Review of The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order by Rush Doshi. Oxford, 2021.
One of the more horrifying realizations of your correspondent’s undergraduate years came when an international classmate expressed their intention to join their country’s security services and participate in its forever conflict, not with the aim of contributing to a durable resolution, but to partake in the great game of its perpetuation.
Perhaps the horror arose from an American idealist’s predisposition towards a teleological interpretation of history confronting a darker, cyclical understanding. But, more likely, it was the realization that careerism was not just an affliction of certain classmates destined for Wall Street, with consequences potentially far more grave.
Earlier this month, William Overholt, a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School, sharply criticized the Biden administration’s absence of senior foreign policy leaders with China expertise. His argument ignored the possibility that some distance is required to see China for what it is and the wisdom of not warping the entirety of American foreign policy through the prism of China alone.
Indeed, Matthew Pottinger’s time in the Trump administration’s National Security Council brought a particularly uncommon form of expertise to great effect. Neither a diplomat nor businessperson nor academic, Pottinger was a former China correspondent as deeply familiar with the workings of Zhongnanhai as he was with the man on the street. His profession allowed him to see more of China with less risk of being tempted by the calculus of becoming an ‘old friend’ of China. That insight and independence notably afforded him an appreciation of the global risks inherent to Beijing’s early handling of the coronavirus pandemic and helped spur a near-negligent American government into action. Deserving of a more worthy administration in which to serve, Pottinger nonetheless steered consequential changes in American China policy.
Questions of ambition and experience weigh heavily in one’s reading of Rush Doshi’s new book on China’s grand strategy. Now one of the National Security Council’s China directors, the thirty-something is particularly close to Kurt Campbell, who has been tapped to serve as the Biden administration’s coordinator for Asia policy. It is a common disclaimer that an author’s views do not necessarily reflect that of the US Government. In this case, one especially hopes that is so.
Marshaling an abundance of textual sources, Doshi argues that China has embarked on a successive strategy of blunting American power in the Asia Pacific, building the foundation for regional hegemony, and now expanding its efforts to displace the United States as global leader. Each shift has been precipitated by changes in China’s perception of US power and threat, beginning with a “traumatic trifecta” of Tiananmen Square, the Gulf War, and the Soviet Collapse; then the Global Financial Crisis; and now Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the coronavirus pandemic. Doshi systematically sets out how China has sought to blunt, build, and expand power across political, economic, and military domains before concluding with a set of asymmetric responses America should take to blunt China in turn and prolong the liberal international order.
But what was is an unreliable guide to what will be. Four questionable premises undermine the usefulness of Doshi’s work as a guide to China’s future conduct and its implications for the world. The first questionable premise is that China’s efforts have and will be successful: to be engaged in an activity is not the same as having accomplished it. Doshi does not convincingly demonstrate that the United States has been irrecoverably blunted nor displaced regionally or globally. Indeed, China has arguably engendered more pushback than it has preempted; written checks that some of its actors literally cannot cash; and raised the threat of conflict to levels that will increasingly threaten its resolve, rule, and, possibly, both.
The second questionable premise is that China is poised to overtake the United States in absolute power, with GDP as a proxy. Doshi offers a few peremptory lines acknowledging that “China has a fast-aging population, enormous debt, slowing growth, and a currency still far from rivaling the dollar,” but little in the way of serious interrogation of the possibility that China’s trajectory stalls and the arguably no less challenging geopolitical implications therein. Doshi risks repeating one of the critical foreign policy errors of the trifecta, when the American intelligence community failed to anticipate the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Third, despite Doshi’s proficiency with Party-speak, he fails to fully appreciate that China’s foreign policy, like all aspects of its governance, is secondary to the imperative of the Party’s domestic preeminence and survival. The world is witnessing in real-time the Party’s willingness to trade economic growth to that end in its ongoing crackdown on the country’s tech sector. Similarly, its foreign policy principally exists to serve the imperatives of its domestic growth and to obstruct foreign interference in its affairs. With respect to the latter, as China has strengthened, it has understandably shifted from a defensive to offensive posture, for example by growing more aggressive in its influence operations, a form of blunting targeted at American allies and non-nation state actors that Doshi regretfully underemphasizes.
With respect to economic growth, one aim of the Belt and Road Initiative is reasonably intended to diversify geostrategic chokepoints to its economy. But China’s dependence on the world for inputs to its growth is changing, both as a natural consequence of its economic transition and an increased emphasis on economic autonomy under Xi Jinping’s “dual circulation” theory of economic growth. Thus, one imperative for an expanded global footprint is rapidly shifting, even as Doshi’s analysis does not.
Finally, Doshi errs in framing the China challenge primarily within the context of a G2 world. The world has prospered not under an American order but a liberal one, of which the US is the major, but not exclusive, guarantor. Doshi does not give other democracies their full due in sustaining the liberal international order nor their collective potential, even with only modest coordination, to deter China. While Doshi acknowledges China’s efforts to blunt US-led multilateral organizations (and encourages the United States to do the same with China’s), he broadly ignores the crucial role of non-nation state actors in global affairs and how they may complicate China’s ability to exercise power commensurate to its heft. He neglects the potential, as John Ikenberry once put it, for an America that has lost its ability to rule the international order to nonetheless lead it. Doshi’s proposals, while creative, lack the ambition needed to rally the world to achieve a liberal order that is not just sustained, but renewed.
The subtext of this work is that of an undeniable talent with an equally undeniable ambition to be part of a great game. But the game has changed even as it becomes more imperative for the next generation of foreign policy practitioners to resist the allures of its perpetuation. American foreign policy needs fewer grand strategists fighting over mechanistic pillars of global order and more ecosystem builders capable of fostering a resilient system in which China has the choice between being wealthy and constructively influential or powerful but isolated.