‘The World Is Too Important to Be Left to America’

A Chinese bestseller charting a path for global dominance appears in English for the first time.

Jason Lee / Reuters

“It has been China’s dream for a century to become the world’s leading nation,” wrote Liu Mingfu, then a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, in his 2010 book The China Dream. After taking over as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, Xi Jinping echoed the book’s language and one of its key themes—“the dream of a strong military”—repeatedly in speeches. This dream, he said, would be realized by 2049, a century after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

The English translation of The China Dream was published in the United States in May, the same month that the Chinese government published a defense-policy white paper laying out an expanded role for the navy in the context of U.S.-China tensions over China’s construction of islands in disputed waters in the South China Sea. The U.S. government estimates that Beijing has created 2,000 acres of artificial land in the Spratly Islands, parts of which are also claimed by other nearby countries. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned over the weekend that China’s activity heightened the risk of conflict in the region; a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman responded that the construction was “legal, reasonable … and neither impacts nor targets any country.”

The United States has its China hawks, and Liu is essentially an America hawk within China. After the initial publication of Liu’s book, Phillip C. Saunders of the U.S. National Defense University called it a “sensationalist” tract “aimed at tapping into a profitable mass market ... rather than [promoting] political orthodoxy,” and the book appears to have put its publisher briefly at odds with the government. The Wall Street Journal reported that The China Dream “flew off the shelves but was pulled over concerns it could damage relations with the U.S.” In the Xi era, however, the Journal’s Jeremy Page spotted it in the “recommended books” section of a state-run bookstore. (Liu told Page he didn’t know whether Xi himself had read it, but said Xi’s “China Dream” speeches had sent “a strong message.”)

Liu is representative of a new class of pundits in China that former Financial Times Beijing bureau chief Geoff Dyer has compared to America’s “TV generals,” retired officers who opine on military matters in the media. “In the last few years,” Dyer wrote in his book The Contest of the Century, “something similar has happened in China. A small number of media-friendly members of the armed forces have begun to talk openly about military matters, including their mistrust of and distaste for the U.S. military and its policies in Asia. ... In some ways, Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu is the latest addition to their numbers.”

The colonel has now retired from the military, and the path to global dominance he laid out five years ago was a bit more flexible than Xi’s; Liu reckoned it might take China another five decades to replace the United States as world leader. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has called the book an example of a “triumphalist” strain in Chinese thinking, which argues that “no matter how much China commits itself to a ‘peaceful rise,’ conflict is inherent in U.S.-China relations.” Kissinger noted that the hawks’ vision of inevitable U.S.-China conflict hasn’t been endorsed by either the Chinese or the American governments, but that “if the assumptions of these views were applied by either side—and it would only take one side to make it unavoidable—China and the U.S. could easily fall into an escalating tension.”

What follows is a condensed excerpt of one Chinese hawk’s view of what the “China Age” will look like, and his roadmap for how China will get there. It outlines a vision of Chinese superiority informed by the experience of America’s own rise to superpower status and conduct as the world’s preeminent power. His descriptions are general, and his prescriptions vague, but he asserts that the Chinese century will be a democratic one. If this strikes Americans as incongruous given China’s domestic system, Liu’s contention is that America itself is only “half democratic”—electing its leaders at home but “autocratic in the world.” He continues: “Americans overrate themselves and evaluate themselves untruthfully by saying that they are a democratic country.” And it is China that in Liu’s view can provide the “checks and balances” against America necessary to “form a democratic world.”

—Kathy Gilsinan

The appearance of every champion nation begins a new era. The China Age, at its most basic, will be an age of prosperity. In [early Chinese revolutionary] Sun Yat-sen’s evaluation of the West’s conception of Yellow Peril, he said that in the future, China’s era would not be one of Yellow Peril, but of Yellow Favor. The China Age will not be one in which China threatens the world, it will be one in which China enriches the world.

China Must Learn From America

America’s GDP surpassed Great Britain’s in 1895 to become the world’s largest. [Editor’s note: OECD estimates show U.S. per-capita GDP overtaking that of the United Kingdom sometime in the 1890s.] But it was only after 1945, half a century after America’s GDP outpaced Great Britain’s, that the United States replaced Great Britain as world leader. China’s GDP is still smaller than America’s; it may take China 50 years to overtake America’s GDP and replace it as world leader. There is still no need for America to be nervous. China should not be in a rush to be a leader; it should allow America to keep the position until a time that is best for all sides.

