The Final Struggle

The Real Meaning of Great Power Competition

Both sides of the aisle in Washington agree that the United States is in a momentous era of great power competition against China. This consensus has overshadowed recent developments, including Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and Beijing’s subsequent military exercises, the signing of the Chips and Science Act, and the realization that Chinese technology is ubiquitous in American infrastructure. 

Recognizing the urgency of a situation does not automatically translate to action, though, especially when the consequences of inertia are beyond most people’s imagination. Do Americans understand what awaits them if they succumb to Beijing in this geopolitical contest? Loudly and jarringly, Ian Easton sounds the alarm about China’s global ambitions in The Final Struggle. To understand the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) objectives, it is necessary to grasp the Western system they seek to replace.

After 30 years of warfare initiated by religious disputes, European statesmen hammered out the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to create an international order based on procedural, systematic relations between sovereign states. France’s Cardinal Richelieu introduced the idea of the raison d’état, positing that states would maintain a balance of power if they coalesced based on calculations of national interest. For centuries, Westphalia was the cornerstone of stability in the Old World. 

At the turn of the 20th century, however, European leaders substituted this strategic thinking with a hubristic confidence in the long-term sustainability of unbridled military expansion. Three years after World War I erupted, the United States placed boots on the continent for the first time in its history, paving the way for the implementation of President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic worldview. His belief that humankind is inherently good and that democratic states can unite to promote a peaceful global system has guided the West since the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Believing that the balance of power was responsible for engendering countless deaths in Europe, Wilson stressed justice and morality as he advocated for the League of Nations and proposed that war reparations be exacted from Germany. In doing so, he modified Westphalian ideas regarding state sovereignty, arbitration, and security to fit the modern world, creating what is often called the rules-based international order.

The problem is that this order is not international. Easton cites a 2018 manual published by Beijing’s National Defense University Press titled Strategic Support for Achieving the Great Chinese Resurgence to underscore this point. “The Westphalian System… has proven unable to achieve a stable world order,” the authors write. “All mankind needs a new order that surpasses and supplants the balance of power.” Where does this disillusionment stem from?

Chinese history is composed of a string of dynasties that drew their authority from Heaven. The degeneration of one empire historically led to the selection of another based on the same qualifications, creating a cyclical approach to governance in contrast to Western unidirectional progression. China preferred to remain an insular state and focus on domestic affairs, developing technologies like woodblock printing, gunpowder, and paper far before the West. 

The first republic was established in 1912 after the dissolution of the Qing Dynasty, but historical experience barred its integration into the West. After suffering from the high costs of private enterprise during Zheng He’s exotic voyages, the 1434 Edict of Haijin turned China inward. It was forcibly pulled out of its isolation through the Opium Wars of the 1860s during which European empires sought to exploit untapped Chinese markets with their goods.

However, realizing that its enormous population could be leveraged in a process of industrialization to make up for centuries of lost time, the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, initiated sweeping reforms known as the Great Leap Forward. Easton recounts the misery, suspicion, and distrust that marked the Communist Party’s tenuous rule and Xi Jinping’s upbringing in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). “Like the Soviet Union, the PRC would dedicate itself to upending the established order,” Easton writes. 

The Final Struggle is replete with anecdotes that depict this subversion in concrete terms. The book opens with the tragic death of a U.S. Navy seaman as an example of the patriotism that Wreaths Across America, a non-profit organization, honors through ceremonies that span multiple states. Despite the noble sentiment behind such a project, the technology company responsible for coordinating the group’s stops had direct ties to the CCP. This enabled the Chinese government to scrupulously monitor the movements of public servants and staff members in an extension of their domestic surveillance program.

Easton brings these stories to the forefront of his book alongside previously unpublished translations of strategic manuals and textbooks that inform the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the PRC’s main military force. Chinese animosity toward the U.S.-led liberal world order is not sufficiently captured by the broad concept of great power competition. The degree to which the PRC has already penetrated Americans’ security and what they intend to accomplish with their newly acquired data is infrequently discussed both in Washington and in communities across the country.

Easton opens his work with a basic but fundamental point that informs the entire book: no Chinese company is independent from the state. The division between private industry and government is non-existent in China, for it would be against the law. This alone should be enough to produce skepticism in the minds of American business executives eager to trade with China. They delude themselves if they fail to see that they are undercutting the United States’ influence in the world by negotiating with a Chinese firm. Allegiance to the CCP is a prerequisite for a private company to operate from China.

This simple fact evidently raises the urgency of CNN’s recent report regarding Huawei Technologies. American cell towers adjacent to military bases and nuclear weapons facilities have been equipped with Huawei materials for the past five years— a chilling discovery considering that China is engaging in an unprecedented nuclear buildup. 

