February 17: A Conversation with Dan Blumenthal on “The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State”

February 17: A Conversation with Dan Blumenthal on “The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State”

Wednesday, February 17, 2021 from 10:00 AM-11:00 AM (EST)
Webcast Only

Event Description:

The Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) is pleased to invite you to a virtual conversation with Dan Blumenthal on his new book, The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State, as well as his thoughts on the current state of US-China-Taiwan relations. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the People’s Republic of China has rapidly become one of the foremost powers on the world stage. With a vast population, a growing economy, and a modernizing military, China has clearly become a force to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, the PRC’s path forward is far from clear. Rather than liberalizing its system of governance—as Western academics and policy makers long predicted—China has grown increasingly authoritarian. As its recent treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong has made clear, the PRC is determined to stamp out domestic dissent and further consolidate the power of the Chinese Communist Party, raising alarms in both Washington and Taipei. In this moderated discussion, Blumenthal will provide his analysis on the implications of this growing authoritarianism—as outlined in The China Nightmare—as well as his thoughts on the role the US and Taiwan can play in countering it. The conversation will also feature Dr. Sheena Chestnut Greitens of the University of Texas-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs as a discussant.

The event webcast will be broadcasted live on our website and YouTube on Wednesday, February 17 starting at 10:00AM EST. Questions for the panel may be sent by e-mail to contact@globaltaiwan.org, through the chat function on the YouTube page, and via Twitter.

The Author:

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow and the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations. Mr. Blumenthal has served in and advised the US government on China issues for more than a decade. Before joining AEI, Mr. Blumenthal served as senior director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia at the US Department of Defense. He served as a commissioner on the congressionally mandated US-China Economic and Security Review Commission from 2006 to 2012, and he was vice chairman of the commission in 2007. He also served on the Academic Advisory Board of the congressional US-China Working Group. Mr. Blumenthal is the author of The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State (AEI Press, November 2020) and coauthor of An Awkward Embrace: The United States and China in the 21st Century (AEI Press, November 2012). Additionally, his writings have been published widely, including in The AtlanticThe New York TimesThe National Interest, and The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Blumenthal has a JD from Duke Law School, an MA from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and a BA from Washington University in St. Louis. He also attended Capital Normal University in Beijing, China, where he focused on Chinese language studies.

The Discussant:

Dr. Sheena Chestnut Greitens is associate professor at the LBJ School at UT-Austin, where she is affiliated with both the Strauss Center and Clements Center for National Security. Her work focuses on East Asia, democracy & dictatorship, and American national security policy. Her first book, Dictators and Their Secret Police, won several academic awards, and she is currently working on a book project on China’s approach to internal security and grand strategy.

Event Summary:

On February 17, 2021, the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) hosted a virtual book talk with Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute on his new book, “The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State.” The event was moderated by GTI Executive Director Russell Hsiao.

Hsiao began by asking Blumenthal what his motivations for writing the book were. Blumenthal explained that one element was his desire to provide an in-depth, historically grounded overview of China’s position today. Blumenthal also focused on China’s strengths and weaknesses to create a more realistic, nuanced image of Chinese competition with the US, instead of the common depiction of China as either an indomitable opponent or a nonthreat. Hsiao next asked Blumenthal to dive deeper into some of the weaknesses of the Chinese system. Blumenthal explained that neo-Leninism in the context of Chinese political thought has been nimble and adaptive to date, but also increasingly reliant on extreme authoritarian methods and internal surveillance. Chinese elites no longer believe in communism, he argues, which has resulted in calcification, cynicism, and corruption. The “reform and opening up” process initiated by Deng Xiaoping is also being reversed, which has been overlooked by foreign observers. China has now accumulated mass debt and relies heavily on state-owned enterprises as its economy has begun to stagnate. Another Chinese weakness is geostrategic; China’s one coastline contains all of its strategic ports and is dangerously close to US allies. China also faces a demographic crisis, as the one-child policy and rapid economic growth have created an inverted demographic pyramid and a surplus of males within a middle-income, developing economy.

Hsiao complimented the in-depth study of these issues, then asked Blumenthal what he meant specifically by the title of the book, “The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State.” Blumenthal explained that the Chinese government seeks much greater geopolitical power than it currently has, but it is built on weak foundations and tends to ignore its own structural problems. With regard to COVID-19, he argued that Chinese authoritarianism made the problem much worse, leading Beijing to lash out internationally instead of confronting its own failures. Xi Jinping feels more “besieged” than most observers believe, but he now has the power to do serious damage to the world order. Increasingly, China’s internal issues will necessitate external aggression to distract from the maladies of the Chinese regime.

With regard to calling China “an empire,” Blumenthal explained that the territory of modern China constitutes imperial control of areas previously conquered by former dynasties, including a highly pluralistic population in peripheral areas. In China’s view, Eurasia is meant to be organized in a tributary system surrounding China, as it was in the past.

Hsiao followed up by asking if Blumenthal believes that Chinese leaders are aware of their own weaknesses, citing Susan Shirk’s 2008 book, “China: Fragile Superpower.” In response, Blumenthal argued that Chinese leaders are aware of problems, as demonstrated by leaked internal documents highlighting Chinese government assessments. China has never been the caricature of a peaceful Confucian society it has depicted itself as, Blumenthal argued, citing the Qing Dynasty conquests of what is today Western China, Mao’s border wars, and the defeat against Vietnam. China is willing to take large tactical losses in order to achieve strategic goals.

The Chinese view the US-China competition as an ideological struggle, according to Blumenthal. They no longer attempt to export communist ideology, but a struggle between their system and the West is a driving factor of Chinese policy. Since Taiwan is both a geostrategic asset and a democracy in what Blumenthal describes as a “Chinese cultural setting,” it represents an extremely threatening challenge to the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy.

Hsiao then shifted the discussion to policy prescriptions, asking Blumenthal how the US could most effectively confront China. Blumenthal answered that he believes the guiding principle of US policy—from a geostrategic perspective—should be to prevent the rise of a hegemonic power in either the Asian or European side of Eurasia. Currently, close collaboration between Russia and China is concerning, and one goal of US policy may be to create or emphasize fissures in Sino-Russian relations. Examples of this are geographical concerns in Central Asia, conflicting geostrategic interests, and nuclear arms anxiety.

Hsiao also asked what the “China Nightmare” functionally means for US allies and partners in China’s immediate vicinity. Blumenthal responded that China is formidable, but its litany of internal problems should boost the morale of US allies and partners. He also argued that the binary in policymaking circles between “China is collapsing” and “China is taking over the world” is ineffective, contending that the situation is more nuanced, and that any China policy must be pragmatic and reflective of reality.

With regard to Taiwan, Hsiao questioned Blumenthal on the potential timeframe of the Chinese threat to Taiwan. In Blumenthal’s view, Taiwan will remain under threat from China until the US clarifies its defensive commitments to the island nation. Until then, China’s military preparations and efforts to demonstrate its capability to invade Taiwan will continue. Blumenthal said that he fully supports strategic clarity towards Taiwan. In response to questions from the audience, Blumenthal argued that the US should continue to engage with Taiwan in a multi-faceted way, and that diplomacy with China is a good tool to push for the status quo.

This summary was written by GTI Spring 2021 Intern Gavin Stark.

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