Losing the Pax Americana 

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has risen and now stands as a serious enemy to the United States. Beijing undermines U.S. interests at home—including the health, wellbeing, and prosperity of the American people—and abroad, as its alliances and the world it created are under the greatest strain due to the PRC’s competing interests and ever-expanding ability to advance them. 

This remarkable change in the balance of power must be explained. The United States has gone from a “unipolar moment” with the end of the Soviet Union, when the PRC was vulnerable and weak, to a period of parity with the PRC. This occurred in about 30 years. The period of unrivaled U.S. dominance lasted for a generation. U.S. military power was formidable, certainly not omnipotent, but few states could resist its power. The fundamental responsibility of U.S. national security strategists was to sustain that position by preventing the rise of a peer competitor. While there were important exceptions like Pentagon’s Andrew Marshall, who warned indefatigably of the PRC’s rise, they failed. 

In this historically brief period, post-Cold War national security strategists lost what previous generations had mightily sacrificed and labored to create. The fruits of victory won in World War II and the Cold War by earlier generations of strategists were forever squandered. This compels an accounting, an examination of why they failed. Why did they waste the greatest gift possible in the realm of national security—a relatively benign security environment for the U.S., which included great power, peace, and stability? 

Their failure was multifaceted, but principally it was centered around an ideological belief that engagement with the PRC would profit U.S. business interests and reform the PRC into a capitalist and, in time, democratic state. The problem took root with the Clinton Administration’s securing of permanent “most favored nation” trade status with Beijing without regard to its human rights record or requiring the political reform of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The trickle of trade with China turned into a torrent. That flood would greatly undermine U.S. national security as defense analysts’ ability to identify the PRC as a threat was numbed and eventually deadened. The influence from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the Chamber of Commerce adversely affected the U.S. political system, including the two major political parties. 

As a result, the highest levels of U.S. political leadership developed other pro-PRC engagement priorities. While they might have recognized the PRC might be a problem someday, that day was never today. Major think tanks associated or aligned with the ideological goals of the respective parties shared those priorities. The benign, non-threatening view of the PRC was what Deng had sought and what he achieved in conjunction with the engagement school of thought. This school argued that by trading with the PRC, the CCP would reform of its own accord as it became wealthier. This failed belief system, concluded that a richer PRC would be more democratic, and that if you scratched a CCP general secretary, a capitalist would bleed. They could not have been more wrong. 

Deng and his successors were pleased to continue this deception and fuel its expansion. As the ties between the U.S. economy, investors, and the PRC tightened, tremendous wealth was created, some of which was directed by the CCP and some by U.S. entities to U.S. media, academe, foundations, think tanks, law firms, influential former officials, and other sources of authority and persuasion. This is what is today known as “elite capture” in the PRC’s strategy of political warfare. 

Very soon, there was tremendous money to be made by not resisting the PRC’s growth. Indeed, there was more gain in supporting it or staying silent, or focusing on other non-confrontational issues. Throughout federal, and even state, bureaucracy, the message was disseminated that any critical examination of the PRC’s intentions and expanding capabilities was not a priority and would not aid professional advancement. To the contrary, minimizing the true nature of the CCP and its ambitions became a habit so entrenched that it governed assumptions and parameters of threat assessment regarding the PRC. 

The cost of this strategic failure was profound. The major consequence was the United States did not stop the rise of its enemy. It did not even perceive the need to do so. 

As a direct result of this elite capture, the enemy is checking U.S. interests, threatening the U.S. homeland (such as through fentanyl deaths), and threatening U.S. allies and partners. Moreover, it is causing us to change the institutions, norms, and principles of international politics to ensure a bright future for tyranny in the 21st century. 

Further, the PRC now challenges the technological dominance of the United States even in the crown jewels of U.S. military technologies. According to a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the PRC leads the United States in 19 of 23 categories of military technology, including hypersonic missile technology. How this turn of events could happen needs to be examined, explained, and corrected. 

Reflecting on this failure, the PRC has possessed a motivation that the United States lacked. The PRC understood what it had to accomplish by measuring what its ambitions required against an enemy, the United States, which legitimized the urgency and focused its energies. For example, in hypersonics, when the PRC tested, and failed, they quickly tested again until the fault was fixed. Yet, when the United States tested, failed, and then spent considerable time before testing again, another failure started the cycle again. China moved rapidly to identify and fix its failures, and the United States did not. The same can be said for the development of supersonic, anti-ship cruise missiles that now threaten the very existence of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. 

As such, China was determined to be the world’s largest shipbuilder, and so possessed the benefits of scale and the ability to replace ships if they are sunk in conflict, while improving the quality of its navy’s vessels. The Chinese navy today may be to the point now where it can advance the interests of the PRC even in the face of resistance from the U.S. Navy. 

Unfortunately, and unacceptably, U.S. security strategists were not similarly focused. They ignored the rise of the most significant threat in U.S. history. The failure of the post-Cold War presidents until Trump is damning. Now with the Biden Administration, we witness a longing to return to the days of engagement. The American people deserve an answer to how this threat arose and now, how it will be defeated. 

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About James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer

James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is a Founding Member of the Committee on Present Danger China and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.

Photo: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images