Xi Jinping's China is displaying a superpower's ambition. Only a few years ago, many American observers still hoped that China would reconcile itself to a supporting role in the liberal international order or would pose—at most—a challenge to US influence in the Western Pacific. The conventional wisdom was that China would seek an expanded regional role—and a reduced US role—but would defer to the distant future any global ambitions. Now, however, the signs that China is gearing up to contest America's global leadership are unmistakable, and they are ubiquitous.
There is the naval shipbuilding program, which put more vessels to sea between 2014 and 2018 than the total number of ships in the German, Indian, Spanish, and British navies combined. There is Beijing's bid to dominate high-tech industries that will determine the future distribution of economic and military power. There is the campaign to control the crucial waterways off China's coast, as well as reported plans to create a chain of bases and logistical facilities farther afield. There are the systematic efforts to refine methods of converting economic influence into economic coercion throughout the Asia-Pacific and beyond.
Not least, there is the fact that a country that formerly disguised its ambitions now asserts them openly. China has entered a "new era," Xi announced in 2017, and must "take center stage in the world." Two years later, Xi used the idea of a "new Long March" to describe China's worsening relationship with Washington. Even strategic shocks that originated within China have become showcases for Beijing's geopolitical aspirations: Witness how Xi's government has sought to turn a coronavirus crisis made worse by its own authoritarianism into an opportunity to project Chinese influence and market China's model overseas.
The precise intentions of opaque, authoritarian regimes are difficult to discern. And there is danger in definitive declarations of hostile intent because they can lead to fatalism and self-fulfilling prophecies. The two of us have different priors about whether stable, constructive US-China relations are still possible. But it requires a degree of willful ignorance not to ask whether China is in fact seeking (or will inevitably seek) to establish itself as the world's leading power and how it might go about achieving that goal. The architects of America's China strategy, no matter how instinctively accommodating or confrontational they might be, must face this issue squarely.
If true superpower status is China's desired destination, there are two roads it might take to try to get there. The first is the one American strategists have until now emphasized (to the extent they acknowledged China's global ambitions). This road runs through China's home region, specifically the Western Pacific. It focuses on building regional primacy as a springboard to global power, and it looks quite familiar to the road the United States itself once traveled. The second road is very different because it seems to defy the historical laws of strategy and geopolitics. This approach focuses less on building a position of unassailable strength in the Western Pacific than on outflanking the US alliance system and force presence in that region by developing China's economic, diplomatic, and political influence on a global scale.
The question of which of these roads China should take is a pressing one for Beijing's strategists, who will face tough decisions about what to invest in—and what fights to avoid—in the coming years. And the question of what road China will take has profound implications for American strategists—and, ultimately, the rest of the world.
The emerging conventional wisdom holds that China will try to establish global influence by first establishing regional hegemony. This does not mean physically occupying neighboring countries (with the potential exception of Taiwan), as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. But it does mean that Beijing must make itself the dominant player in the Western Pacific, out to the first island chain (which runs from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines) and beyond; it must gain an effective veto over the security and economic choices of its neighbors; it must rupture America's alliances in the region and push US military forces farther and farther away from China's shores. If China cannot do this, it will never have a secure regional base from which to project power globally. It will be confronted by persistent security challenges along its vulnerable maritime periphery; it will have to focus its energies and military assets on defense rather than offense. And so long as Washington retains a strong military position along the first island chain, regional powers—from Vietnam to Taiwan to Japan—will try to resist China's rise rather than accommodate it. Put simply, China cannot be a true global power if it remains surrounded by US allies and security partners, military bases, and other outposts of a hostile superpower.
One reason this scenario seems plausible to Americans is that it so closely resembles their own path to primacy. From the early days of the Republic, US officials understood that Washington could hardly conceive of playing a major role in global affairs until it had developed a degree of strategic invulnerability within North America and the larger Western Hemisphere. This was the strategic logic that connected the many components of a decades-long campaign to evict European rivals from the hemisphere, from the Monroe Doctrine in the 1820s through the breaking of Spanish power in the Caribbean during the War of 1898. The same idea underpinned a century's worth of efforts—some of them morally ambiguous and even deeply problematic—to keep Europeans from reestablishing a foothold in the region, from the Roosevelt Corollary in 1904 through the Reagan administration's semi-covert war against Sandinista Nicaragua, which was aligned with Cuba and the Soviet Union, in the 1980s.
