China has risen. It is now a great power well on its way to becoming a superpower. China’s ambitions and quest for greater resources and expanding diplomatic, economic, and military capabilities will result in Beijing’s growing voice in all facets of international politics. While there are debates about how powerful China will become, and how soon, there is no ambiguity that it is expanding its power and influence. Despite its many other obligations, the major task for the Trump administration will be to respond effectively to China’s challenge to U.S. power.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (AFP)
Indeed, contemporary international politics is defined by an increasingly bold and aggressive China that seeks territorial revisions and evinces the willingness to resort to threats, coercive diplomacy, and military action to achieve these goals. In 2010, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi best captured this reality when he observed at an ASEAN meeting, “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” This is a classic great power politics argument first made by Thucydides 2,400 years ago in the Melian Dialogue—the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.
Such a maladroit remark greatly assisted a change of perspective regarding Beijing’s intentions. This was followed by explicit and demanding territorial claims in the South and East China Seas, which include the Nine-Dash Line claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea, and the declaration of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over much of the East China Sea. These stark claims continue to unfold, most recently against the Philippines, in the years after Yang’s frank and telling remark.
In addition to these bellicose steps, Beijing is likely to use its expanding wealth to create institutional structures, as with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative, that advances its interests and offers an alternative to Western institutions. Furthermore, like any rising great power in history, its ambitions are likely to expand to target the declining dominant power’s alliance network. Historically strong U.S. alliance relationships with the Philippines Thailand, and even Australia, for example, no longer can be assumed in the future due to increasing Chinese power and the resultant willingness of states to accommodate China. It should be alarming to Washington how easily China’s influence has grown in the Philippines under Duterte.
Long gone are the early 1990s when Deng Xiaoping provided his “24-Character Strategy” for China: “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” This strategy is abbreviated in Chinese to taoguang yanghui, which is usually translated as “hide our strength and bide our time,” but literally means “hide light, nurture obscurity.” Deng’s approach, and later the “peaceful rise” and “harmonious world” rhetoric of his successors, served to mask the successful expansion of its power in the 1990s and 2000s.
But with the continued tremendous expansion of China’s economy coupled with the weaknesses of Western economies revealed by the financial crisis and sluggish growth of the Obama years, China’s new premier Xi Jinping has clearly—and quite naturally for an expanding great power—replaced Deng’s strategy with one that seeks the expansion of Chinese interests and presence worldwide. Xi has stated that China should advance its “diplomacy as a great power,” and has coupled China’s resurgence as a great power to the “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation: a China that has awakened in every sense—in culture, media, philosophy, and nationalist identity—from two centuries of slumber.
Pedestrians walk under red lanterns at Pudong Financial Area in Shanghai. (Aly Song/Reuters)
In consequence, greater security competition between the U.S. and China is likely as China’s increasing power conflicts with the interests of the United States and its major allies. The U.S. will have to adapt its foreign policy and defensive strategy to an environment where China is an increasingly demanding actor, is far more vocal in expressing its demands, and will have greater power to coerce if they are not met.


China is a peer competitive challenger to the United States, but the scope of its challenge is very different than the Soviet one. Unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China has many interests in common with the U.S., from stability on the Korean peninsula to growth in the global economy. Nevertheless, despite points of mutual interest, China’s rise brings it into increasing conflict with the United States.
China is a threat to the United States because of its power and intent. The growth of its diplomatic, economic, and military power is disquieting but well documented. Its intent is equally worrying but less well noted. China’s intentions are multifaceted, of course, but its grand strategy is coalescing around the need to challenge the U.S. because it stands in its way of China’s rise to dominance in the Asia-Pacific. This strategy is driven by strong nationalism that seeks to see China return to the glories and privileged position it occupied before the First Opium War. This perspective should be thought of as Han-supremacy, which is the ultra-nationalist belief that the Han are the greatest people, the creators of the most advanced civilization, and to whom minorities within China and other states should be deferential. Han-supremacy contains a biological and cultural component. For Han-supremacists, consonant with beliefs that can only be described as social Darwinist, the Han are of a common descent and racially distinct and superior than other peoples. Moreover, Han culture is superior to other cultures. Anchored in millennia, Han culture is viewed as the epitome of civilized life, promoting the traditional values of industriousness, discipline, patriotism, love of the Han and their history.
