The Way Forward

A Plan for Countering China

The Way Forward

Mar 28, 2023 5 min read

Some of the more avid readers of “Winning the New Cold War: A Plan for Countering China,” may well be in Beijing. Studying the enemy is a hallmark of Chinese strategy and statecraft. Sun Tzu’s Art of War advised that the best strategy is fa qi mou, meaning to “counter the enemy’s plans.” To do that, one must first identify the enemy’s strategy.

Beijing works hard at this goal. Chinese authors—and General Secretary Xi Jinping himself—claim that America today has adopted a “Cold War mentality” toward the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Xi frequently warns that this alleged mentality mirrors the strategy the Americans used to overthrow the Soviet Communist Party during the Cold War with the USSR.

With this release of The Heritage Foundation’s new Special Report, the CCP now has something to attack: a transparent plan to win the New Cold War. What the Chinese leadership may not understand is that Heritage does not propose copying the Cold War ideas of George Kennan’s 1947 “X Article” or Paul Nitze’s “NSC 68” from 1950. This is a new plan tailored to a new adversary.

The authors of this Special Report hope that the U.S. government, state and local authorities, leaders in the private sector and civil society, and international allies and partners will help to implement this plan as quickly and comprehensively as possible. It would be a blow to China’s quest for global dominance.

That said, calibrating a new strategy will not come easy for Washington. The U.S. government’s weak response to the China challenge is deeply ingrained after all these years. Meanwhile, the Chinese leadership will start planning new actions even before the U.S. can begin to implement any new strategy.

China has a 3,000-year history of rising powers that toppled the old hegemon to create a new dynasty. Xi Jinping often quotes ancient authors, such as Han Fei Zi, to illustrate how the greatest dynasties were established by creating complacency and confusion in the mind of the old global leader. Xi has said many times that traditional Chinese history inspires his strategy.

China’s friends in the U.S. claim that there is no threat, that China is weak and may collapse soon, and that Americans must be calm about the new global order that China plans to create. They deny that China has any ambitions to replace America as the top global power. According to books written by eyewitnesses to history, such as John Bolton, Jared Kushner, and Peter Navarro, when Xi Jinping sat down with President Donald Trump to enjoy a steak dinner at the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires in 2018, Xi said that China’s strategy was no “100-year marathon.” China, he said, had no plan to replace America as the global leader.

American strategy must never be based on an adversary’s assurances.

In the years ahead, China may seek to escalate tensions, which will require even more adjustments to U.S. strategy. After all, most Americans today believe that the U.S. China strategy failed because the U.S. government widely assumed China to be its friend, forever on the verge of major political and free-market reforms. Even Ronald Reagan, arguably America’s most anti-communist President, famously said in 1984 that he had just visited “so-called Communist China.” While I was serving as Reagan’s policy planning chief in the Pentagon, he directed the U.S. government to sell weapons and share intelligence with China. It did.

Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, the respected conservative John Lehman, has written proudly about his transfer of high-tech Mark 46 torpedoes to Beijing for use in Chinese submarines. Chinese sources say that one American Secretary of State even offered a nuclear umbrella to China. Many Americans today cling to this obsolete strategy of aiding China. How else can one explain the assumption of friendship that motivated American funding for “gain of function” research in that Wuhan virology laboratory?

The New Cold War has begun because China has become the most capable and dangerous enemy the U.S. has faced since the end of World War II. The U.S. must acknowledge and respond to this reality. Dwight Eisenhower may have said that “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” but he also observed: “Plans are worthless, yet planning is everything.”

It is impossible to plan ahead of the enemy without a planning guide. When the U.S. entered World War II, Eisenhower (who, as a young Army officer was responsible for overseeing the original planning) knew his plan was far from the last word in determining how to beat a formidable, thinking, determined enemy. The U.S. today must be just as flexible and adept in its determination to alter its plans as needed to win the New Cold War against China.

There is bipartisan support for actions to protect the U.S. economy from China and to diminish Beijing’s capacity to harm Americans and their interests. In the years ahead, The Heritage Foundation will draft model legislation for some of the proposals in this Special Report to assist government leaders in rapid implementation of the plan. Heritage will also provide research and policy support to state and local governments, some of which have already begun to take action by banning the use of Chinese-controlled social media apps, the purchase of Chinese drones by government entities, and Chinese purchases of farmland near sensitive military installations.

These are the tactical fights that are necessary to win the next battles. However, the U.S. also needs to stop simply reacting to threats from China. The U.S. needs to be one step ahead, anticipating Chinese countermeasures and future plans.

Part of the Heritage Foundation’s work to confront the CCP will involve expanding Heritage’s China Transparency Project, working with like-minded partners around the world to highlight, through open-source (unclassified, publicly available) intelligence, what China is currently doing, what it might do next, and how U.S. actions with allies and partners are affecting its calculations.

In addition, I will lead a comprehensive project at Heritage to do something that has never been successfully accomplished in the unclassified world: building an index to assess the relative national power of the U.S. and of China. The Index of Strategic Competition will measure indicators of military might, economic wealth, and political influence in an objective, standardized manner. The intent is to improve understanding of how both Chinese and American leadership conceptualizes and employs national power. The Index will allow Heritage analysts to track the status of the competition from year to year and anticipate new measures that the U.S. must take to ensure victory in the New Cold War. Americans must understand that China has already surpassed America in many of these indicators.

In Part I of this Special Report, my colleagues did a fine job evaluating much of the contemporary analysis on the U.S.–China competition. I am proud that they included my work and analysis over the decades studying official, original Chinese strategic planning documents, many of them still little known in the West. A future Heritage Foundation goal is to provide a cogent list of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, crafting a master plan that exploits China’s weaknesses and diminishes their strengths, while protecting and enhancing American power.

“Winning the New Cold War: A Plan for Countering China” is an important first step, not a “one and done” document. This plan represents the current to-do list. Future recommendations will focus on how to adapt and operationalize U.S. strategy and how to organize and equip like-minded allies—from local communities to global partnerships. Given the goals of the CCP, much work lies ahead.

Michael Pillsbury, PhD, is Senior Fellow for China Strategy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.