouncements – mainly but by no means all in the public domain, can be hard work, but it is worth persevering with. Doshi distils the essence of each policy position, demonstrating remarkable consistency across issues and over the years. He also identifies some key turning points. The clarity and rigour of his argument is remarkable, even when one does not agree with all of it. This is a book which should be read by policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, and by anybody likely to be affected by the rise of China, and that is virtually everybody. 

Doshi’s starting point is the traumatic ‘trifecta’ of the years 1989-1991. Until that point, the PRC’s main enemy had been the Soviet Union, and the United States an ally, at least after Nixon’s famous ‘turn’ to China in 1972. Then came the brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests, which provoked painful economic sanctions from the US. This was followed soon after by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left the US supreme. As if all this were not bad enough, the Americans vanquished a substantial Soviet trained and equipped Iraqi army in a matter of days. The picture worsened throughout the 1990s, with various Western humanitarian interventions in the Balkans, which culminated in an accidental missile attack on the PRC embassy in Belgrade. Then, after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the US moved into the Middle East and Central Asia, boosting longstanding fears of ‘encirclement’. PRC policy makers believed that equality with the US, let alone Chinese hegemony, was a long way off. The best it could do was to ‘hide and bide’. 

In the face of this, the regime first pursued what Doshi dubs a strategy of ‘blunting’. Militarily, this involved an emphasis on asymmetric weaponry, such as ship-killing missiles and mines, to deny the US navy access to the waters off the PRC. Politically, the policy was to join existing institutions, such as APEC, and set up their own, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Council, in order to pre-empt isolation on the international scene. Economically, the aim was to secure permanent Most Favoured Nation status in order to avoid any linking between trade access and American human rights demands. This strategy worked remarkably well and achieved most of its objectives by the first decade of the new millennium. Even then, though, the expectation in Beijing was that US dominance would continue for some time yet. 

Then came the global financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent sovereign debt crisis in the European Union. This was interpreted by the PRC as a change in the balance of power, marking the start of the decline of Western capitalist hegemony. Doshi shows how it responded by moving towards an activist ‘building’ strategy designed to challenge the US more openly. Militarily, this meant the development of amphibious capabilities and carrier aviation. Politically, there was a shift towards the construction of an alternative order, for example, through the Asian International Development Bank, which some US allies, such as the UK, joined. Economically, the PRC launched its famous Belt and Road initiative designed to connect the country with markets and natural resources. In 2016, the apparent retreat of Anglo-America from global governance with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, heralded in the regime’s view ‘great changes unseen in a century’. The carnage wrought by the pandemic in 2020-2021 and the PRC’s superficially more successful response completed the picture. Time seemed to be speeding up. Displacing the United States, once a distant aim, looked possible, even likely. PRC statesmen and diplomats, from President XI down to individual ambassadors, began to adopt an openly threatening tone. 

If Doshi’s analysis of the problem is compelling, his proposed solution is a little less so. He recommends taking a leaf out of the PRC’s book by adopting ‘asymmetric’ and ‘blunting’ strategies. These include developing access denial weaponry to deter the enemy navy, the hardening of US bases, and the introduction of a US digital currency. Such strategies are worth exploring, but it is doubtful that they will work against the PRC if it is indeed in a position to challenge US military primacy by conventional means. Only comprehensive re-armament, especially in the naval and aerial spheres, will suffice and it is to be hoped that the Biden administration will get on with that. 

It may also be that the author is too pessimistic about the West’s ability to match the PRC dollar for dollar and ship for ship. His analysis perhaps slightly underplays two PRC weaknesses, of which the regime is well aware. First, the impressive economic performance of the past three decades rests on access to global markets. If that is seriously threatened, it may shrivel quickly. Moreover, it is now far from clear that the PRC’s pandemic performance has been vindicated given that its ‘no-Covid’ strategy means that the country will remain largely cut off from the outside world until 2023, at the earliest.  

Secondly, the speeding up of geopolitical time brings its own challenges for the regime. In the past it could adopt a Marxist posture of ‘attentism’ (waiting), confident that history was going its way. Now that time has speeded up, expectations have shifted. As President Xi himself warned in 2019: ‘The closer the goal is, the more complicated the situation and the more arduous the task.’ Failure to deliver within a relatively short period could now seriously damage the regime. Worse still, the country might go into decline for economic, demographic, medical or some other reason, so that a goal which had recently seemed attainable begins once more to recede into the distance. Some Western governmental analysts fear that this moment, which could occur as early as 2030, may in fact be more dangerous than the steady continued growth of Chinese power, because of the incentive it creates in Beijing to do something rash. 

To return to Zhou. It has since emerged that the premier thought the question was not about the Revolution of 1789, but concerned the recent évènements of the Paris student revolt of 1968. The moral of that story is that the profundity and sweep often attributed to the Chinese is as much our own construction as reality. According to Rush Doshi, it may just be that time, so long the West’s enemy, may increasingly be on our side.

The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order – Bridging the Gap by Rush Doshi, Oxford University Press, pp 336, £22

Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms is Professor in the history of European International Relations at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Centre for Geopolitics. His most recent books are 'Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East' with Patrick Milton and Michael Axworthy and 'Hitler: Only the world was enough'.

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