“In the long run, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, to nurse its fantasies, cherish its hatreds, and threaten its neighbors,” Richard Nixon wrote in 1967.
Nixon’s words, appearing in his historic article in Foreign Affairs, are the basis of half a century of American and Western policy. After the Cold War, the West, led by Washington, sought to integrate the People’s Republic of China into the post-war international system.
Is it now in the West’s interests whether China succeeds or fails? We have no choice: we must make it fail. If Communist China succeeds, it will mean the end of the West.
Nixon’s post-Cold War “engagement” approach should have worked. The idea was that the Chinese regime, given that it had a stake in the existing system, would defend it. This strategy was at the heart of US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s “responsible stakeholder” formulation, announced in 2005. It was in many ways the greatest gamble of our time.
However, this bet now appears to be a mistake that history will remember. For as the Communist Party grew stronger, it did not align itself with its Western supporters. Rather, she came to believe that she could avenge centuries-old grievances and remake the world in her own image. The West’s generous approach has created the one thing it hoped to avoid: an aggressive state redrawing its borders by force, attacking liberal values around the world, and undermining the institutions at the heart of the international system.
What went wrong? “Past U.S. policy toward China has fundamentally underestimated the hostility, cruelty, and desire for power of the Chinese Communist Party,” Scott Harold told me when he was at the Asia-Pacific Policy Center from RAND.
Western leaders spent decades convincing themselves that the form of Chinese government did not matter. Furthermore, Western leaders did not listen to what their Chinese counterparts were saying. Throughout this century, Xi Jinping has recycled ideas from the imperial era that the Chinese emperor ruled Tianxia» – “All under heaven” – thus suggesting that the People’s Republic of China should now be considered the only sovereign state in the world.
Xi’s subordinates have explicitly made this point and since 2017 have argued that the Moon and Mars should be considered part of China, even talking about excluding other countries from access to those who found near celestial bodies.
“China was the center of its own hierarchical and theoretically universal conception of order,” noted Henry Kissinger in World order. “China saw itself, in a sense, as the only sovereign government in the world.” For China, the emperor was a figure of cosmic dimensions, the one and only link “between the human and the divine,” Kissinger explains.
Ridiculous? Yes. But China has nevertheless announced its intentions: it will lead the world if it has the means. As Kissinger explains, Chinese leaders see the world as one because they have difficulty working with others. “In all the extravagant history of China”, he wrote in On China“there was no precedent for how to participate in a world order, whether in concert with – or in opposition to – another superpower.”
Today, China’s imperial views blend with the country’s communist system. Hostility toward others, reinforced by the racism of the regime’s Han nationalism, means that China cannot coexist with others in the international system, which since 1648 has recognized the sovereignty of a multitude of states.
Xi Jinping is not an aberration. It exposes the belligerence of a communist system that idealizes struggle and domination.
It also demonstrates the bellicose nature of a fundamentally insecure system. The Chinese regime views the world’s free societies as existential threats, not because of what they can say or do, but because of who they are. The Communist Party is concerned about the inspiring impact on the Chinese people of the values and forms of governance of the world’s democracies, particularly those of the United States.
These Chinese opinions have consequences. The communist regime believes it has the right to do whatever it wants, including spreading disease, stealing intellectual property, proliferating nuclear weapons technology, and breaking up neighbors.
Other than abandoning its sovereignty and submitting to Chinese rule, there is nothing the West can do to accommodate communist China. The Chinese regime believes that it is engaged in a life-and-death struggle against us. In the long run, we have to win.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and the recently published China Is Going to War. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @GordonGChange.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.