But the Han-supremacists also have a chip on their shoulder: Westerners and the Japanese humiliated and victimized the Chinese when it they were weak. Han-supremacy identifies pernicious foreign influences as the cause of China’s downfall in the past and the obstacle to regaining its historical position of power in international relations. The “foreigners” in this account are not just Westerners but also ethnic minorities within China.
While there is debate in China on the issue of how China sees itself, its rightful place in the world today and in the years to come. What is worrisome for the future of stability in international politics is the outpouring of Han-supremacy within elite and mass opinion accompanying China’s rapid growth. Equally disturbing is the ineffectiveness of any effort to counter this ultra-nationalism. Historically, such ethnocentric sentiment is to be expected and occurred with the rise of other great powers from Britain to Japan, a muscular nationalism touting with a jingoistic tune the greatness of the Han. Of course, that is cold comfort for the U.S. as the previous examples of contributed to the World Wars of the last century.
For its adherents, the U.S. is a malevolent force seeking to prevent the natural order of international politics—Chinese hegemony—from returning. Lenin’s essential question for any political struggle, “Who, Whom?” (“who will rule whom?”), is the heart of the matter. But for China, the question is absurd. It is right and proper that China dominates international politics because China is the most advanced, culturally sophisticated, and humane civilization in history.
On the other side of hill, the U.S. is worried that it is losing power to an overconfident and increasingly emboldened China, which seems to have no check on its ambition. China has expanded its military capabilities, expanded its intelligence collection efforts and diplomatic presence throughout the world, and demonstrated its willingness to change the status quo, as with its territorial disputes on its border with India or in the East and South China Seas. This means that intense security competition between the Chinese and American peer competitors increasingly looks like a New Cold War. And while a New Cold War with China will be different from the last one, the intensity of the ideological competition will not be.[1]
Although Americans may not perceive it, China and the U.S. are already locked in an ideological struggle. The parameters of which are broadly captured by competing visions over the future: the Washington Consensus versus the Beijing Consensus. The Washington Consensus dates to 1989 and was originally a platform for economic development that has broadened to include a political component. For the Washington Consensus, countries should promote individual liberty and free market economic growth. In contrast, the essence of the Beijing Consensus is rapid wealth with authoritarianism rather than Western liberalism as the political ideology.
If not confronted, the Beijing Consensus gives China an important ideological advantage for authoritarian regimes in Asia and Africa: wealth without jeopardizing political control or concerns over liberalization or human rights.
As important as this struggle is for the future of international politics, the deeper ideological struggle stems from the vociferous nationalism of Han-supremacy.
Presently, the principal concern for stability in international politics is that the Chinese worldview is heavily informed by Han-supremacy. China’s rise brings with it a supremacist worldview that wants to buy off the states it can (which is a lot), and pick a fight with those it cannot. For decades, it was careful not to, but now it challenges the United States and its allies with a strong desire to change the status quo and, ultimately, the liberal principles upon which it rests. These actions are making intense security competition and conflict with the United States and its major allies in the Asia-Pacific increasingly probable.
What is especially worrying is China’s radically different ideology. This includes the deeply rooted racialized worldview of Han-supremacy that informs China’s domestic and foreign policies, as well as the manner in which the government treats the non-Han. This is particularly the case for the minority groups in the country that directly or indirectly challenge Han-supremacy, notably the Uyghur in Xinjiang. In essence, how the Chinese see the world is heavily informed by Han-supremacy, and even race-based and eugenicist beliefs, as the scholarship of Frank Dikötter reveals.
