Why China Matters
The New Right should care deeply about preventing Chinese hegemony over Asia. The reason, though, is not necessarily obvious. After all, most conservatives are justly tired of the “forever war” interventionism of the old-guard GOP and rightly skeptical of the foreign policy “establishment” that still promotes the same approach. But the threat China poses is truly different, and much graver than that posed by “rogue states,” terrorism, or Russia. Beijing presents a real, concrete peril to Americans and especially to the realization of the goals that the New Right seeks.
Beijing’s vision is to make China—and by evident extension not the United States—the dominant global economy, with all the myriad advantages that are the perquisites of such wealth and power. This is the natural impulse of a great power—in China’s case, a superpower. Why wouldn’t China pursue the goal of becoming the world’s richest and most powerful nation, one that can dictate the contours of the global economy and ensure its people are the wealthiest, most secure, and most influential?
To achieve this goal, though, China needs economic scale, which, as reformists like Michael Lind and Robert Atkinson have observed, is vital for economic success. In practical terms, Beijing needs an immense and secure market sphere in which to reliably sell its products, collect and analyze data, obtain natural resources, and invest. To outcompete and supplant the United States, this sphere must be large enough to outclass our own geoeconomic sphere and must be sufficiently under Beijing’s control to reorient economic flows to its benefit. The natural center of such a Chinese sphere would be Asia, given China’s geographic position and the fact that Asia will represent half or more of global GDP in the future. With the Asian economy under its aegis, China would also be in a commanding position to bring the rest of the global economy under its influence. Countries well beyond Asia would surely fall into step with Beijing’s tune under these conditions. Who could afford to be locked out of the world’s largest market?
If Beijing achieved such regional hegemony, the results would be disastrous for Americans—in ways the New Right should understand far better than the neoliberal consensus it seeks to supplant. China supplanting the United States as the world’s most important economy would mean by definition a decline in Americans’ prosperity and economic security. That’s what supplanting means. Economics is not always or even normally positive sum: Relative gains do matter to lived economic and social conditions, unlike in the cloud castles of neoliberal economists. If China were the top global economy, Americans would fall down the scale.
A dominant China would also leave U.S. policymakers less able to advance Americans’ interests. Instead of having to convince Washington and state capitals, reformers would now need to persuade Beijing—as the new center of global regulation, currency, and economic leverage—to help them. Good luck on that front. Just imagine trying to implement a CHIPS Act with Samsung and TSMC firmly within the Chinese sphere of influence, forcing the Netherlands’s ASML to attend first to Chinese interests as well. How much academic research and intellectual property could be retained in the United States if all the most important conferences and funding sources lay on the Pacific’s other side? In these conditions, Beijing would privilege its own citizenry while granting special secondary status to those foreigners who toed its line. Reorienting finance, technology, and media back toward the interests of regular Americans is hard enough in today’s economy; in a China-dominated one it would be impossible.
Worse, Beijing would have strong reason to act to weaken the one plausible threat to its hegemony: America. The United States is not just another country to Beijing—a Cambodia or Canada or Chile that can be slotted into a tributary relationship. America is the one country that can lead the resistance to Beijing’s hegemonic aims. Accordingly, expect Beijing to treat America especially harshly, weakening it to secure China’s ascendancy.
America cannot, then, afford to consign over half of the global economy to China, an ambitious superpower rival of unprecedented strength. The question, then, is how to prevent that outcome at a tolerable level of cost and risk for Americans.
Fortunately, this is, in fact, feasible. Many countries, especially in Asia, do not want to live under Beijing’s hegemony. The United States must work together with these states in an anti-hegemonic coalition to deny Beijing domination of Asia (which in key respects is already happening).
While the consequences for Americans of Chinese hegemony over Asia would be primarily economic and political, the crux of the matter is the military balance in Asia. The stakes of our rivalry with China are geoeconomic in nature—whether China dominates the world’s largest market sphere to our detriment—but the means by which Beijing could attain that goal or be denied it are military in nature. Most countries want to trade with China and benefit from its wealth, but they do not want to live under its thumb. Beijing is finding it very difficult—as we have also found—to use economic leverage and other peaceful means to compel or induce countries surrender core goods like political autonomy, which is what is at issue. In fact, Beijing’s efforts to do so have produced the reverse: increasing moves by countries around the world to balance against China’s overweening demands.
The problem is that Beijing has another option: military force. China is undertaking an unprecedented, historic military buildup. If China could gain military dominance in Asia, it could impose its will on enough countries in the region to break apart the anti-hegemonic coalition and compel its Asian members to submit to its ascendancy, creating the geoeconomic sphere it seeks. To deny China that result, America needs the ability to prevent Beijing from generating enough coercive leverage to force its neighbors to heel. The technical term is a “denial defense”: the ability to prevent China from taking and holding the key territory of an allied country. If Beijing cannot do that, it is unlikely to bring resolute countries to heel.
This is a feasible, if demanding, goal. Successfully achieving it would give the United States the leeway, strength, and time to chart a course of selective decoupling on its own terms, presumably in concert with at least some other countries, allowing America to rebuild its own industrial capacity and economic autonomy. Achieving such a balance of power would not require full-scale decoupling or a massive economic warfare campaign that would shock the American economy and could be especially harmful to working Americans. Fuller decoupling might still be a goal on its own merits, but it would not be strategically necessary.
The New Right has helped to reintroduce a vital insight to American politics and policymaking: contrary to the predictions of the Tom Friedmans of the world, he who controls political power and for what purposes matters a great deal for economics. Conservatives understand this instinctively in the domestic sphere, it is a foundational element of their critique of the neoliberal project. But the same logic applies even more fully to international politics, where no sovereign authority exists to redress grievances. This vital insight therefore illuminates how bad it would be for Americans if China had such dominant position over the global economy. It is therefore vital to take the steps needed to prevent it, and to do so at a reasonable level of cost and risk for Americans.