There is little that ordinary Americans can do about this high-level espionage, yet they have an equally crucial role to play. Easton compiles an exhaustive list of the items and companies with direct ties to Beijing that citizens depend on. Employing a direct and provocative tone, Easton reminds Americans that a global struggle is not fought within capital buildings and offices. Anybody can undertake tangible actions to resist the implementation of China’s global strategy.

GE Appliances, Motorola Mobility, and Lenovo are a few of the well-known names that Easton identifies before enumerating the objects that Americans unthinkingly consume from these companies. It is remarkably easy to buy their products even if they have been blacklisted by the U.S. government. Intricate commercial ties with China dissuade American conglomerates from heeding federal warnings, which are often not enforced. The three companies named above, for example, “[a]ll have strong positions on America’s commercial IoT market,” Easton notes.

How is it that Beijing boasts of such a tentacular financial empire without corresponding political liberalization? The unchallenged narrative systematically repeated by foreign observers is that Deng Xiaoping, who led the PRC for over 20 years until his death in 1997, sought to integrate China into the West’s international order before Xi Jinping switched course. Easton shows that this is wrong. 

After visiting the United States in 1979, Deng announced a “Four Cardinal Principles” doctrine almost as a rebuff to the values he saw in the West. Among the principles was a commitment to uphold Marxism and extend Mao Zedong’s legacy. Deng does not represent a sudden break between Mao and Xi. Easton curates quotes from the CCP leader’s speeches to argue that his “reported intention was to infiltrate the West so that China could benefit from it, weaken it, and eventually replace it.” 

Consequently, the translations of PLA manuals that scatter The Final Struggle are nothing more than the continuation of a decades-long process of gradual reversal, though they remain arresting nonetheless. In some cases, Washington was simply ignorant of China’s strategic vision. Often, though, American politicians confidently predicted that Beijing would reject its communist tendency after reaping the fruits of participating in the rules-based international order. It is only now that Washington is slowly coming to terms with its mischaracterization of the CCP, but this awakening needs to occur more abruptly.

The costs of U.S. inaction are unacceptable. Easton brings up the Covid-19 pandemic as an emblematic example of a crisis that could have been mitigated if the United States had started weaning its medical supply chains from China sooner. Medical equipment, including masks and testing kits, were manufactured almost exclusively in China at the onset of the pandemic, impeding Americans from following health experts’ advice. Nobody knows how many more deaths the United States suffered as a result of its dependence on China, but the tortuous mobilization of resources that marked the beginning of the pandemic certainly did not help.

Beyond education campaigns, returning supply chains to its own territory, and cutting ties with Chinese companies that outsource information directly to the CCP, what can the United States do to prevail in this competition? One answer is to have a more active role in the world. Every country left unattended by Washington has the possibility of being absorbed by China’s influence. 

The Biden administration has done a laudable job planning visits to Africa and organizing events like the Summit of the Americas to ensure that regions of the world vulnerable to Chinese and Russian foreign direct investments fall back under the American umbrella. However, with only one African country left recognizing Taiwan, a slew of Latin American elections that could upend the continent’s relationship with Washington, and Mexico’s rejection of the Americas summit, it is clear that the United States is not the automatic ally of choice in many key parts of the world.

For the past few years, Indo-Pacific forums, tours, and meetings have strengthened the United States’ relationship with democratic Asian allies. These should be mirrored in regions that gravitate toward Russia and China’s grasp. “While America is spurning globalization, and, in some areas, even pulling out of integration… [t]he Chinese Communist Party takes it as its ultimate mission to make new and even greater contributions to mankind,” says another book published in 2018 by Beijing’s National Defense University Press titled Great Power Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics.

Easton discusses Xi Jinping’s presence at the World Economic Forum, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations, honing in on specific speeches and actions undertaken by the Chinese leader, to demonstrate how Beijing is putting its global plan into effect through widely trusted global institutions. In the same way that Deng Xiaoping accepted economic liberalization as a means to spread Marxist principles to other countries, Xi uses transparent, multilateral institutions as a means of expanding China’s power until the regime can exert total control over international decisions.

To prevent this, the United States will need to strengthen diplomatic relations abroad while looking inward. Immense land purchases from Chinese investors linked to the CCP should be annulled. Technologies fabricated in China and strategically positioned next to the pillars of American national security should be dismantled. And Beijing’s attempts to export its surveillance program to the United States by selling webcams, televisions, and cameras to American customers ought to be halted immediately. 

Washington should not swing to belligerence, though. A war benefits neither side. What is needed is consistency. Both the Trump and Biden administrations denounced China for the inhumane treatment of its Uyghur population but have allowed Chinese businesses to continue influencing American industries in spite of government blacklists. This funds an authoritarian regime set on reshaping the international order in its favor. 

As Easton makes extremely clear, the fate of state sovereignty, individual liberties, and constitutional freedom are on the line. Americans cannot continue to see China as an abstract, distant threat. There is still time to act before it is too late.

Axel de Vernou is an undergraduate student at Yale University studying Global Affairs and a guest author at Yorktown Institute.

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