Second, if, in fact, China supplants the U.S., the rest of the world is going to have to adapt to China’s ideology, and the norms and principles it advances. This means all of the stakeholders in the present international liberal order, developed largely by Great Britain and the United States after World War II, are likely to find it more difficult to advance fundamental Western conceptions of free trade, individual liberty and human rights, and the importance of developing cultures of anti-discrimination in support of the rights of women and minorities. In many cases, the opposite of what the West values will be the new rules of road in international politics. Western cultural, economic, and political elites have yet to consider fully what will be lost if China were to become the world’s dominant state and just how different the world would be.
Third, China’s Han-supremacism provides empirical evidence of how Beijing will treat other international actors as China becomes increasingly more powerful. Naturally enough, one of the major insights we have into Chinese future behavior is what it did in the past, when it was the hegemon of Asia—the known world as far as China was concerned. The problem here is China sees itself as the center of the universe, all others are inferior, with varying degrees of inferiority. Such a neo-imperialist perspective is not an attractive model for winning allies and influence, and it also underscores why those who have a vested interest in the present order need to consider the implications of China’s dominance.
The difficulties for China caused by Han-supremacy present a tremendous opportunity for the United States. But the facts do not speak for themselves. They must have an advocate with the power and resources of the U.S. and its allies to identify the opportunity and capitalize upon it.


Whether the United States can maintain its position as the preeminent force for free and open societies in the face of a rising challenge from China is likely to be a defining element of international politics in the 21st Century, and is of immediate U.S. national security policy interest.
This struggle is material—economic and military power matter—but will also and ineluctably be ideological. Certainly, its course will pose, and its outcome answer, an ideologically dispositive question: Will egalitarianism remain the dominant ideal in international politics, or will it cede leadership back to authoritarianism? The United States may by some measures lose economic primacy to China, yet retain as a strategic advantage what it most wants to protect: its free and open society.
The mutual support of material power and ideology is not new to the United States. It operated during the American Civil War and proved decisive in the Cold War. It constitutes a valuable strategic asymmetry and is a prodigious advantage for the United States.
Three ideological measures will support the ability of the U.S. to maintain its position in international politics in the face of the peer competitor challenge from China.
First, the United States and China are engaged in increasingly intense security competition, a condition Washington has not faced since the end of the Cold War. China’s economic growth and increasing military power rightfully receive considerable attention, but this competition also includes other aspects of power: alliances, resources, geography, population, technology, scientific progress, education, and ideological prowess.
While the United States needs to compete in all areas, it is essential to recognize that ideology is foundational, undergirding as it does the very reasons the United States should engage in the struggle with China. In essence, ideology explains why we fight.
The core ideology of the United States is a composite of political liberty, free-market capitalism, rule of law, and societal openness—as exemplified by the right openly to dissent. In contrast, China’s principles are dangerously incoherent: authoritarian politics, free-market cronyism, and suppression of rights, most particularly political, religious, and civil rights. A future free and open cannot be guaranteed by the United States alone, but it cannot be achieved at all without United States leadership. Were today’s China to supplant the U.S. politically, the international order would look very different, perhaps for a very long time.
Second, the United States has largely been absent from the fight. It has failed to match Beijing’s growing ideological power, captured by the Beijing Consensus, the essence of which is wealth through capitalism without democracy. Washington’s failure has been strategic, certainly, but also and more disturbingly, there has been incoherence and ineffectiveness in its ability to define the threat.
Ideological prowess must not be rhetorical. It must be seen. It must be shown. It must be persuasive. How it will be done will be informed by successful campaigns from the past, in World Wars I and II, and the Cold War, and will take many forms: protecting freedoms; honoring alliances; welcoming and assimilating new citizens; reminding states of the value of U.S. power and the international order it created. China, the Middle Kingdom reasserting its suzerainty, has shown less ability to compete on these terms. But that is changing.
Third, as U.S. power declines relative to China’s, Washington will have to depend more on ideology than material power, and will have to depend more on its allies and other cooperative states, in Europe, Asia, and Africa. This situation plays to the United States’ ideological strength and is a great advantage for Washington. China seeks resources, and therefore, partners, no longer with Maoism to peddle but with infrastructure and foreign direct investment to dangle. The United States cannot match China’s ability to invest, but should more than match its ability to inspire.
