There is an old Soviet tale about Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. At lunchtime, he would retreat into his office and stare at the map of the world. The map was centered on the Soviet Union. The old Bolshevik would just glare at it as if it were a giant chessboard awaiting Moscow’s next move.
One can imagine similar scenes playing out in Zhongnanhai, with Chinese President Xi Jinping contemplating a map showing a communist Middle Kingdom as the epicenter of a new world order.
Xi believes that he is a revolutionary leader with an opportunity to join Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping in the Chinese pantheon. To accomplish this, he must dethrone the United States as the world’s most powerful nation.
AEI Scholar Dan Blumenthal points out that the Xi “will no longer hide China’s capabilities” and will forcefully “move China to center stage to create a favorable environment for building a great modern socialist country.” His first step is to reduce and neutralize American influence across the Indo-Pacific region.
It is America’s strategic mission to ensure the freedom of the international commons and to rally itself and the world to oppose any nation or collective nations that threaten that order.
In ancient China, peoples and countries wishing to interact with China had to pay tribute to the mandarins. Corporate America is fulfilling Xi’s new tribute model. Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Coca Cola, Hollywood, and the NBA have all paid obeisance to Beijing, ignoring China’s monstrous human rights abuses while leading the woke parade at home.
Xi’s foreign policy seeks to extort tribute from China’s neighbors in the Pacific and around the world. Like Mao, the more powerful Xi has become, the more geopolitical chances he is willing to take. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao picked fights with India, launched border incursions against the Soviet Union, and opened the military supply spigot to North Vietnam. Xi has launched military operations against India, attempted to intimidate Vietnam and the Philippines, threatened Japan with nuclear incineration, and raised rhetorical and economic threats against Western Europe and Australia.
Foreign adventurism and military modernization help Xi distract attention from massive problems at home. China’s population is rapidly aging. The Communist Party has laid environmental waste to vast swaths of the mainland. Corruption is rampant, while public morals and ethics have deteriorated. And, as evidenced by the crushing of the democratic movement in Hong Kong, the CCP fears that the Chinese people are growing restless under the increasing repressiveness of the state. As former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted, China’s leaders are “deathly afraid of their own people.”
Where stands America? Sadly, it did not take the Biden administration long to signal American weakness in the Pacific. It seems as if the White House is more invigorated by the prospect of managing American decline than by protecting America’s status as the world’s dominant power.
The Administration sent the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Asia to reassure allies haunted by memories of Obama-era indifference that President Biden is cut from a different cloth. Yet even as Austin offered these assurances, the Administration was proposing a flat defense budget, one insufficient even to maintain purchasing power. The Chief of Naval Operations has warned he may have to cut ships in an already over-stretched Navy simply to keep the rest operating. The incongruity is not lost on nations looking to stand together with Washington to prevent Chinese military dominance of the Pacific.
A failure to act decisively means business as usual when it comes to China’s ongoing theft of intellectual and cyber property. It means a continuing flood of Chinese funding and influence within American universities and research institutions. It means ending sanctions imposed due to the repression of freedom in Hong Kong. It means crippling the U.S. economy in the name of fighting climate change while Beijing laughingly breaks its environmental promises. Perhaps it means silence in the face of the genocide of the Uighurs. In the first Taiwan Strait Crisis, Ike sent the fleet. What happens the next time Taiwan is threatened?
To adjust to the reality of an ever more belligerent China, we must pivot as Harry Truman did when he, broke America’s historic aversion to permanent alliances and formed NATO in 1949. China is surrounded by nations with thousand-year memories of Chinese aggression and imperialism. In the last 60 years, China has fought wars with Vietnam and India. Those nations, as well as longstanding allies and partners such as Japan, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, and the Philippines, are willing to work with the United States to protect them from the new mandarins. Strengthening them weakens Beijing.
When the Soviet Union’s brilliant naval chief Sergey Gorshkov expanded the Soviet Navy beyond its traditional territorial limits, the United States responded. Operating within a coherent strategy, Ronald Reagan and his Navy Secretary, John Lehman, extended the forward presence of a near 600-ship U.S. Navy, forcing the Soviets to recognize that they could not control the seas. We still have a qualitative maritime advantage, but China has 100 naval shipyards, and we have 10. If we do not act, quantity will begin to tip the balance. The same applies to air and space.
Western opinion is moving against Beijing—the COVID disaster has accelerated the trend. China has now been added to NATO’s agenda. In the Pacific, the focus must be on America enhancing the sovereignty of its partners. We must increase air, space, and maritime operations and make China think first about its home waters.
It also means making it easier for our partners to share and obtain the military capabilities they require—breaking down the Cold War guardrails that made it difficult for allies like Japan and Australia to take advantage of American power and technology. There is no reason why America cannot expand Boris Johnson’s D-10 formula to add Asian powers to the G-7 and formally anchor western Europe in the Indo-Pacific. Deterring China is a global task.
The bottom line is that Xi Jinping is a militant communist. Underneath his Savile Row suit is a Mao jacket. That he has been able to fool so many in the West says more about us than it does him. We still have time to wake up to the reality of Beijing’s threat, but only if we take the blinders off and confront the schoolyard bully. All of Gromyko’s staring at the Soviet map gained him nothing; let’s help Xi experience the same disappointment.
A former Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Robert Wilkie is a visiting scholar at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.