Before China can take over as world leader in the 21st century, it will need half a century to work through three stages. The first will be catching up to America and actively taking a leading role where it can in the world; the second will be racing neck-and-neck with America, and leading the world as an equal partner with America; and the third stage will be guiding the world through exercising leadership and management in the world, and thereby becoming the world’s leading nation. China is already actively participating in leadership where it can, and moving toward becoming America’s equal. This stage will last for another 20 to 30 years.

In 1987, American history professor Paul Kennedy of Yale University researched the favorable and adverse conditions surrounding China’s rise. He pointed out that China was the poorest of the countries wishing to be a great power and occupied the worst strategic position. These, he said, were two adverse conditions that would limit China’s rise, but he also pointed out two favorable conditions: one was that China’s leaders had “an ambitious, coherent, and visionary strategy, one that could beat Moscow, Washington, and Tokyo, not to mention Western Europe”; the other was that “China would continue to develop economically, and could be a vastly different country within several decades.”

His analysis of China’s strategy was very accurate. China’s rise was, before all else, the rise of its strategy.

The Three Phases of Chinese Strategy

The grand strategy of 21st-century China has to answer three questions: What kind of a China should we build? What kind of an Asia should we build? And what kind of a world should we build?

What Kind of China Should Be Built?

Mao Zedong led the construction of a socialist China; Deng Xiaoping led the construction of a China built on socialism with Chinese characteristics. Both were strategic designs and systems for a different kind of China.

China’s rise and revival cannot be limited to a strictly economic rise, and China’s role as a great power cannot be limited to a major economic role. Those who think China’s rise is not an ideological and military rise, or who think China’s rise is just an economic rise, and that China is only rising to become an economic power or a GDP power, are making a strategic mistake. A rich nation without a strong military is an insecure power. A nation without technological innovation is a country that can’t produce a scientific rise, and in an era where the knowledge economy is the most productive force, it is a country that can’t be strong economically. If China limits its rise to purely economic goals, it will produce a hobbled global power, a kind of global power that doesn’t last. To create a nation like that would be equivalent to cutting short China’s rise and the revival of the Chinese people.

What Kind of Asia Should Be Built?

To lead the world, China first needs to lead Asia. More than half the world’s population lives in Asia, six of the world’s 10 largest countries [by population] are in Asia, and 30 percent of global exports originate in Asia. Kissinger believes that the global system is undergoing a fundamental change; the center of the world is moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific. One could say that Asia is the region with the most vitality and potential in the 21st century. The kind of Asia we build will be critical in deciding what kind of world we build. After the Second World War, Europeans’ strategic plans and designs for the continent were a success. The success of the European Union today is strong proof of that.

The era of the Warring States in Europe has come to a close. The conflict of the past has become an alliance, one that shows great strength and potential on the world stage. But Asia’s Warring States era has just begun, and today China, Japan, and India are acting out the Wars of the Three Kingdoms over the entire continent. In Asia, it’s not just one or two countries that want to control the continent’s destiny. India’s politicians declared long ago that the 21st century will belong to India. In answer to the question of what kind of Europe to build and how to build it, Europeans have already produced a grand European strategy, and putting that strategy into practice, they have produced remarkable achievements. Asia needs to look to the European Union for experience, but there is no possibility of copying the European model. The building of Asia will take Asian wisdom and innovation. And in the creation of Asian goals, an Asian model, Asian methods, and Asian strategies, China will serve a unique role.

What Kind of World Should Be Built?

What kind of a China does the world need, and what kind of a world does China need? These questions are closely linked. At its highest levels, China’s grand strategy is its overall, long-term design for the world. If China is to guide and lead the world, it needs to have a plan and a design for it.

The conclusion of the Cold War was a fantastic opportunity to create a better world order, but instead the United States embarked down the path of unilateralism and hegemony. Joseph Nye, [an] American political scientist and Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government professor, has argued that the principle of a world power is that it cannot just seek its own interests; it needs to seek methods that benefit its own interests as well as the interests of others. The ideal world power should have a wide view of its national interests. The ideal world power looks at the international system in a broader context, and rather than only serving its national interests, also serves other national interests. In this, China is more suited to lead the world and rebuild the world order than America.

French politician Georges Clemençeau said, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” Charles de Gaulle said, “Politics is too important to be left to the politicians.” A Chinese expert said, “The world is too important to be left to America. China needs to ‘design the world.’ China must lead the world toward a better future.” As a designer, China needs to produce a better blueprint for the world than America’s. As a world leader, China needs to produce a better policy agenda than America’s. China has said it wants to build a harmonious world, and this is what China’s design for the world offers.