While the interests of allies are varied, U.S. ideology serves as cement for alignment against China, particularly for states in Africa, Asia and even Europe, where pure self-interest might dictate alignment with China or neutrality. The ideology of the United States allows it to maintain relations with Asia-Pacific and European states based on common interests and political principles. Equally important, as a free and open society, it allows the United States to offer a better alliance partnership with African states than China, whose presence in Africa is all too often defined by the exploitation of people and the environment.


In all of its wars, the United States has faced an ideological challenge. Meeting them has proved formative conceptually and pivotal strategically. The Revolutionary War was prototypical, and that ideological conflict defined the essence of the political principles of the United States. Its outcome established political liberty, free-market economics, rule of law, and societal openness as exemplified by the right of dissent.
"We shall divert through our own Country a branch of commerce which the European States have thought worthy of the most important struggles and sacrifices, and in the event of peace...we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends." (Thomas Jefferson to George Rogers Clark, 25 December 1780)
America’s principles have expanded with those borders, formal and informal. Throughout his presidency, Jefferson declared that the United States was “an empire for liberty,” describing it as “a chosen country,” and a “rising nation” that was already advancing to a bright and prosperous destiny.
The ideas Jefferson expressed were commonplace in his day, and were already motivating the exploration and—by means both seemly and ignoble—the acquisition of territory once held by Native Americans and by European empires and their former subjects. The growth of material power and territorial wealth made ideology grow, too, feeding on its own success. As it was fundamentally Lockean, America’s ideology was quite robust, but it was also demanding: individual liberty, due process, market freedom, orderly immigration and assimilation. As the credited successes mounted, “Americanism” forced open its own traditions, “We the People” coming to admit most everyone formerly subordinated or unfairly excluded or simply overlooked.
That ideology served as the structure into which flowed the tremendous material growth of the United States through individual liberty, free market beliefs, the rule of law, and receptivity to European immigration and assimilation. In turn, the growth of the material power of the United States ensured that its ideology remained dominant, despite the ideological challenges from fascism, socialism, or communism.
A mix of material and ideological motivations came to characterise American behaviour throughout the modern era. This mix compelled the United States to intervene in World War I. Woodrow Wilson’s ideological motivation was to eliminate German militarism, a threat to Germany itself, to the rest of Europe, and the United States.
With Germany’s defeat, the threat of militarism was gone, the balance of power restored, and the United States returned to its shores. The direction of the United States, torn between two contending visions of American foreign policy was still unresolved. As preeminent diplomatic historian Michael Hunt argued in his classic work Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy, the first of these foresaw that engagement in world politics, far from imperiling liberty, would invigorate it at home while creating conditions favorable to its spread overseas. The second vision foresaw the reverse. American security was best advanced by minimizing U.S. commitments because restraint was essential for maintaining liberty at home. The second, and more proximal, vision proved more compelling, and the United States after World War I contentedly retrenched far from any European battlefield.
The rise of fascist Italy, imperial Japan, and Nazi Germany once again brought ideological and material threats to the fore, and the Roosevelt administration responded with vigor in 1940. Before its formal entry into the war, the United States supported the British after the fall of France, providing Lend Lease first to it and later also to the Soviet Union. The U.S. also aided the Chinese Nationalists directly through the American Volunteer Group (the Flying Tigers), and indirectly by pressuring Japan diplomatically and economically.


With the defeat of the Axis powers, the new and more potent threat of the Soviet Union emerged. President Harry Truman rapidly recognized that national security, required more than defending territory because the Soviet Union did not have to attack the United States to undermine its security. In the struggle with the Soviets, national security required a defense of the ideological domain: American ideology, values, and free cultural, political, and economic institutions.
To combat Soviet material power, the United States strengthened its economy, military and alliance relationships. To combat Soviet ideational power, the Truman administration turned to America’s ideology. As in its previous wars, the role of ideology in this struggle critically reinforced the material aspect.
First, ideology provided the ultimate reason for the struggle: freedom was legitimate and superior to totalitarianism, and had to be defended against the formidable threat posed by the Soviet Union.
