There’s a hardening view in Washington that China seeks to supplant the United States as the leading world power and remake the international system in its illiberal image.
China has of course fed these fears by building up its military, pressing disputed territorial claims, partnering with a revanchist Russia and with its own rhetoric. President Xi Jinping of China has vowed to thwart what he views as U.S.-led efforts to “contain, encircle and suppress” China, and has said “capitalism will inevitably perish and socialism will inevitably triumph.”
But such ideological proclamations are in part motivated by insecurity — most Communist states have collapsed, and the Chinese leadership fears being next — and are meant more to instill domestic confidence and loyalty to the party than to reflect actual policy or fixed beliefs.
Ideology in China is itself malleable, rather than a rigid cage that determines policy and has been continually tweaked to justify the maintenance of one-party rule through decades of great change. Under Mao, for instance, capitalists were persecuted as “counterrevolutionaries.” But under President Jiang Zemin the Chinese Communist Party abandoned a core Marxist belief in 2001 by accepting private entrepreneurs as party members. China’s economy today is more capitalist than Marxist and highly dependent on access to world markets.
Assessments of China based on cherry-picked phrases from party propaganda overlook the frequent gap between rhetoric and reality. In 2018, for example, China cracked down on Marxist student groups and labor organizers, possibly because — as the labor scholar and sociologist Eli Friedman has noted — the young activists embodied “the Marxist principles the C.C.P. has long since abandoned in practice.” Likewise, Beijing has for years emphasized the sanctity of national sovereignty and noninterference in a country’s domestic affairs, yet has provided diplomatic cover for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Leading Chinese intellectuals openly acknowledge the difficulty of reconciling what China says with what it does. “Even we don’t believe much of what we say,” the Chinese economist Yao Yang, who is known for his pragmatic views, has said. “Our goal is not to defeat liberalism, but instead to say that what we have can be as good as what you have.” Jiang Shigong, a legal scholar and apologist for Mr. Xi’s political philosophy, has written that “‘Socialism’ is not ossified dogma, but instead an open concept awaiting exploration and definition.”
China’s long-term ambitions are difficult to know with certainty, and they can change. But it is presently far from clear that it can — or even seeks to — replace the United States as the world’s dominant power.
Mr. Xi and the C.C.P. apparently see the United States as trying to keep China perpetually subordinate and vulnerable, opposing whatever China does or advocates in an international system that Beijing believes favors the United States and developed democracies. But, at a minimum, China seems more intent on modifying aspects of a system under which it has prospered — making it safer for autocracy — rather than replacing it.
Mr. Xi often couches this effort in his political slogans like the “China dream” and a “shared future for humankind.” But there is continuing debate in China over what these visions really mean and what costs and risks China should accept in seeking global leadership. China’s overseas development largess, for example, is limited by the imperative of addressing its own persistent development needs at home, research by the scholar Min Ye has shown. Same for other key Chinese strategies for widening its influence: Its efforts to internationalize the renminbi and reduce dollar dominance are constrained by the tight grip it keeps on the currency’s value, as well as other capital controls. These policies help stabilize its economy and prevent capital flight, but they limit the renminbi’s global appeal.
U.S. concerns often center on the legitimate fear that China could attack Taiwan. But despite menacing Chinese military exercises meant to deter the self-ruled island from moving closer to formal independence, many experts believe that Beijing still prefers to achieve its longstanding objective of “peaceful reunification” through measures short of war. China could lose in a war and face international sanctions and supply chain disruptions. These would be economically and politically devastating, jeopardizing Mr. Xi’s prime objectives of regime security, domestic stability and national rejuvenation.
Facing economic headwinds and a shrinking population, doubts are growing that China can achieve its goal of surpassing the United States as the world’s largest economy, let alone other metrics of global leadership. There is broad recognition within China that it remains militarily, economically and technologically weaker than the United States and that further modernization depends upon continued access to international technology, capital and markets within a stable economic order. “It is impossible for America to contain the rise of China,” the influential Chinese scholar Huang Renwei has noted, “and it is equally impossible for China to quickly surpass America.”
Chinese rhetoric about global governance reform has resonated in many developing countries that also see international institutions as tilted against them. But there is little reason to believe that the C.C.P.’s self-serving, nationalist ideology will captivate the world, especially as Mr. Xi feeds mistrust with his authoritarian ways, coercive tactics against foreign businesses and trading partners and policies that increasingly smack of paranoia. China tends to be viewed more favorably in parts of the developing world. But that owes more to economics than to ideas, and its overseas investments have often been criticized for lacking transparency, saddling poor countries with debt, as well as environmental and other concerns.
The United States must continue to discourage and hedge against more threatening Chinese behavior, including bolstering Taiwan’s capacity to resist coercion. But Washington should resist being guided solely by fear, which threatens the openness and dynamism responsible for American technological and scientific leadership. Policymakers should pair deterrent threats with more robust efforts to seek a constructive relationship with China, while also protecting the core values and interests of an inclusive international order and calling on Beijing to offer more credible reassurances of its intentions.
There is no doubt that China — whatever its trajectory — poses a huge and complex policy challenge for America. But exaggerating fears of an “existential struggle” increases the likelihood of conflict, crowds out efforts to tackle shared challenges like climate change and creates a with-us-or-against-us framing that could alienate the United States from allies and much of the world.
Worse, reflexively maneuvering to outcompete or thwart China only validates hard-liners in Beijing who believe America is implacably hostile and that the only response lies in undermining the United States.
By continuing on that road, the world’s two most powerful countries may end up turning each other into the enemies that they fear.
Jessica Chen Weiss (@jessicacweiss) is a professor of government at Cornell University and a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis. She is the author of “Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations.”
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