China's Strategic Path to Power

China's Strategic Path to Power

A new book by Stanford political scientist Oriana Skylar Mastro offers a novel framework, the “upstart approach," to explain China's 30-year journey to great power status through strategic emulation, exploitation, and entrepreneurship.
Oriana Skylar Mastro and a cover of her book, "Upstart"

China's ascend in the economic, technological, and military spheres and its assertive foreign policy have disrupted geopolitical paradigms, prompting intensified discussions of great power competition and rivalry. But how did China achieve great power status and build it from a weaker resource position in a U.S.-dominated international system?

Stanford political scientist Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on Chinese military and security policy, sets out to answer this question in her new book, “Upstart” (Oxford University Press), which offers a novel framework for understanding how China chose to compete on the international stage. A center fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and faculty at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC), Mastro draws on the political science and business literature to explain China’s thinking that allowed it to enter the great power club.

Mastro joined APARC Publications Manager George Krompacky to discuss her new book. Listen to the conversation on our SoundCloud or YouTube channels. A transcript is also available to download.

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The Startup Approach

In debating about China’s rise, one might fall into the trap of assuming that China would pursue its ambitions like the United States has. Mastro, however, argues that China does not act the same way as the United States or other would-be superpowers and does not have to compete everywhere and in the same manner to yield influence or dictate outcomes.

Acknowledging the highly politicized nature of China’s rise and U.S. competition with China, Mastro emphasizes a pragmatic approach in her book. “For the United States to compete effectively, we have to understand first what the situation is,” she says, ascribing her pragmatic outlook, at least partially, to her military career. Mastro continues to serve in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, currently as the deputy director of reserve global China strategy at the Pentagon.

Mastro shows that China’s buildup of power over the past three decades stems from pursuing a “startup approach,” that is, a careful mix of three strategies: emulation (mirroring U.S. activities in similar areas), exploitation (adopting U.S. strategies, but in different areas of competition, where the United States isn't strongly present), and entrepreneurship (applying innovative approaches to new and existing areas of competition). Throughout her book, she provides 22 case studies in the economic, military, and political realms to illuminate when China has used each of the three components of the startup strategy and explain why it has chosen a certain pathway at a given time.

It’s indisputable that what China has accomplished over the past 30 years is impressive.

Emulation, for example, is manifested in China's approach to mediation diplomacy, as it attempts to present itself as an international mediator to gain power and influence; in its pursuit of humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and peacekeeping operations; and its attempts to internationalize the renminbi.

Instances of exploitation include China’s use of arms sales to countries that can't buy them from the United States due to factors like treaty obligations or embargoes; its approach to free trade and industrial policy; and its ability to keep most U.S. forces out of Asia and disrupt those operating there (known as its anti-access/ area denial capability.

Examples of China’s entrepreneurial approach include its reliance on strategic partnerships instead of alliances; its nuclear strategy and protection of overseas interests (unlike the United States, China has no overseas bases and has not relied on a large nuclear arsenal); and its Belt and Road Initiative.  

By no means is China always successful. Mastro lists various examples indicating, she argues, that China chose the wrong strategy in its pursuit of power buildup, such as its attempts to emulate U.S. soft power or aircraft carrier capabilities. ”But I don't want us to be blind to the realities that a lot of what China does has been effective,” says Mastro. “It’s indisputable that what China has accomplished over the past 30 years is impressive.”

Had there been a more nuanced understanding of China's strategic intentions, the United States might have reinforced certain norms and established new rules to limit China's influence more effectively.

Emulation and Exploitation in Foreign Policy

One salient example of the United States’ misunderstanding of China's strategic approach pertains to China’s participation in international organizations. It is also a lesson in the importance of reevaluating and reinforcing the frameworks that govern international institutions.

International institutions, Mastro explains, have been a key mechanism for the United States to build and exercise power in a flexible, innovative manner. Confident in these institutions' ability to regulate state power in alignment with American interests, many in the United States believed that integrating China into the global order would push Beijing towards political and economic liberalization. This belief underpinned the U.S. support for granting China a most-favored-nation status in the 1990s and its entry into the World Trade Organization.

By the early 21st century, China had joined 50 international governmental organizations and more than a thousand international non-governmental organizations. Within these bodies, China sought to assume a leadership role comparable to that of the United States and its allies, aiming to steer agendas and influence outcomes. Not only did China turn out to be adept at working within the rules to shift institutional directions but also at exploiting loopholes, as, for example, in trade organizations, where its compliance with the established norms has been selective. The U.S. expectations about China’s economic liberalization and democratic reform, however, proved to be distorted.

“The underlying issue was the assumption that China would adopt a worldview similar to the U.S. upon deeper integration,” Mastro says. “Had there been a more nuanced understanding of China's strategic intentions, the U.S. might have reinforced certain norms and established new rules to limit China's influence more effectively.”

While we might think there are all kinds of constraints to [China’s calculus on Taiwan], those are not actually in place.

Taiwan and a Changing Military Balance of Power

Just as the United States was mistaken in believing that international institutions would limit China's actions in foreign policy, it might also be wrong in assuming that China's integration into the global economy has changed its stance on the use of force or that China will consider the cost of attacking Taiwan too high.

According to Mastro, Taiwan is another case where Beijing measures costs and benefits differently from Washinton. “While we might think there are constraints on Chinese [calculus on Taiwan], those constraints are often not actually in place.”

For China, Mastro explains, Taiwan is of utmost importance and deeply connected to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. She stresses that her research indicates that, as part of China's use of economic power, there is good reason to suspect that international isolation and condemnation in response to a Chinese assault on Taiwan would be relatively mild. ”Most strategic partnerships include clauses where countries agree not to let political issues like Taiwan affect their economic relationships,” Mastro says. “This, combined with the changing military balance of power, is something I hope readers understand from my book.

Lessons for U.S. Strategy

In the last chapter of her book, Mastro discusses the implications of China’s upstart strategy for U.S. policy and offers guidance on how Wahington can address China’s rise. “The United States needs to target its approaches to build and maintain a competitive edge with its own version of an upstart strategy,” Mastro writes. Specifically, the United States should avoid emulating all of China's successes, promote emulation where it maintains competitive advantages, close the gaps China exploits to build power, and embrace its unique entrepreneurial approaches.

“The overall goal should be to move competition into areas where the United States has an advantage and reduce the impact of Chinese strategies where China enjoys advantages,” Mastro notes.

But how realistic is it for the United States to play the long game in this manner, given its four-year election cycle and current politically polarized environment?

Mastro recognizes that not only does the U.S. domestic political system make it difficult for policies to continue from one administration to another, but it also increases the cost of entrepreneurial thinking for any administration interested in implementing a new approach during its four-year term. Entrepreneurial actions require a degree of experimentation, but our politicians are averse to taking risks with actions and policies that might require course adjustment.  

Ultimately, Mastro concludes, it is a question of leadership. “I think the rise of China and the challenge of China is of such importance and urgency that you need leaders to put their political aspirations aside and think in a more calculated, strategic way. You need that kind of leadership and courage in our system for us to be able to compete with China.”

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