Second, it was the force that unified Americans and like-minded people around the world. American ideology explained to Americans, American allies, and friendly states throughout the world, the political principles of the United States in contrast to the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, and why Soviet ideology should be resisted. Although easy to forget, when Soviet or Warsaw Pact spies chose to work for the CIA, SIS, or other Western services, they most often did so for ideological reasons, and it cost many of them their lives.
Third, ideology was used as a weapon to undermine the legitimacy of communism in the minds of the Soviet peoples, Soviet allies, and with neutral states, just as the Soviets attempted to undermine the West.
In this contest, the ideological weapons were a combination of cultural, political, and social forces: a novel like Dr. Zhivago, the Moon landings, the Fischer-Spassky chess championship match of 1972, popular and official radio like Voice of America, educational systems, academics, musicians, writers, American theater, television, and Hollywood films, and the genius of Fulbright scholarships. In addition, traditional ideological components were important as well such as major speeches like President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “Evil Empire” speech. Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky was imprisoned in Permanent Labor Camp 35 at that time and recalled his reaction to Reagan’s speech after his death in 2004:
It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally, a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell's Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union. It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it. For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us. The lie had been exposed and could never, ever be untold now. This was the end of Lenin's “Great October Bolshevik Revolution” and the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution—Reagan’s Revolution.[2]


As might be expected with demise of the ideological adversary at the end of the Cold War, U.S. policy interest in ideology waned. The United States Information Agency, created in 1953 by Eisenhower to aid the ideological war with the Soviet Union, was shuttered. There seemed to be no need for it as the world might have been at the “End of History,” as Francis Fukuyama posited, ideological struggles were past as the world embraced the ideology of the United States.
Of course, the relative tranquility of the 1990s was illusory for the United States due to the growing al Qaeda threat that revealed itself in full measure on 9/11. With that attack, the United States rediscovered ideological conflict and the need to combat it. However, due to the nature of terrorism, and the limitations of their own movements, neither ISIS nor al Qaeda’s ideologies were fundamental threats to the United States.
The second threat was from China, and it has only grown in power since the strategic Halcyon Days of the 1990s. The major problem for the United States is that it was slow to recognize the challenge posed by China for three reasons. First, as a result of Deng’s “24-Character” strategy’s calculated decision to hide the growth of its capabilities while touting economic investment and infrastructure construction as the vehicles for expanding interests worldwide. Second, the strategic focus of the U.S. was centered on Afghanistan and Iraq, and the global presence of al Qaeda and associated movements, and ISIS. Third, in the community of Sinologists, the dominant view since the end of the Cold War to the present is that China’s rise would be peaceful. As a consequence, a Pollyannaish view of China’s expanding power remains influential in the U.S. government, business, and media circles.
The unfortunate consequence for Washington has been the weakening of its ability to design, execute, and maintain effective responses in an ideological contest against a peer competitor. Indeed, even after the Obama administration’s touted “pivot to Asia,” there was not a consideration of the role of U.S. ideology in the struggle with China.


Stalin once queried, “How many divisions has the Pope?” as a way to belittle Pius XII’s influence in contrast to the might of the Red Army. That was easy to do from his position at the end of World War II. Yet religion in Poland, East Germany, the Soviet Union itself, and among the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, all contributed in their own ways to the demise of his empire. Religion, like U.S. ideology, was a strategic asymmetry in the struggle against the Soviet Union. A strategic asymmetry is the identification of areas of comparative advantage in a competitive relationship. Advantages may be economic, military, political, ideological or social which produce greater capability, capacity, or efficiency sufficient to change or maintain a balance of power between peer competitors.
In the present contest with China, U.S. ideology may play an analogous role. In order to win the competition with China, which entails the continuation of the U.S.’s primacy, the ideology of the United States must be used in this struggle, as it was in the Cold War and in the World Wars. The ideology of the United States is the spine that undergirds U.S. power and is superior because first, it allows more people to live a life free to think and decide as they wish; second, while it has flaws, it can correct them as the Civil Rights movement demonstrated; and third, Washington’s ideology makes it a valuable ally. Its free and open political principles make the U.S. a more valuable and dependable ally. In contrast to China, U.S. decision-making is transparent to allies, it is a dynamic and inclusive society open to immigration, and has a long history of protecting the interests of allies, and treating them as equal partners.
