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The world order would be worse off under Beijing than under Washington.


China is the single most formidable peer competitive threat faced by the United States. It alone has the potential to replace the United States as the world’s hegemon, an ambition the Soviets may have possessed but never could have achieved due to their weaknesses, particularly economically. We can foresee a future where China has the ability to force Washington to yield and cede its regional and global interests in favor of Beijing’s. China’s greater willingness to use coercion to advance its interests provides a window into that future, as its territorial expansion and militarization of the South China Sea illuminate. Whether the United States can remain the preeminent force for free and open societies in the face of a rising China is the defining element of international politics in the twenty-first century, and the most immediate U.S. national security policy interest.


From both the Chinese and American perspectives, two fundamental factors explain the source of the conflict. First, the Sino-American struggle is material—economic and military power matter, particularly the shifting balance of relative power from the United States to China. This shift feeds ambition in China and fear in Washington. Given its strongly nationalistic and ethnocentric beliefs, China as a rising hegemon would challenge any dominant state—as it did the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It is of historical importance that this is the first time in its long history that China is a rising hegemon. In its past, it was the dominant state in Asia—the primary world it knew. Even after its defeat in the First Opium War, China maintained the pretension that it was still dominant until colonization by Europeans, Japanese, and Americans forced the abandonment of its pretensions. Now, for the first time in its history, China is the challenger to the dominant state. This is something new in the history of empires because the example of China shows you can be on top, lose it all, and return to greatness or even dominance. In historical context, this is a remarkably impressive feat—unmatched by any empire in history.


Second, the cause of the struggle is also inherently ideological. Ideology illuminates what will be gained for the victor—the return of the Middle Kingdom or the triumph of freedom—and what will be lost for the defeated. It inspires the leadership and population of both sides. It also provides an understanding of the intensity of passion on the Chinese side—the hatred for America for hindering China’s return to its rightful position and for Washington’s arrogance. Beijing and Chinese citizens are also upset with Americans for not realizing its time is past, and so it must yield gracefully to the new hegemon. Yet so far, a concomitant level of strategic focus and passion is absent on the U.S. side. That needs to change.


“Why China Fights:” The Return of the Middle Kingdom


Beijing will fight the United States because it is the single major impediment to China’s strategic objectives. With America removed, there is no single power, or constellation of powers such as Australia, Japan, and India, that could prevent Beijing from achieving its aims, which Xi Jinping transparently and boldly advances in his conception of a hegemonic China by 2049. The United States is the barrier to the realization of China’s ambitions and is its ideological opponent, and so it is the focus of China’s enmity.


“Why the U.S. Fights:” Preservation of Freedom


U.S. leadership seeks to maintain its position because that is best, first, for U.S. security; second, the security of its allies; and third, for the promotion of its ideology. America’s ideological push is vital to ensure that freedom and democratic government, open societies, and free markets are the dominant values of international politics. In sum, Washington fights for the international order it created after World War II, and which it expanded after the Cold War.


America seeks to maintain the status quo, its position and the order it has known, and that both Washington and the American people expect to continue. That expectation was conceived and conditioned in the calm geopolitical seas of the 1990s and 2000s. That time is past. As China has risen, Washington must now battle to maintain its place in the world and the dominance of its military, economy, ideology, and technological leadership. Indeed, America is forced to fight to defend its position, allies, and values. But this cannot be wholly a defensive war, the United States must actively confront China in each realm, and put China on the back foot in order to ensure the United States and its allies triumph in each aspect of the competition.


While the military and economic components are essential, ideology is their equal. Ideology is critical for Washington as it motivates the U.S. response to China with a comprehension, energy, and vigor that material forces cannot. As the U.S. Navy historically contends: “ships don’t fight, men do.” People fight to defend their country and ideology. Accordingly, the value of the ideology of the United States is the spine that supports U.S. power. U.S. ideology unifies and inspires the American people, as well as ideological sympathizers around the world, and explains why China’s ideology and vision for the world should be resisted.


Moreover, as U.S. power declines relative to China’s, Washington is likely to depend more on ideology than economic and military power. Consequently, the United States will have to depend more on its allies and other cooperative states, in Europe, Asia, and Africa. This situation plays to the United States’ ideological strength and is a great advantage for Washington. China seeks resources globally, offering infrastructure development and foreign direct investment to the many states willing to partner, if not yet align, with it. Thus far, the United States has chosen not to match China’s ability in these categories, but it does—hands down—far exceed China’s ability to inspire the people of the world.


Furthermore, while the interests of its allies are varied, U.S. ideology serves as the cement for alignment against China, particularly for states in Africa, Asia. This is true even in Europe, where economic interest might cause an alliance with China or neutrality in the face of an intensifying Sino-American conflict. The United States cannot fight this struggle alone and the good news is that it need not. The ideology of the United States allows it to maintain relations with Asia-Pacific and European states based on common interests and political principles. But the struggle does require U.S. leadership.


China’s conception of victory is deeply disturbing, disagreeable, and dangerous for stability: the Middle Kingdom returned to dominance, with all other states in a subordinate position. “Why China Fights” is for Han-supremacy. “Why the U.S. Fights” is to preserve a future free and open, and to prevent the hegemony of a great power governed by a nation-based supremacist ideology. The Sino-American conflict will determine whether the security and position of Washington are maintained, and freedom and open societies remain the dominant ideal in international politics. Or whether America will lose, and freedom is supplanted by authoritarianism and Han-supremacism.