A bipartisan commission made clear during the Cold War that America's global power was intimately connected to its dominant regional position. "The ability of the United States to sustain a tolerable balance of power on the global scene at a manageable cost depends on the inherent security of its land borders," the commission stated. If America had to "defend against security threats near its borders," it would "have to assume a permanently increased defense burden ... and as a result have to reduce important commitments elsewhere in the world."
There are certainly signs that China has imbibed this same logic because many of its policies seem calculated to establish regional primacy. Beijing has invested heavily in advanced air defenses, quiet submarines, anti-ship missiles, and other anti-access/area -denial capabilities necessary to keep US ships and planes away from its shores so that it can have a freer hand in dealing with its neighbors. Beijing has focused on turning the South China Sea and East China Sea into Chinese lakes—for many of the same underlying reasons, one imagines, that the United States was so determined to kick its rivals out of the Caribbean.
Similarly, China has used a mixture of inducement, coercion, and political manipulation in an effort to weaken America's relationships with its military partners and treaty allies. Chinese officials have promoted the idea of "Asia for Asians"—a not-so-veiled reference to the idea that the region should settle its affairs without the meddling of the United States. When Xi and his advisors unveiled the concept of a "New Model of Major-Country Relations," the core proposition was that the United States and China could get along if each country stayed on its side of the Pacific.
Finally, the People's Liberation Army has made no secret of the fact that it is building the military power -projection capabilities necessary to subjugate Taiwan, a development that would upend the regional balance of power overnight and call the rest of America's commitments in the Western Pacific into question. Some analysts believe that a US-China war in the Taiwan Strait would be—either now or within a few years—essentially a toss-up. All of these policies bespeak a basic insecurity with America's strategic proximity to China. And, of course, all are consistent with the narrower goal of regional dominance. But they are also consistent with what one would expect if Beijing were trying to mimic America's path to global power.
Yet there are reasons to wonder whether this is indeed the path that China will take, if in fact it seeks global superpower status. In international affairs, there is always great peril in mirror-imaging—in assuming that an adversary sees the world the same way that we do, or will try to replicate our own experience. This is particularly the case here because it must be apparent to Beijing by now that it will be far harder for China to subdue its regional periphery than it was for the United States.
The United States never faced a Japan—a significant regional power allied to an even greater power—in its own hemisphere, and getting beyond the first island chain means getting beyond Japan. It never had to deal with the number of rivals—India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and many others—that confront China along its territorial and maritime peripheries. It never had to face a superpower that viewed the United States as its greatest challenge, as opposed to simply viewing it as an annoyance or a lesser rival that should be appeased to ensure its support against more pressing threats. Making a bid for regional dominance risks focusing the strategic competition on a challenge at which the United States typically excels—winning high-end, high-tech military competitions—and simply driving China's neighbors further into Washington's arms. So far, in fact, Beijing's efforts at seduction and coercion have been partially successful in shifting the geopolitical orientation of the Philippines and Thailand, but they have backfired in dealing with Australia and Japan. In short, it is not clear that Beijing can successfully take a regional path to global power—which raises the question of whether there may be a second road to Chinese global leadership.
What if, instead of focusing on regional hegemony before turning to consider global hegemony, China approaches things the other way around? This second road would lead China more to its west than to its east, in service of building a new Chinese-led security and economic order across the Eurasian land mass and Indian Ocean, while establishing Chinese centrality in global institutions. In this approach, China would grudgingly accept that it could not displace the United States from Asia or push the US Navy beyond the Western Pacific's first island chain, at least for the foreseeable future. It would instead put increasing emphasis on shaping the world's economic rules, technology standards, and political institutions to its advantage and in its image.
The central premises of this alternative approach would be that economic and technological power is fundamentally more important than traditional military power in establishing global leadership, and that a physical sphere of influence in East Asia is not a necessary precondition for sustaining such leadership. By this logic, China could simply keep managing a military balance in the Western Pacific—attending to its immediate periphery and especially its territorial claims through its anti-access/area -denial doctrine, and slowly shifting the correlation of forces in its favor—while pursuing global dominance through these other forms of power.
Here, Beijing would consider a different variation of the US analogy. US leadership of the international order that emerged after World War II and was consolidated after the end of the Cold War rested on at least three critical factors. First, the ability to convert economic might into political influence. Second, the maintenance of an innovation advantage over the rest of the world. And third, the capacity to shape the key international institutions and set the key rules of global conduct. In traveling this second road, China would seek to replicate these factors.
