The Myth of Chinese Strategic Genius

Or: The artlessness of war.

Over the last few weeks, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Army have faced off near Pangong Lake and Nathu La Pass, causing dozens of casualties on both sides, a situation that was by all accounts instigated without provocation by the Chinese. This has been the first deadly clash between the countries in decades. And despite both Delhi and Beijing showing restraint (for now) in not escalating the situation further, the incident has dramatically damaged China’s reputation in India, empowered hardliners in Delhi who favor a more aggressive approach to the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship, and revived discussions of a US-Indian partnership, or even alliance, against China in the Indo-Pacific region. This has undeniably been a major strategic defeat for China, on every level: Beijing has further damaged its already-threadbare regional and global reputation, suffered military casualties in a likely very embarrassing way, and driven a heretofore undecided regional rival directly into the arms of its principal adversary. And over what, exactly? Relations with India, though not brilliant, were stable, the PLA incursion was unprovoked, and not in response to any diplomatic slight, or international incident. This was an own goal of the greatest magnitude.

At first glance, this might seem rather odd to an American or European who has regularly been hearing about “Chinese Strategic Genius” for much of the last decade. News commentary has regularly featured authors of books proclaiming secret Chinese strategies for undermining the US, undoing the global order, and recentering the world on Beijing — all going on right under our noses, too inscrutable and sophisticated for us in the decadent, indolent West to notice or resist. Certainly the last two generations saw this brilliance at work, no? But the fact is, Beijing has consistently been undermining its long-term strategic position around the world since 2008, and is much less well diplomatically situated now than it was 12 years ago. The story of Chinese strategic genius is as widespread as it is fictive. This suggests the question, though: why would this idea have taken root in the first place? 

Almost inarguably, no one country had as successful a run between 1978 and 2008 as did the People’s Republic of China. From impoverished backwater to industrial powerhouse, from diplomatic pariah to major player, from the periphery of global power to the near-peer of the reigning superpower. It is not hard to look at that record and conclude that the Chinese Communist Party is a group that has its plan figured out, and a solid strategy for achieving it. And the CCP certainly does deserve at least some credit for having had sufficient ideological and practical flexibility to choose the mix of policies and execution necessary to effect its economic transformation, where many other similar regimes had faltered. However, this credit must also be tempered by the fact that China and the CCP had the wind at their backs from major global trends beyond their immediate control for almost the entirety of this period, mitigating what failures they did have, and magnifying their successes.

Domestically, the country benefited from the fact that it possessed a massive rural population that, while desperately poor, was relatively well-educated for its level of poverty, could be relocated to factories and construction cheaply, easily, and with exploitative working conditions, for a massive increase in economic output. Internationally, it benefited from a very favorable diplomatic reception. From Nixon’s rapprochement until 1991, Washington saw China as a bulwark against the Soviets. And after the end of the Cold War, assisting in the economic development of China through foreign investment became something very close to a formal policy of the US government. Further, the collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated China’s principal land-based military rival, and the 20-year long American military fixation on the Middle East and Central Asia kept the global superpower occupied far from East Asia, giving China the security space to focus safely at home. Finally, the global neoliberal ideological revolution of the international elite normalized and even lionized the transfer of industrial capacity from the West to China as heralding the new economic order, further insulating the CCP from criticism for encouraging something very damaging to the West. Developing countries, meanwhile, were enthusiastic about China’s near-limitless demand for raw materials, blunting their criticism. Nearly every major roadblock was cleared for them. And this list is hardly even exhaustive.

Perhaps naming your diplomatic style after a hyper-jingoistic action blockbuster doesn’t communicate stability or a legitimate interest in cooperation?

But as of 2020, none of these conditions holds anymore. China has largely run through its surplus rural population dividend, the working-age population is now shrinking, and worker demands are rising. Not only is the Cold War not over, we are now, almost by common consent, entering a new one, now with China as the principal antagonist. The US is in the process of extracting itself from the Middle East, and focusing intently on China and the Indo-Pacific. Japan, India, and many of the countries of Southeast Asia are increasingly alarmed by China, and reorienting their diplomacy accordingly. And the neoliberal revolution in the West has gone into hard reverse, with Chinese offshoring now seen and widely discussed across the political spectrum as a primary culprit of economic woes in the US and Europe. The well of strategic surplus has run dry.