Yet, in the face of the direct challenge from China, the U.S. has been caught flatfooted. The United States has been complacent and overconfident about its place in the world. In addition, Americans are often reluctant to talk about ideology, and, even in policy circles, to understand its ability to inspire and its importance in peer competition. That is a both a misfortunate because of its inherent value—a value that must be voiced by Washington and its allies—and a strategic mistake of the first order.
The positive news is that China’s Han-supremacy opens three major ideological advantages for the United States.
First, it provides the United States with the ability to explain the ultimate reason for the struggle: freedom is legitimate and superior to authoritarianism, but freedom must be defended. Our ideology unifies the American people and like-minded people around the world and explains why China should be resisted. In essence, ideology once again explains why we fight. The United States must contrast its dynamic, innovative, free, and open society, one that is welcoming of immigrants and able to correct its flaws, with the increasingly wealthy, but ethnocentric, racist, and closed society of the Chinese. The West went through a Civil Rights Movement to create cultures of anti-racism throughout their societies. In China, the idea of a Civil Rights Movement that would aid minorities and undermine Han-supremacy is unthinkable—and that stark recognition essentially captures the profound differences between the two societies. Equally importantly, U.S. ideology may serve to undermine the legitimacy of authoritarian rule in the minds of the Chinese peoples.
Second, as a free and open society, it allows the United States to offer a better alliance partnership with African states than China, whose presence in Africa is all too often defined by the exploitation of the local populations and the environment. As Guy Scott, former agricultural minister, member of the Zambian parliament, and former head of the Patriotic Front party, said to The Guardian in 2007: “People are saying, ‘We’ve had bad people before. The whites were bad, the Indians were worse, but the Chinese are the worst of all.’”
Third, as U.S. material power declines relative to China’s, Washington will have to depend more on ideology than material power, and will have to depend more on its allies and other cooperative states, in Europe, Asia, and Africa. While the interests of allies are varied, U.S. ideology serves as cement for alignment against China, particularly for states in Africa and Asia, where pure self-interest might dictate alignment with China or neutrality. The ideology of the United States allows it to maintain relations with European states based on common interests and political principles. As the West stood together against the Soviets, so a common ideology allows it to stand united against the challenge from China.
If the United States continues to neglect the ideological component in its statecraft it will be increasingly hard pressed to maintain its position as the dominant state in international politics. Should the United States lose its dominant position then China will fill the vacuum. China’s rise means that what China believes, and how it conceives of the world and its place in it, is supremely important to understand. Therefore, the key strategic question is: “How does China see the world?” The answer is deeply unsettling and unpalatable, and dangerous for stability. China sees the world with it as its core, and all others are in a subordinate position. The U.S. must define and execute a strategy that prevents this outcome. Its ideology is one of its greatest weapons.

Bradley A. Thayer is a Visiting Fellow, Magdalen College, University of Oxford.
John M. Friend is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, College of Saint Benedict and St. John’s University.
This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] While China’s rise will continue, its economic growth is slowing. Natural depredations like growing resource scarcities, environmental destruction, and widespread pollution, as well as ubiquitous corruption, a collapse of trust in personal and commercial relationships, gross disparities in income and regional development, all mean that huge inefficiencies and incurring losses might result in a slowing of China’s economic growth. Moreover, China’s demography is also problematic. China faces a “triple whammy:” the number of children under 14 will fall by 53 million by 2050, the workforce will contract by 100 million, and those over-60 will rise by 234 million, from twelve percent to thirty-one percent of the population. As a consequence, China’s growth rates are decelerating, even if they remain impressive by the standards of the rest of the world. A positive benefit for the U.S. is that it provides more time for a response.
[2] Tom Rose, “The View from the Gulag: An Interview with Natan Sharansky,” The Weekly Standard, Vol. 9, No. 21, June 21 2004.