The Secret to a Slow Rise: Hiding Power and Biding Time

One of the skills demonstrated in America’s rise is a special American ability to bide its time. Even with the capacity to lead the world, America does not rush to take the lead. [The period from] 1913–1945 was a turning point in world history, and in the history of America’s global role. Europe, once the center of international relations whose influence swayed even America, lost its global hegemony after World War I. All signs after 1917 pointed to the rise of America as the world’s new leader, and even when it didn’t use its full military strength (during the 1920s), it provided economic and cultural resources that defined and maintained the world order. The period in the 1930s when the United States shirked its power as leader at every level, withdrew from the international order, and retreated into nationalism and unilateralism was truly an exception, but even then, in the words of Joseph Nye, it was obvious that the United States was “doomed to leadership.”

On the eve of victory in World War II, [U.S. President Franklin] Roosevelt and his colleagues expected the United States to rise from the war and enter the world as the most powerful nation. And unlike after the First World War, they were determined to lead the world after this war. This time, they would create a world order that promoted American interests, and they would use it not only to increase American wealth and power, but also to spread American values to every corner of the world.

A Powerful China in the 21st Century

Only by becoming a military power can China effectively maintain its security as a market power and have the dignity of a civilized country, and have the power and conditions to play a constructive role in the international community and become a responsible big country. [Former Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping pointed out that China is now a strength that maintains world peace and stability, not a destructive force; the more powerful China becomes, the more reliable world peace will be. The powerfulness of China is not only in the need for China’s security and development, but also the need for world peace.

After the founding of the United States, a debate was conducted on whether a strong army should be established or not. Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist leader, said: “If we want to become a commercial nation, or to maintain safety in the Atlantic, we must make effort to set up a Navy as soon as possible.” This debate reached an agreement after the second war between the United Kingdom and the United States. In the early days of the founding, the consistent understanding of U.S. military strategy and national-security strategy was to rapidly develop the economic and military strength of the U.S., and to build a powerful navy and army to protect the security and commercial interests of the United States. Meanwhile, [the country] pursued a policy of isolationism in international affairs and kept a low profile. The United States still built a strong military force even though it pursued the policy of isolationism, and the United States still built a strong navy even though it wanted to be a commercial nation.

Russia now claims that it has developed a unique strategic missile system with the capacity of orbital transfer that could break through any missile-defense system. Russia also planned to build five strategic nuclear submarines in 2015. It is said that Putin said that Russia “would build a new generation of nuclear submarines even if the Kremlin has to be sold.” In the 21st century, the construction of “a powerful China” is not only to build China into a “market power,” but also to make China a “military power.” If a country is only strong and large in the market, but weak and small on the battlefield, it will be the prey of strong powers.

Latin author Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus famously said: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” This sentence has been regarded as wisdom by Western realists in international relations for the entire modern era. This echoes the ancient Chinese book The Methods of the Sima, which says that although the world is safe now, forgetting war will be dangerous. By applying these sage words, contemporary Chinese believe that to realize a peaceful rise, the military must rise. To realize peace, prepare for war.

Peace has different historical forms. The international community in the 19th century had peace under the rule of the British Empire. Peace in the latter half of the 20th century saw the emergence of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, a cold peace under the threat of nuclear war. World peace after the Cold War has been a peace under American hegemony. The world in the 21st century needs peace with multipolar balance, and China in the 21st century needs a peace that can protect its development and rise. Such peace cannot be obtained relying on the friendliness of other powers, nor reliance on showing weakness and keeping a low profile. Such peace can only be gained through courage and strength.

A Chinese army ensures there will be no U.S. aggression. A Chinese army will not launch wars; it is actually the fundamental guarantee for preventing wars. A country needs checks and balances of political power, so that the nation can become a democracy. International society likewise needs checks and balances to be able to form a democratic world. China must have the ability to destroy the United States’ ability in order to ensure consistency, coexistence, common security, and common development.

For the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War, one of the most critical factors was that both nations had the ability to obliterate each other—this mutually-assured-destruction capability ensured the coexistence of these two countries. For the 21st century in China, with the United States in strategic competition, if China is unable to threaten the U.S., it would be difficult to get a decent, just peace; it would be difficult to enjoy dignified joint rights of survival and development.

For China’s military rise, there should be a powerful military force able to effectively maintain and achieve national unity, and control and crack down on separatist forces. It must be an effective force in the Taiwan Strait to counter U.S. military intervention, which would deter the United States from supporting Taiwanese independence with force. The goal of China’s military rise is to make the United States unable to afford to contain China. With this military rise, China will be able to prosper without being peacefully contained by the U.S., and will also be able to contain the U.S. China’s military strength has to be more powerful than any rivals in the world to the degree and level that no nation can contain China’s rise. No country shall set a ceiling for China’s power.

This article has been adapted from Liu Mingfu’s book, The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era.