A Realistic Understanding of the PRC Threat Must Inform U.S. Policy

Hardly a day goes by that the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) English language press organs, like the People’s Daily, China Daily, Xinhua, and Global Times, call on America, and its elites, to “understand” China. The PRC propaganda machine churns out the narrative that only through more engagement can Americans truly understand that China only seeks “to build a great modern socialist country and advance national rejuvenation.” The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) assures the world that “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” is not hegemonic and will result in “win-win” solutions for a new global order.

However, the American people must comprehend the assumptions made by the current U.S. administration, and the rest of the federal government, concerning the objectives of the PRC and the nature of its government have put them at great risk in what at present is clearly a Cold War with the PRC. For decades, U.S. assumptions have been that Beijing accepted the present international system, and that by engaging with the PRC, they would become rich and so would moderate its politics, and, perhaps, even democratize. The assumptions of the engagement school of thought were horribly wrong and caused incalculable damage to U.S. security, the security of its allies, and to the foundations of international order. They must be replaced by a realistic understanding of CCP and its leader Xi Jinping. There are four components of this necessary realism.

The first is that China is the enemy of the United States. The political principles, interests, and vision of international politics possessed by Beijing and Washington are irreconcilable. The dispositive question of the 21st Century is which will win. Until the Trump administration, the U.S. was unwilling to grasp the nettle and confront China, or even to recognize the scope of the challenge. With the Biden administration, there is an active effort to restore the “Old Regime” of engagement. Rather than perceiving Chinese Communism and their Party as the enemy of the U.S., Biden’s proclivity, at best, has been to see it as an occasionally troublesome partner.  At worst, the Biden administration seeks cooperation with the PRC on transnational issues, like climate change, which administration officials naively believe Beijing will help with.

Second, the CCP is illegitimate, and a consequence is that it must pursue oppression of the Chinese people to remain in power. Part of this oppression includes social imperialism, sustaining hatred of other states and peoples in order to generate popular domestic support.  By so doing, the CCP ensures its position. Thus, the world should expect the PRC is inherently hostile and will resort to aggression against Taiwan or other U.S. national security interests to advance its strategic goals and keep its grip on the Chinese people.

Third, the U.S. must not underestimate the challenge it confronts. China possesses the greatest latent power of any of competitors faced by the United States in the last century. What has been latent is transitioning to the sharp end of power. Washington must anticipate strategic surprise—the CCP regime will not be reticent about attempting to force changes that adversely affect U.S. and allied interests, as well as international peace. Realistic assumptions about PRC must be institutionalized throughout the government and American society, as well as allied governments and societies. The overdue volte face on China must be grounded on strategic principles.


Fourth, the U.S. must make a grand strategic choice regarding its objectives. In sum, in the present competition with China, U.S. choices ultimately are: cooperation, containment, or China’s defeat. Cooperation with PRC was folly and has been since the 1990s. The Covid-19 virus was less a deus ex machina for the world’s relationship with China than the latest negative epiphenomenon of Chinese Communism. Containment possesses many advantages, but is too passive as it cedes strategic initiative to China. It may easily backslide into cooperation with China. Victory over China is the best choice for the U.S. and should be the U.S. goal, despite the high cost, which is getting higher by the day. At root, victory over the PRC is the preservation of the U.S.’s global position, which requires defeating the grand strategic objectives of CCP.

To achieve victory, United States senior national security decision-makers must be convinced that the United States can win—they can defeat the challenge posed by China. This is because the United States has many advantages over China, including its political principles, adaptive and innovative economy, rule of law and low levels of corruption, its universities and financial sector, military might, robust intelligence community, diplomatic acumen and worldwide network of alliances. The U.S. defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II, because of its great strengths which remain today.

To achieve victory, the United States must squarely face the threat from the CCP, including publicly acknowledging that it is a formidable threat in order to raise awareness of the danger, mobilize resistance to it, and plot the course to victory. Americans have accomplished this before, and they can once again.

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 Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy. He is the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.  

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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: Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with U.S. President Joe Biden via video link, in Beijing, capital of China, Nov. 16, 2021. (Photo by Yue Yuewei/Xinhua via Getty Images)