This would start with the widening ambition of the Belt Road Initiative across Eurasia and Africa. Building and financing physical infrastructure puts China at the center of a web of trade and economic links spanning multiple continents. And the digital component of the effort, the Digital Silk Road, advances China's stated goal from the 2017 Party Congress of becoming a "cyber-superpower," by deploying Chinese foundational technologies, driving standard-setting in international bodies, and securing long-term commercial advantages for Chinese firms. (There are indications that China is even using its head-start in recovering from the coronavirus to advance this agenda by claiming additional market share in key industries where competitors are temporarily laid low.) Combining an aggressive foreign economic policy with massive state-directed domestic investments in innovation, China could emerge as the leading player in foundational technologies from artificial intelligence to quantum computing to biotechnology.
As China builds economic power through these efforts, it will sharpen its capacity to convert that power into geopolitical influence. Carnegie's Evan Feigenbaum has identified multiple types of leverage China can use to "lock in its political and economic preferences," ranging from latent-and-passive to active-and-coercive. He assesses that Beijing will keep refining a "mix and match" strategy that deploys the full range of these tools in dust-ups with a diverse array of countries, from South Korea to Mongolia to Norway. Eventually, China may well adapt a more systematic ladder of escalation to produce preferred outcomes.
And just as the United States built the key postwar institutions in its political image, this second road would lead China toward reshaping the central political norms of the international order. A number of studies have documented Beijing's full-court press across the UN system to both protect narrow Chinese equities (denying Taiwan status in the United Nations, blocking criticism of China) and to reinforce a hierarchy of values in which national sovereignty trumps human rights. And the phrase "sharp power" has now become commonplace to describe China's intrusive efforts to influence the political discourse in democratic countries including Australia, Hungary, and Zambia. Beijing is also rapidly enhancing its diplomatic throw-weight, passing the United States in the number of diplomatic posts around the world and persistently expanding its influence in multilateral finance, global climate and trade institutions, and other key rule-setting bodies. The Brookings Institution's Tarun Chhabra aptly observes that Beijing's approach to ideology may be flexible, but its cumulative effect is to expand the space for authoritarianism and constrain the space for transparency and democratic accountability.
Another key driver of US leadership in the postwar and post-Cold War era, of course, was a robust and resilient alliance system. This is less available as an asset to Beijing. Nonetheless, Chinese leaders have begun establishing a potential network of military bases beyond China's shores, starting in Djibouti. And to compensate for its own alliance deficit, China has embarked on a strategy to weaken and divide the Western alliance structure, cultivating the countries of Eastern Europe and fraying the bonds between the United States and its Asian allies.
All of these efforts come at a time when the United States has stepped back from its traditional role as guarantor of the order. And that may be the most critical ingredient of all.
US President Donald Trump has continued to emphasize traditional military and security investments, which give the United States the ability to sustain its role as a resident physical power in Asia. But he has shown far less interest in meeting the global challenge posed by China—at least in a coherent way. The US response to the coronavirus has been sadly emblematic so far, combining clumsy efforts to remind the world that the virus originated in China with an inept domestic response and a relative absence of the principled international leadership that has traditionally been the best advertisement for US primacy. In the past, one might have expected to see the United States spearheading international efforts to coordinate economic stimulus and global public health measures; one certainly would not have expected the federal government to fail so badly in crafting a national response and disseminating accurate information. For all of the talk of great- power competition, a plausible scenario is that China gradually fills a vacuum left by the United States, with the rest of the world accommodating to a world of growing Chinese power, in the absence of any viable alternative.
It seems unlikely, of course, that a globally preeminent China would forever accept the United States as the dominant power on its maritime periphery. But it could be that reaching for global leadership is simply a way of outflanking the US position in the Western Pacific—of rendering it untenable through the accumulation of economic and diplomatic influence rather than through political-military pressure or confrontation.
To be sure, this path also has its problems. China may well be less capable of providing global public goods than the United States, both because it is less powerful and because its authoritarian political system makes it harder to exercise the comparatively enlightened, positive-sum leadership that has distinguished US primacy. The coronavirus crisis cuts both ways in this regard. The slack US response has surely compounded global concerns about American competence and reliability, yet it has also shown how irresponsibly and offensively China can behave—from covering up the initial outbreak in a way that encouraged its global spread to concocting an absurd story about how the virus originated in the United States to selling defective tests to countries in grave need. Governments in key European countries such as Germany were already getting tired of Beijing's predatory trade practices, efforts to dominate key industries, and desire to suppress free speech in the democratic world by silencing criticism of its human rights practices. In demonstrating the darker sides of the Chinese model, the coronavirus crisis may also encourage greater resistance to Beijing's global ambitions.