It is under these circumstances, with the wind no longer at its back, that the style and consequences of Chinese strategic behavior become clearer. The 2008 financial crisis was the turning point. To the CCP leadership, the crisis had crippled the West, humiliated America, and demonstrated the self-evident failure of its system of economics and politics. This was in no small part bolstered by the 2006 documentary “The Rise of Great Powers,” which argued for and legitimated ideas of historical cyclicality in the dominance of Empires, encouraging the idea that China’s time in the sun had come. This work built on the extremely popular 1996 screed “China can say No,” which had conjured up a powerful China that could be a rule-maker rather than a rule-taker in the global system, and many in Beijing were eager to make that a reality. But in trying to satisfy its domestic aspirations to be taken seriously, China has instead repeatedly come across as an unreasonable, threatening bully, impossible to negotiate with, and hell-bent on imposition of its own demands, cooperation be damned.

The experience of the Confucius Institutes in the US and Europe provides a singular example. In the wake of the financial crisis, American universities were starved for cash, and Beijing was willing to provide money, and trained instructors, for a program (Chinese language) that was highly in demand. This could have been an easy win for Beijing: for a minimal expenditure, win friends in the American higher education system (who would then lobby on your behalf), spread knowledge of your language to a new generation of Americans, and engage them with cultural festivals, free trips to China, scholarship grants, and new friendships. This new generation would then grow up with largely positive impressions of China, and become a new bulwark in a democratic society against growing negative opinions of the CCP. It was a layup, and needed only that the Confucius Institutes stick purely to language and culture, and shut up about everything else. But they could not do even that. Almost immediately, Beijing, through the Institutes, began to impose — unilaterally — demands on what speakers universities could and could not invite, what student movements were acceptable, and even in some extreme cases, what could and could not be taught in Chinese history classes. All of this was of course impossible for universities to accept, and over time, the money the Institutes were providing was no longer worth the demands they made. Today, many are being shut down. Confucius institutes are now widely viewed with suspicion, have damaged the image of China and the CCP among precisely the group they were intended to cultivate, and provided a focus point around which anti-CCP American politicians can organize opposition. In short, they have not only failed to achieve their principal objective; they have worsened precisely the situation they were designed to improve. Well done.

China’s regional and international diplomacy has recently done them no favors either. Early on, in 2010, then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi angrily lectured assembled members of ASEAN (a group in which China is only an observer!) in Hanoi, telling them “China is a big country, and [you] other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” Certainly something you say as a guest in someone else’s group. Further, the CCP’s insistence that it maintains a quasi-papal universalist authority over all ethnic Chinese everywhere, regardless of citizenship, can manifest in ways that provide the party a laughably minimal strategic benefit with maximal reputational damage. The 2015 disappearance (and likely abduction by the CCP) of Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, from Thailand, allegedly for selling books unfavorable to the Party is merely the most egregious example of this. To satisfy its desire for being maximally punitive on an individual, inconsequential critic, China has tanked its entire reputation with Sweden, and proceeded to blame Sweden for overreacting. This situation was not later helped by its ambassador’s 2018 tirade and unilateral demands of the Swedish government, after the removal of some Chinese tourists from a hotel. Extreme pique over minimal problem. And, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, a situation that has further led Beijing to believe it has the upper hand diplomatically, the Chinese foreign ministry’s insistence that the world was about to experience China’s “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” read not like a confident superpower, but instead like a petulant toddler demanding everything go his way, or else. Perhaps naming your diplomatic style after a hyper-jingoistic action blockbuster doesn’t communicate stability or a legitimate interest in cooperation?

Our collective social understanding of Chinese strategic successes over an admittedly long and impressive run dates from an era in which Beijing was the beneficiary of a confluence of massive, and durable, strategic externalities. But over the last decade, as the wider world is no longer as favorable to its rise, Chinese strategy has failed to duplicate its earlier successes, often making enemies where none existed, and frightening friends and outsiders. Its latest debacle in India is merely the latest instantiation of this trend. The risk to the rest of us is that China may eventually alienate so much of the rest of the world that its newfound isolation — right at the moment when Chinese nationalism dictates that it should be on top of the world — would breed a new and dangerous sense of rejection, unfairness, and thirst for revenge, which could easily have immensely tragic consequences. 

China’s “Strategic Genius,” mythic though it was, presented one kind of problem for the world. China’s Strategic Ineptitude presents wholly another.

Peter T. Charles is a graduate student in Chinese politics at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and a Research Associate at the Social Science Research Council in Brooklyn. The views expressed here represent his own. He tweets at @p_t_charles.