Sulmaan Wasif Khan
(Sulmaan Wasif Khan is the Denison chair of international history and diplomacy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He is the author of Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping.)
Sometime in 2020, China came unmoored from its grand strategy. Until then, Beijing’s diplomatic, military, and economic efforts were all directed toward national security. Learned observers could quibble about whether Beijing saw security as inseparable from hegemony; they could debate how productive China’s policies were. But the consistency of purpose underpinning China’s behavior was hard to miss.
Of late, however, China has lost that purposefulness—one of the hallmarks of grand strategy. The predominant feature of Chinese conduct today is not grand strategy but a belligerent, defensive nationalism that lashes out without heed of consequences.
Just why that breakdown has occurred is uncertain, but it is clear that the change has put both China and the world in jeopardy. China risks undoing all it has gained—at considerable cost—since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power. And the rest of the world, particularly the United States, finds itself confronted not with the hard task of managing a rising, reasonably predictable power but the infinitely harder job of managing a flailing one.
Grand strategy is the integration of different kinds of power to achieve an overarching objective. How a state defines its objective and how it weaves together diplomacy, military power, and economic policy to pursue it will vary, but certain features are usually clear.
First, grand strategies are long-term. The idea is to be safe not just now or tomorrow but a decade or so down the line.
Second, they are all-encompassing. Be it Iran or environmental change, the cost of potatoes or military modernization, grand strategies consider these items as they relate to an overarching objective, not in isolation.
Third, they have flexibility. The grand strategist is capable of shifting tacks: This particular path isn’t getting me where I want to go; therefore, I must try another way.
In China’s case, a grand strategy has defined the Communist Party’s conduct for most of its time in power. From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, China has sought to secure the state by weaving together diplomatic, economic, and military power.
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