States possess grand strategies, that is, how they define their interests, the threats to those interests, and the means that they employ to advance their interests in the face of threats.
Additionally, states make strategic choices to address the threats they face and to advance their interests in the ever-changing circumstances of international politics. Usually this is done by making modest changes such as a making a doctrinal change, establishing a new base or alliance relationship, building new weapons systems, or investing in new weapons technologies.
However, at times states execute major grand strategic changes to address threats. They undertake such a dramatic change, typically because the threat they face has become greater, even an existential threat.
In 1914, Britain made a major break with its grand strategic past when it decided to send its army and so made a continental commitment to support Belgium and France against the German invasion.
Likewise, the 1917 decision by President Woodrow Wilson to enter World War I on the side of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia was a major break with traditional U.S. grand strategy, which, like Great Britain, had avoided making continental commitments.
When the United States reversed course about two years later, when the U.S. Congress rejected the League of Nations Treaty and the Anglo-Franco-American Treaty of Guarantee, it made a similarly major step. However, such changes are rare in international politics, especially for hegemonic states.
While the grand strategies of all states are important, those of the great powers are especially so since their decisions have an exaggerated impact on international stability and the likelihood of war and peace. The Chinese regime possesses a grand strategy of domination and seeks to replace the United States from its position in international politics. The possibility of intense security competition, the new cold war between the United States and China, or conflict between them, compels the contemplation of whether China may execute a grand strategic change. If it could back away from its hegemonic ambition, this would allow a potential confrontation to be avoided.
Due to China’s prodigious growth, the global audience needs to understand China’s motivation and anticipated path in the world, and to have some conception of the degree to which China’s grand strategy is likely to remain on its current course or may be expected to change. Comprehending why China changes its grand strategy is critical for understanding its actions and direction in international politics.
Unfortunately for international stability, the Chinese seldom change their grand strategy. Historically, this is because China has been the hegemon in East Asia. Only rarely has the external and internal situation combined to cause the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to focus on its survival.
However, the Chinese abruptly changed their grand strategy in the Ming and Manchu dynasties, where at different times, they abandoned their hegemony and executed a grand strategic volte face, abandoning exploration and trade to turn inward as they did after Admiral Zheng He’s last voyage of exploration and conquest in the 15th century. In these cases, the Chinese retreated to focus on stabilizing their rule.
Moreover, there have also been “near misses,” circumstances that have almost brought about a grand strategic change but did not, as both the existential internal and external threats were not present, such as in the turbulent Boxer Rebellion (1898-1900), and the period of instability that surrounded the Tiananmen uprising of 1989.
Based on China’s history, for China to change its course, it must face a major domestic threat at the elite level. This is a dynastic challenge and may be thought of as a domestic peer competitor to the imperial regime. Second, the domestic peer challenge must occur at the same time that there is the threat from an external peer competitor. In each instance, the Chinese retreated when they faced peer competition simultaneously at the domestic and international levels. The combination of a challenge from a domestic peer competitor as well as external peer competitor is required to make China change its grand strategy.
China now may face this situation again. The United States, in conjunction with its ally Japan and with support from India, will serve as the external peer competitors. What is lacking is an internal threat at a sufficiently significant level. Given Xi Jinping’s grip on power, including the success of his anti-corruption and other campaigns at targeting his enemies, a successful internal threat is not likely. Only if the Chinese regime faced a challenge from the United States and its allies, and there was a dynastic struggle, might China change course and conflict, cold or hot, be avoided.
The former might occur, and it is incumbent upon the Biden administration to reassure a Japan concerned about this administration’s path, and to bring India into an alliance. However, the latter, a dynastic struggle, is less likely to occur. Xi is unlikely to be dethroned. Accordingly, the United States and its allies must steel themselves to face the threat from the Chinese regime. The CCP will not change its strategic course. Indeed, from its perspective, it should not as it has been an unalloyed success—rising to a position to challenge America with the active support of many in the United States and the West. For the United States and its allies, there is not going to be a quick or simple solution to the threat posed by the Chinese regime.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.