China is far wealthier and more powerful than it was when the U.S. engagement policy began in the 1970s, and it seeks to undermine U.S. global leadership and geopolitical primacy. It has an increasingly formidable military and menaces U.S. allies around its periphery. With its increasing economic reach, growing diplomatic influence, and worldwide propaganda efforts, China is making the case that it is a rising global leader, in contrast to a faltering United States.
And the classical great-power calculus overlooks a very special factor in America’s rivalry with a rising China. That is the entire domain of internal threats to our well-being and security from a hostile foreign power deeply enmeshed within our globalized order. This is a new and unfamiliar security risk that we caused for ourselves — welcomed, even — because we could not see, or would not see, the dangers a rising CCP might someday pose to our system from within.
Thanks to our strategy of engagement, the PRC’s great-power challenge to the U.S. and the West is taking place in many more dimensions than did our struggle with the USSR — including dimensions we are only belatedly beginning to understand. By comparison, the Cold War may in retrospect look almost simple.
Even the old Britain–Prussia analogy is of limited utility in illuminating our current straits. Our enmeshment with China is immeasurably deeper and more complex than that of the U.K. with Germany at the dawn of the 20th century — and the CCP is more skilled at cultivating its opponents’ potential vulnerabilities than the kaiser would have dreamed of.