Embracing Communist China: America's Greatest Strategic Failure

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Release Date: 
March 12, 2024
War Room Books
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Embracing Communist China is a crisply written and compellingly argued book . . .”

America’s greatest strategic failure, at least since the end of the Cold War, was continuing its “embrace” of Communist China, according to a new book by James Fanell, a retired navy captain who served as an intelligence officer for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Bradley Thayer, a scholar and founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger China.

Embracing Communist China is a crisply written and compellingly argued book that persuasively makes the case that in the aftermath of the United States’ victory over the Soviet Union, successive presidential administrations for several reasons took their strategic eyes off the ball and helped to facilitate the meteoric rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to superpower status.

First, there was hubris. Victory in the Cold War led to a belief that we were at the “end of history,” and that democracy was the wave of the future. China, many believed, had abandoned communism in favor of a form of state capitalism and would become a responsible stakeholder in the U.S-led liberal world order.

Next, there was greed. Many Americans helped to fuel and profited from China’s economic rise, and American political leaders seemed oblivious to the notion that China’s economic expansion would translate into military expansion.

Third, there was geopolitical distraction. The attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Global War on Terror, shifted U.S. strategic priorities to fighting small wars instead of focusing on great power competition.

Fanell and Thayer spread the blame for this strategic failure across partisan political lines and throughout America’s national security community. The intelligence community vastly underrated the growing threat of Communist China. The military leadership failed to warn the country of the growing Chinese threat. Successive post-Cold War presidents, with the exception of Donald Trump, continued our policy of engagement with China despite its growing aggressiveness. Strategic analysts for the most part downplayed the geopolitical significance of China’s rapid rise.

The authors acknowledge that engagement with China made sense during the Cold War. The triangular diplomacy begun by Nixon and Kissinger in the early 1970s bore fruit with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But once the Soviet threat disappeared, engagement with China fueled the rise of America’s next peer competitor.

China, the authors write, conducted a brilliant political warfare strategy to persuade U.S. and Western elites that China’s rise posed no threat to the global balance of power. Fanell and Thayer compare Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to Prussian (and later German) Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who in the 1860s and 1870s promoted Prussia/Germany’s rise without producing an effective response from Great Britain, the leading power of that time. As British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli later noted, Bismarck altered the European balance of power before most of the great powers noticed.

China did the same thing beginning in the early 1990s by following Deng’s formula of “hide our capabilities and bide our time.” Fannel and Thayer believe that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was especially vulnerable during and immediately after the Tiananmen Square massacre, which occurred in the same year that the Berlin Wall fell. The George H. W. Bush administration, still uncertain about the outcome of events in the Soviet Union, believed it was prudent to continue engagement at that time. That plus the CCP’s crackdown within China enabled the CCP to survive in power and avoid the fate of the Soviet Communist Party.

By the time Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012, the Chinese had achieved economic and military superpower status, and Xi pressed down on the accelerator by growing China’s naval power and launching a geopolitical offensive under the guise of the Belt and Road Initiative. China became more assertive in the South China Sea and in the larger Indo-Pacific region, but U.S. engagement continued despite the so-called “pivot to Asia” announced by the Obama administration.

That changed somewhat during the Trump presidency, which shifted America’s strategic focus on renewed great power competition. But Fanell and Thayer note that the Biden administration has mostly reverted to engagement with the CCP instead of confrontation.

What must be done? According to the authors, the United States needs to focus on the China threat in the same manner in which it focused on the Soviet threat during the Cold War. We must study China’s strategic doctrine. We must take seriously China’s commitment to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. We must reinvigorate the American Navy, especially in the Indo-Pacific where the PLA Navy now has an edge. We must build up our nuclear deterrent, including providing nuclear weapons to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. The “center of gravity” in this effort is the CCP whose rule must be de-legitimized.

Fanell and Thayer propose a new “Truman Doctrine” for the Indo-Pacific (perhaps forgetting that it was the Truman administration that was in power when China fell to the communists in 1949). Theirs is a bold strategic recipe, especially during a time when the U.S. is involved in conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. It is a call not for “containment,” but for the “liberation” of the Chinese people from communist rule, reminiscent of James Burnham’s strategy for defeating the Soviet Union, which he laid out in three books in the late 1940s to early 1950s. It is a call for achieving victory in the new Cold War of the 21st century.