China and the Rules-based orderRBO
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Counting on historical forces

John Culver
Former CIA Analyst &
Intelligence Officer

“Above all, China’s leaders seek legitimacy and acceptance of an authoritarian political system that provides security, stability, and development.”

China’s president Xi Jinping has framed the historic events surrounding this period of Chinese growth as a once-in-a-century change — an allusion to the First World War and its aftermath, which overturned the previous world order. The CCP probably does not seek to overturn the international order that brought China enormous benefits, enabled and sustained its unprecedented economic rise, and provided an architecture for Beijing’s global influence. 

But Beijing does seek to alter what it sees as the international order’s bias towards liberal democratic norms and values. Above all, China’s leaders seek legitimacy and acceptance of an authoritarian political system that provides security, stability, and development, particularly in parts of the world that have not benefited from the Western development model, and therefore may see China’s state-capitalist model as an attractive alternative. 

Still, the CCP’s mid-century goals appear to rely less on the success of the regime’s current policies and agency than on historical forces, a continued US decline, and a shift in global norms and values to align with Chinese preferences. The shift may ultimately occur not because of Chinese disinformation, co-option, and perfidy, but because pandemics, climate change, migrations, and resulting uncertainty will drive global priorities towards ideals more aligned with what the CCP is selling: stability, development, and bluntly, the need for government capacity to compel.  

The United States and its liberal democratic allies need to be prepared to meet China’s challenge over the values and norms of the international order in the near future. This will not be a repeat of the Cold War, but a competition that requires us to confront the current pandemic as well as the societal, economic, and security challenges posed by climate change and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Adversarial hostility need not be the only path forward. Beijing’s ‘hardening’ against domestic dissent and freedom of expression under Xi Jinping were partially the result of China’s unexpected relative success vis-a-vis the United States. So, for the CCP’s materialist, realist strategic thinkers, new demonstrations by Washington of performance, recuperative powers, and restored political legitimacy can still be key determinants of the trajectory of future US–China relations. If the United States performs — domestically and strategically — and returns to greater adherence to shared liberal, democratic values at home and abroad, the CCP will reassess, just as it has before.

It is reassuring to think that China under the CCP, if confronted by a - United States and allied - strategic, defence of the liberal order, could return to its ‘hide and bide’ era. However, for all the reasons that political scientist Minxin Pei recently enumerated about the trajectory of bipartisan US policy, it is unclear if Washington would accept this. 

Many aspects of China’s behaviour over the past decade have been abhorrent, and are worsening. Xi and the CCP seem trapped in their increasingly narcissistic nationalism. It underscores a core observation made by Minxin Pei, that this is not a confident regime. It would be nice if the CCP could break out of the ideological and perceptual traps, many of which are of its own making. But to do so would require introspection, which seems lacking, and a new capacity to operate outside its frames of reference. 

And even if the system were capable of replacing Xi to attempt a reset, would the United States see it as a sign of hope, or a vulnerability to exploit?


Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis: China reacts to change

This timeline describes China’s reaction to major changes in its strategic circumstances since the end of the Cold War. The CCP responds to changes in China’s “objective strategic conditions” but its “dialectical processing” of these events can take several years. Two to three years after major global events, the CCP has convened rare ideological meetings, called Central Foreign Affairs Work Conferences (CFAWC). These have often been followed by new National Military Strategic Guidelines for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The frequency of these meetings has increased as rivalry with the United States has grown. According to Dr Alice Miller, Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, the CFAWC convened in 1949, 1971, 1991, 2006, 2014, and 2018.

Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis: China reacts to change
= Year of a Central Foreign Affairs CFA Work Conference (CFAWC)
1991 (CFAWC)
US-led defeat of Iraq in Kuwait.

US military success in Kuwait compels a PLA rethink. At the 14th Party Congress in 1992, PLA modernisers (who opposed the intervention in Tiananmen Square) gain control of the army and begin driving its reforms.
Formal end of the USSR.

CCP prepares for survival in a "hostile, unipolar world". Deng Xiaoping restarts economic reforms and promulgates 'hide and bide' to guide foreign and security policy.
US/NATO accidental bombing of PRC Embassy in Belgrade.

Beijing views the US bombing as deliberate and confirmation of US hostile intentions.
Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's declaration that cross-strait dialogue must be conducted on a "state-to-state" basis.  

Chinese defence budgets begin to grow rapidly and the PLA accelerates modernisation in preparation for a Taiwan conflict.
Presidency of George W. Bush begins.

US EP-3 aircraft and Chinese fighter jet collide in mid-air off coast of Hainan Island.

United States announces unprecedented $18 billion arms sale to Taiwan.

Beijing views these events as confirmation of US "hegemonic" hostility to China's rise.
Al Qaeda attacks on United States.

Beijing views US reaction to 9/11 as both a demonstration of US "hegemonic attitude" and as Washington's "first US strategic blunder".
US invasion of Iraq.

Over time, China views the deepening US preoccupation with the Middle East as a key factor in preserving peace and stability in Asia and engendering a "responsible" US attitude towards Taiwan.
2006 (CFAWC)
Global Financial Crisis.
CCP views the GFC as Washington's "second strategic blunder" and China's recovery as evidence of its superior system.
Taiwan election of Kuomintang (KMT) candidate President Ma Ying-jeou, which leads to intensifying cross-strait economic, cultural, and political relations.

CCP views President Ma's election as reducing the US role in cross-strait affairs.
2014 (CFAWC)
Start of Trump Administration.

CCP assesses China's "comprehensive power" to be approaching that of the United States, due to both Chinese growth and US decline.
US National Security Strategy identifies China as a strategic competitor and "revisionist power".

CCP views the rise of populism in the United States (and other Western democracies) as Washington's "third strategic blunder" — and a direct consequence of its first two "strategic blunders".

CCP views the Trump administration as intensifying both US decline and rivalry with China.
2018 (CFAWC)

John Culver is a former Senior Intelligence Officer with 35 years’ experience as a leading CIA analyst of East Asian affairs, including security, economic, and foreign policy dimensions. As National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2015–2018, he drove the US Intelligence Community’s support to top policymakers on East Asian issues and managed extensive relationships inside and outside government.

All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position or views of the U.S. Government. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or endorsement of the author’s views.