China has long occupied a unique place in America’s relations with the world. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, China was a commercial magnet. Chinese products—tea, porcelains, silks—were in high demand and drew American merchants to Cathay. The clipper ships that plied the Pacific tea trade became as much a part of American lore as the Pony Express. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a potent new actor entered the scene: Christian missionaries. For many American denominations, the prospect that China might be converted to Christianity became a lure more powerful than money. By the 1930s, Christian missionaries funded by American congregations had established an impressive network of schools, hospitals, and universities—along with churches—across much of China. Moreover, China’s political leaders at the time, Chiang Kai-shek and his redoubtable wife, were baptized Christians. Americans envisioned a China that would soon become an Asian version of the U.S.
Unfortunately, Chiang’s regime bore the brunt of Japan’s World War II onslaught against China. After the war, the Nationalist armies were defeated in a civil war with Mao Zedong’s communist forces. The victorious communists immediately expelled the American missionaries, doctors and educators. It was a great shock; suddenly, China was no longer America’s ally and project—it had become an enemy. Any doubts on that score were erased when the Korean War pitted U.S. Marines against a large number of Chinese troops. The result was two decades of intense hostility between Beijing and Washington. Everything about Mao’s China seemed alien and threatening—communes, red guards, guerrillas, and ideological campaigns.
Then, in 1971, like a bolt from the blue, President Richard Nixon visited China. The pendulum swung again; suddenly, China was all the rage whether it was pandas, acupuncture, or the Great Wall. China’s post-Mao leader, Deng Xiaoping, came on a state visit, attended a Texas rodeo, and donned a Stetson hat. The American romance with China was back in full flower. For the next 35 years, U.S.-China relations were broadly positive—even cordial. Trade flourished, and Chinese students flocked to U.S. universities while American tourists and scholars descended on China. The U.S. hope, heavily colored by wishful thinking, was that China was on the way toward becoming a modern and enlightened country. China might not be Christian, but it could still be a constructive partner for America.
This seductive vision ignored some fundamental realities. China was not just another big developing country. The Chinese were deeply aware of China’s long (“five thousand years”) and illustrious history. Deep in the collective DNA was the conviction that China embodied the world’s oldest and greatest civilization. However, part of that heritage was the “century of humiliation” (roughly from the 1840s to the 1940s) when China was dominated and despoiled by Western powers and finally by Japan.
The combination of absolute certitude concerning China’s cultural superiority and burning resentment over the actions of outside powers generated a fierce determination in China’s contemporary leaders to do more than just build a modern, successful China. Chinese nationalism and pride demanded much more—the restoration of China to a position of regional dominance and global preeminence. The Middle Kingdom must once again resume its rightful place, i.e., China must become the world’s greatest economic and military power.
In specific terms, this means (1) China will achieve a strategic monopoly in East Asia including full dominance over the South China Sea and the expulsion of U.S. military power from the area and (2) China must gain dominance over the most advanced scientific and technological sectors that constitute the foundations of 21st century state power. In support of the first objective, China has built and deployed an impressive armada of naval and air power off its shores. At the same time, China has built a number of artificial islands in the South China Sea that are being equipped as military bases. As for the second objective, China’s much-ballyhooed “Made in China 2025” is a government campaign designed to achieve Chinese dominance over key hi-tech industries (including robotics, artificial intelligence, and aerospace) within the next seven years.
China has long used the lure of its market to compel U.S. firms to divulge key trade and technology secrets as the price of doing business in China. At the same time, China has built a robust intelligence capability dedicated to stealing the most advanced science and technology developed by U.S. companies, universities, and research institutions using cyber penetrations and traditional spies. The head of the FBI’s counter-intelligence programs recently testified before Congress portraying the threat in graphic terms. “I believe this is the most severe counterintelligence threat facing our country today. Every rock we turn over, every time we looked for it, it’s not only there, it’s worse than we anticipated. Our prosperity and place in the world are at risk.”
The U.S. government has been very slow to recognize the full dimensions of China’s challenge—and the costs of self-delusion and delay are very high. In the South China Sea, the U.S. navy is faced with the question whether it can maintain an effective presence where it is already outgunned at least ten to one by Chinese maritime forces. In the world of advanced S&T, China’s bid for global leadership (read dominance) is already formidable. Just ask Silicon Valley. The administration has adopted a more confrontational posture toward China, but the focus has been on trade revenues and tariffs. These are a sideshow. The Pentagon and the Intelligence Community know that the main event is far more serious. It is not at all clear that President Trump understands that.
*About the author: Marvin C. Ott is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars