This is a consequential moment and China’s leaders have critical choices to make. History is replete with examples of rising powers that grew more aggressive after losing the ability to glide to dominance. In the early 20th century, a newly unified Germany initially pursued a path of economic growth and expanded influence, only to embark on an arms race that created the conditions for World War I. The signs are ominous that China may choose a similar path today.
The best way for an established power like the U.S. to meet a challenge from a rising, ambitious state like China is to demonstrate as quickly as possible the inadvisability of doing what Germany did. This means jettisoning the old policy of hoping growth and enmeshment will turn China into a country that plays by established rules. Rather, the U.S. should align with countries that share its interests in Asia, Europe and beyond. A unified front will make China think twice about taking the German path.
The U.S. must reduce its economic exposure to China by addressing the vulnerabilities that have accumulated in important U.S. industries, artificial intelligence and the defense supply chain. But America can’t go it alone. The current turn in Chinese behavior suggests that policy makers in Washington should pursue a grand strategy centered on maritime and aerospace power, alliances and expanded commerce. This will check Chinese strength and give Beijing incentives to tame its more destabilizing trade and military tendencies.