Six critical strategic abilities in China-US competition

China Military Online
Huang Panyue

Gerald Siegel from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies published an article titled "Does China Matter?" in the American magazine Foreign Affairs in 1999, in which he described China as a small potato in the global economy, a second-rate military power, and politically "insignificant".

Nearly two decades have passed, and China has become ever better despite the pessimism of many westerners. Nobody today can call China a "small potato" or a "second-rate country" economically, militarily or as regards international influence. Instead, it is the American and European countries that used to be looked up to as "lighthouses" that have seen growing problems.

In a global network where nations are more closely connected with each other, their competition is largely reflected in strategic capabilities. The country that is superior in that regard is more likely to make careful plans for the future and take proper steps at times of crisis and challenge.

Western countries today not only face the challenge of internal governance, but also seem incapable and even confused when dealing with international affairs, all because of their poor strategic capability.

A nation's ability to make independent decisions according to its own will and maintain strategic freedom is called strategic capability, which is a basic resource and prerequisite for making big strategies. Without it, any larger strategic thought or plan would be a castle in the air.

The author summarized six strategic capabilities needed by a large country: effective political and social organization, powerful and independent production capacity, the ability to keep up sustainable production, corresponding diplomatic and military capability, cultural innovation, and national continuity through population stability.

Most medium and small countries have defects in strategic capability, so they cannot formulate and implement big strategies. This is well proved by the choices made by Britain and France after the WWII.

During the Suez Crisis in 1956, Britain and France had to pull back from Egypt under American pressure, which meant the effective end of their position as world powers.

However, for a very long time after the WWII, Britain and France had the ambition of formulating a big strategy, including Gaullism and the European Union and Britain-centered Three Circle Diplomacy advocated by Churchill. But they were unable to bring back the past glory.

The main reason was that their national strength fell far short of their national ambition, and the consequence was that most European countries, and the British Empire, had to stay under America's wings in the second half of the 20th century. They couldn't develop any big strategy, and they barely made any efforts to do so.

An important reflection of national strategic capability is whether a country is able to make a strategic plan for the long term and effectively put it into practice and, in particular, whether it can break down the strategic objective into several small objectives for each different stage, and achieve the ultimate objective in the end by reaching the small ones step by step.

In the past few years, China has had the big strategy of paying close attention to national security and long-term development, a reflection of its growing strategic capability.

China has put forth the "two centenary goals" --a strategic objective -- while promoting "Five-year Plans" in an orderly manner. It has also launched a string of international public projects represented by the "Belt and Road" Initiative and is able to push their implementation effectively.

What China is saying and doing today shows a larger vision and a higher level than before, and its wish and ability to act on a global economic and political agenda often surprises the world.

As many Chinese and foreign observers have noted, the increase and even excellence of China's strategic capability is first and foremost reflected in the ability to maintain efficient political and social organization, fundamentally guaranteed by the leadership of the Communist Party of China.

People generally think that the United States attaches more importance to strategic design than other countries and has greater will and capability to implement big strategy, but Brzezinski, who used to be a key decision maker in the American government, has made different observations.

In his book Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, he said China is good at outlining the future with a long-term perspective and policy continuity is its strength, whereas the United States is too focused on current crises, lacks long-term vision, and is trapped in a near-sighted mental state.

In the 1980s when the former Soviet Union and the United States were in confrontation, Brzezinski said American political culture was still characterized by the lack of strategic or geopolitical awareness, and it often put long-term geostrategic issues behind near-term political ones.

Brzezinski's remarks seem like prophecy today. America has remained active in formulating and implementing big strategy in recent years, but both its thoughts and practices display a conservative tendency, and the fundamental reason for that is that its national strategic capability that supports big strategy is weakening.

In light of the six national strategic capabilities mentioned above, the author found that the United States is in many ways badly aspected today.

The most serious problem is that while its economic strategic capability is impaired, the current political institution is unable to resolve challenges quickly due to internal restrictions.

The United States therefore finds itself unable to make big strategic designs to maintain its global hegemony.


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