Is China Making a Major Strategy Mistake?

xi jinping china defense propaganda maoist jonathan bartlett illustration article

I’ve been thinking a lot about China’s new strategy of rising to prominence, which is covered in a number of recent articles.

For the last several months I’ve been thinking about how China is just winning in all these areas.

  • They’re silently colonizing Africa
  • They’re about to take full control over Hong Kong
  • They’re getting even more aggressive in the South China Sea
  • They’re becoming even more hostile towards Taiwan
  • They continue to hack and conduct espionage against the US with impunity for the purpose of stealing intellectual property
  • They’re ramping up intimidation tactics against anyone who speaks out against them, even outside of China

At first I was thinking that this was guaranteed to work, and that we need to raise the alarm so we can counter it. But now I think China might be making a serious strategic error.

They’re being so blatant about these tactics that they’re likely to label themselves as hostile—in the minds of other countries—for decades to come.

So they might get extraordinary gains for the first 5-10 years, as they no doubt already have, but once the whole world figures out how predatory and self-centered they’re behaving they’ll make policy decisions that will exclude China for decades.

Most importantly, that includes finding other countries to produce their goods. Japan just did that, which seems largely prompted by COVID, but is likely also related to China’s action in the local theater over the last few years.

I don’t see China as inherently evil; I see them as reacting in a toxic way to past trauma.

It just seems to me like China would be far more effective if they played the long game here, i.e., being nicer to the rest of the world and at least pretending to be cooperative. I mean, even if they had full Mr. Burns level goals in mind (which I’m not convinced of), it’d still be most effective to play nice and spread the tentacles.

As it stands now, they’re going to expand those tentacles at maximum range and speed, and they’ll be cut off quickly once the world realizes they’re an overt enemy.

This is not the sort of strategic error I would expect them to make. Although, it could be that they already thought about this, and they’re 1) either in a major rush for some reason, or 2) they believe that the gains they will get in the beginning (before everyone turns against them) will be enough to keep them dominant even after the world turns against them.

That bet seems risky to me.

We’ll see.

Notes

  1. Image by Johnathan Bartlett.
  2. I received a very nice letter from a Chinese gentleman who agreed with my analysis, but who—like some of my other Chinese friends—was reticent to grant China’s innocence the way I was. He was worried that China is actually more broken even than I was describing. But it was a very nice email from a fellow human hoping for a better world.


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