China has started making the same mistakes as the Soviets

A very striking 100th birthday party for the CCP

It’s boom time for historical analogies in America’s China policy. Beijing’s test of an orbital weapon has been compared to a “Sputnik moment” by Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley among others. 

Analysts, including me, have argued about whether the U.S. and China are in a “new Cold War” and what lessons America can learn from the old one.

China, however, is moving in the opposite direction: It has been un-learning some of the most important lessons it gleaned from the U.S.-Soviet conflict. In doing so, it is testing whether it can still prosper strategically as it casts aside insights that served it well.

The Chinese Communist Party takes history seriously. State-sponsored studies have examined the rise and fall of great powers and the causes of the Soviet collapse.

Beijing learned from that event — as well as from the Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989 — never to allow splits within the party, to enforce ideological loyalty, and to keep a watchful eye on dissent before it gets out of control.

The reason the Soviet Union disintegrated, President Xi Jinping said in 2013, was that “nobody was man enough to stand up and resist” the deadly trend toward democracy.

Xi still takes that lesson seriously. Yet there there are other Cold War lessons he seems determined to forget.

The first was, simply, not to get in Washington’s crosshairs. The China scholar Rush Doshi has chronicled how the Communist Party identified a militarily pre-eminent, ideologically ascendant America as its primary rival as far back as 1989.

Yet precisely because U.S. power was so daunting, Beijing went out of its way to avoid the sort of focused American hostility that had destroyed Soviet ambitions.

Party leader Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” strategy of 40 years ago focused on cultivating good relations with the U.S. and other key states, as a way of buying time, gaining access to global trade and advanced technology, and amassing the strength that would allow Beijing to get its way in global affairs.

Once China reached “the level of the developed countries,” Deng said, “the strength of China and its role in the world will be quite different.”

The second lesson was to avoid a Cold War-style arms race. That strategic arms competition had ultimately exhausted the Soviet Union and played to America’s economic advantages.

So Beijing maintained, for many years, a relatively minimal nuclear deterrent, and focused its spending on areas of comparative advantage, such as conventional capabilities designed to give China an edge along its maritime periphery.

Both lessons have now been discarded. Chinese rhetoric and policy have a distinctly Cold War feel. Xi argues that the “East is rising” and the West declining; he has called for a “new long march” — an echo of the Communists’ struggle for survival in the 1930s — against a hostile America.

Party officials are making military threats against the U.S. and its allies; wolf-warrior diplomats chastise American officials publicly, in tones reminiscent of Cold War rhetorical clashes.

China is racing to become technologically self-sufficient, in anticipation that the world will again be divided; it is putting ships to sea at a rate unheard of anywhere since World War II. Call it what you like, but China is certainly no longer evading the enmity of the U.S.

The arms race is on, as well. New Chinese nuclear-missile fields are popping up left and right; Beijing is pushing ahead in hypersonic weapons. China may now be on the path toward becoming a nuclear near-peer of the U.S. by the mid-2030s. At the very least, the idea that Beijing will settle for a modest deterrent is no longer credible.

Why is China doing things it previously deemed dangerous? There are specific reasons and broader ones.

China’s nuclear buildup is meant to ensure that the U.S. cannot escape mutual vulnerability by lording strategic superiority over Beijing.

This will deny Washington the option (always unlikely) of using nuclear weapons in a war over Taiwan, and make the balance of conventional forces, which more and more favors Beijing, decisive. Wolf-warriorism, for its part, seems to be about playing to a domestic audience — and to Xi in particular.

The larger impetus appears to be an unstable mix of optimism and fatalism. China has risen, Xi asserts, to the point where it no longer has to defer to the U.S. It can exploit the capabilities, economic and military, it has developed to make other states respect its interests.

At the same time, Chinese leaders seem to believe that American hostility — which has now persisted across two presidencies — is essentially locked in, so there is little point in dialing down the provocations.

That may be a mistake. Xi’s rhetoric of self-sufficiency obscures huge Chinese dependencies in technologies such as advanced semiconductors. Beijing remains vulnerable to strategic encirclement of the sort that doomed Moscow: Its behavior is triggering pushback in countries from Japan and Australia to India and the U.K., as well as smaller states, in Asia and elsewhere, that it hopes to bring into its sphere of economic influence.

Chinese moves also have the potential to harden U.S. policies: Beijing’s hypersonic tests and strategic buildup will only make it harder for President Joe Biden to fulfill his pledge to reduce America’s reliance on nuclear weapons.

It was perhaps inevitable that China would eventually abandon old insights: Lessons that guide weaker powers often come to seem intolerable for stronger ones. But China may also eventually rue forgetting what it once knew about the Cold War.

Source: Bloomberg

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Categories: Politics & Law

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1 reply

  1. Wolf-warriorism? Pekinese-warriorism seems more accurate. The problem isn’t “China” so I suggest to cease using the term. The problem is the totalitarian Han Chinese Communist Party that governs the Chinese People. If you are intent upon creating an enemy, be precise.

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