Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition – Class 2 – China

This article first appeared in West Point’s Modern War Institute.

We just had our second week of our new national security class at Stanford – Technology, Innovation and Great Power CompetitionJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed the class to cover how technology will shape all the elements of national power (our influence and footprint on the world stage).

Catch up with the class by reading our intro to the class and summaries of Classes 134, 5 6, 7 and 8.)

A key focus of the class is the return of Great Power competition. This isn’t an issue of which nation comes in first, it’s about what the world-order will look like for the rest of the century and beyond. Will it be a rules-based order where states cooperate to pursue a shared vision for a free and open region and where the sovereignty of all countries large and small is protected under international law? Or will an alternative vision for an autocratic and dystopian future be coerced and imposed by revisionist powers set on disrupting the U.S. led international order- an order that has brought the world unprecedented peace and prosperity since the end of the Second World War?

All of which leads to today’s topic – China.

Class 2 Required Readings

Class 2- Reading Assignment Questions

Pick one of the below questions and answer in approximately 100 words, based on the required readings.

  • To what degree does the People’s Republic of China have an overarching grand strategy, according to the readings? Do you agree or disagree with the arguments of the readings and why? Even if China does have a grand strategy, is it possible for China to maintain coherent, consistent execution of its strategy? Why or why not?
  • What are the CCP’s objectives regarding the international system? What instruments of national power does the CCP employ to achieve which specific impacts in order to achieve its objectives?

Class 2-  Discussion Questions

  • What is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) trying to achieve? What are its goals and objectives? What is Xi Jinping trying to achieve? To what extent are Xi’s goals congruent with the broader CCP’s goals?
  • How does the CCP and/or Xi view the existing international system?
  • From the CCP’s perspective, what are the main obstacles standing in the way of achieving the goal of “National Rejuvenation”?
  • What role does ideology play in the CCP’s strategy?
  • In what ways are the CCP’s goals compatible and/or incompatible with U.S. national interests?
  • In what domains does the competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China play out? How do these domains interact with one another?

Class 2- Guest Speakers

Our speakers for our second class were Matt Pottinger and Matt Turpin.

Matt Pottinger, was a former Deputy National Security Advisor and former National Security Council Senior Director for Asia. As a former Marine, Matt had 3 combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to joining the Marine Corps, Matt was a reporter in China, first at Reuters, then at the Wall Street Journal.

Matt Turpin, was a former National Security Council Director for China and the Senior Advisor on China to U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Before entering the White House, Turpin served over 22 years in the U.S. Army. Among other Indo-Pacific focused roles, he served as a China advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and assisted the Deputy Secretary of Defense with the Defense Innovation Initiative, examining the role of innovation in U.S. defense policy.

Lecture 2

If you can’t see the slides click here.

Slides 7-10 are selected quotes from our assigned reading. Our lecture and discussion (slides 11-16) took us through the evolution of the hopes the U.S. had for its four-decade-long strategy of diplomatic and economic engagement with China. The hope was that helping China grow its economy would lead to liberalization of its government and greater freedoms for its people. Deng Xiaoping said China needed to “hide our capabilities, bide our time.” Over time, Xi has moved China to a more overt and aggressive phase, no longer hiding its intention to challenge the West. As we discovered, China’s agenda always had been radically different than ours. The growing realization over the last five years is that our hopes for China to democratize as it developed economically were terribly naïve. What we’ve come to realize is that China has been playing a decades-long game to challenge and overturn the U.S.-led liberal international order and replace it with a neo-totalitarian model.

Realizing this, four years ago the U.S. reoriented from a focus on counter terrorism to a new emphasis on great power competition with Russia and China. This new effort can be seen in the Interim U.S. National Security Strategy (which outlines the major U.S. national security concerns and how we plan to deal with them) and 2018 National Defense Strategy  (which identifies the priorities and capabilities required by the warfighters to implement the National Security Strategy).

Relevant to this course, China is using all elements of national power: diplomacy (soft power, alliances, coercion), information/intelligence (using its economic leverage over Hollywood, controlling the Covid narrative), its military might and economic strength (Belt and Road Initiative.) China has exploited western finance and technology, and has successfully convinced Western democracies to prioritize economic cooperation and trade with China above all else.

At home, China’s use of digital authoritarianism (facial recognition, biometrics, and social credit) has turned its own country into a surveillance dystopia to ensure that there are no internal challenges to the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP’s oppression of the Uyghurs – a Muslim minority in the western province of Xinjiang – is considered a genocide by many as well as a harbinger of what a Chinese world order will look like.

Going forward, coexistence with China will involve competition but also cooperation. But it’s going to take the demonstrated resolve of the U.S. and its allies to continue to uphold a rules-based order where nations share a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific where the sovereignty of all countries are respected.

Slides 18-20 dug a bit deeper about why and how of the group project. Students formed teams to work on one of the Great Power Competition issues at the intersection of commercial technologies (AI, machine learning, autonomy, biotech, cyber, commercial access to space, et al.) and DIME-FIL (Diplomatic, Information, Military and Economic, Finance, Intelligence and Law Enforcement.)

Given who our students are, we assume they can all go online and to the library and write a great research paper. As we pointed out to them, while you can be the smartest person in the building, it’s unlikely that 1) that all the facts are in the building, 2) you’re smarter than the collective intelligence sitting outside the building.

Our teaching assistants (who previously took our Hacking for Defense class) shared with the students their own journey of what happens to early assumptions and how solutions evolve when you get out of the building.

If you can’t see the Project Agrippa slides click here.

We want our students to build the reflexes and skills to deeply understand a problem by gathering first-hand information and validate that the problem they are solving is the real problem, not a symptom of something else. Then, students will begin rapidly building minimal viable solutions (policy, software, hardware …) as a way to test and validate their understanding of both the problem and what it would take to solve it.

And they thought we were just going to have great lectures.

Next week – Russia

Lessons Learned

  • The U.S. hoped that helping China grow its economy would lead to liberalization of its government and greater freedoms for its people
    • We were terribly naïve
  • China has been playing a decades-long game to challenge and overturn the U.S.-led liberal order and replace it with a neo-totalitarian model
  • Students will collaborate on teams to first understand and then work to solve national security challenges at the intersection of DIME-FIL and dual-use technology

One Response

  1. This is an “eyes wide open” approach to China, but it seems to inevitably be a zero sum situation. What is the alternative. Also, the biggest immediate threat to the United States is the neototalitarian threat from within. Not addressing that head on is just as naive as believing democracy would grow and flourish in China.

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