Finally, there is an ideological barrier to Chinese leadership. The tensions surrounding China's rise do not simply result from clashing economic and geopolitical interests. They also reflect a deeper, more inherent distrust that often afflicts relationships between democratic governments and powerful authoritarian regimes. This gulf between Beijing's political values and those of the world's democracies means that many countries in Europe and beyond start from a position of unease about China's growing role in global affairs. But none of this means that Beijing won't still try to follow this path—which seems to grow wider and more inviting as the United States sunders its relationships and depletes its prestige.
Any "two roads" analysis has to confront the obvious question: What if it's both—or neither? In practice, China's strategy currently appears to combine elements of both approaches. So far, Beijing has been amassing the means and seeking the geopolitical influence to confront the United States in the Western Pacific as well as positioning itself for a broader global challenge. It is also entirely possible that Beijing won't ultimately travel either path successfully, if its economy or political system falters or its competitors respond effectively.
Yet, either way, laying out Beijing's options is still a useful exercise for three reasons.
First, it helps frame the strategic choices and trade-offs China will face in the coming years. China's resources often appear vast, but they are nonetheless finite: A dollar spent on a carrier-killer missile or a quiet attack submarine cannot be spent on an infrastructure project in Pakistan or Europe. The attention and political capital of top Chinese leaders are also limited. A rising country that faces formidable rivals, and that still confronts daunting internal difficulties, can only take on so many geopolitical and geo-economic challenges without overtaxing its resources or diluting the impact of its efforts. It stands to reason, then, that figuring out which road to hegemony is more promising will be a consistent preoccupation of Chinese planners—and no less of the US officials who must determine Washington's response.
Second, this exercise helps clarify the strategic challenge the United States confronts. Some leading US defense analysts have argued that if Beijing does not win the military competition along its maritime periphery, it cannot rival the United States globally. This analysis places a high premium on the United States making the military investments and pursuing the technological and operational innovations needed to shore up a balance of power in the Taiwan Strait and other regional hot-spots that is already starting to tip.
These investments and innovations are indeed critical. Yet our analysis raises the possibility that the United States could still lose the competition with China even if it manages to preserve a strong military position in the Western Pacific. It reminds us that the softer tools of competition—from providing alternative sources of 5G technology and infrastructure investment to showing competent leadership in tackling global problems—will be just as important as harder tools in dealing with the Chinese challenge. It indicates that it will be just as important to defend US alliances and partnerships from internal decay—hastened by Chinese influence-buying and information operations—as to shelter them from external military pressures. And it offers a warning that investing heavily in the US military while shortchanging diplomacy and foreign aid, hollowing out America's global network of relationships, and weakening or retreating from international institutions could prove to be just as dangerous as failing to strengthen the hard-power military backbone of Washington's presence abroad.
Finally, thinking about China's two roads to hegemony clarifies how the US-China competition will be both similar to and different from the Cold War. Then, as now, there was a central military theater in which the contenders confronted each other most directly: Central Europe. And during the Cold War, the difficulties and dangers of trying to dislodge the United States from that theater led the Soviets to conduct a flanking maneuver. Moscow probed for advantage in the developing world through the use of economic aid, subversion, and ideological solidarity with revolutionary movements; it sought to hollow out US alliance relationships in Europe and beyond through implicit military pressure and political meddling.
Yet the Soviet Union was never a serious rival for global economic leadership; it never had the ability, or the sophistication, to shape global norms and institutions in the way that Beijing may be able to do. Soviet power was ultimately quite narrowly based, which limited the strategic options Moscow possessed. And whereas the United States and the Soviet Union saw the conflict in Manichean terms—good versus evil, victory versus defeat, survival versus collapse—today there is greater nuance in a relationship that combines increasingly sharp competition with a still-significant interdependence.
The United States still has the ability to more than hold its own in that competition, so long as it doesn't continue along the current trajectory of self-sabotage. But the fact that China has two plausible paths to preeminence means that the contest will be more complex, and potentially more challenging, than it was during America's last great-power rivalry.
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
Jake Sullivan is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was a deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2013 to 2014, as well as director of policy planning at the US State Department from 2011 to 2013.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.