Insights and Analysis

China’s Double Game

July 9, 2008

By David M. Lampton

China’s elite and public opinion leaders have a national grand strategy. For them, the next twenty years provide a strategic opportunity. In a February 23, 2004, Politburo study session, General Secretary and President Hu Jintao could not have been clearer when he said, “Take a broad view of the world while analyzing the situation; see clear-headedly the serious challenges posed by the intensifying international competition; see clear-headedly the difficulties and risks in the road ahead; [and] grasp firmly and conscientiously use well this period of important strategic opportunity.” The next twenty years are expected to be an era of continuing American dominance in which Beijing’s principal tasks are to get along with Washington while relentlessly building the nation’s military, economic, and ideational power. At the end of this period China will be better able to defend and advance its interests. And while most Chinese hope to build a cooperative relationship with America in the coming decades, they are also aware of other possibilities, just as they are mindful of the many uncertainties that stand between the present day and twenty years of continued, uninterrupted, high-speed growth.

For America, Beijing’s strategy presents a dilemma. Out of apprehension of how China’s growing power may be used, some Americans think that seeking to constrain that growth now would be prudent, anticipating that it will become ever more difficult to do so as time passes. Other Americans ask themselves whether it is within their capabilities to succeed in constraining Chinese growth, given the unwillingness of other nations to cooperate and the strength of China’s own internal growth dynamic. Further, they suspect that such an effort would foster the conflict it was designed to avoid. And, there are issues of justice – would not such an effort amount to trying to keep 20 percent of the world’s people poorer than they otherwise would be? Many other questions arise as well, not the least of which is whether an incompetently governed and weak People’s Republic of China (PRC) spilling its problems into the international arena is a greater problem for global security and welfare than a strong and stable China. Moreover, in pursuing an adversarial course, Americans would forego the positive opportunities of cooperation, ceding those benefits to competitors in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere and making the world as a whole poorer for the inability to jointly address transnational issues.

The present circumstance, therefore, requires both nations to take a historic gamble with respect to China’s current and prospective future ascent. For Chinese, the gamble is that the Americans will countenance, indeed cooperate with, their rise, even as they have misgivings and as some in the U.S. government and elsewhere in society periodically contemplate taking a more confrontational path. And for America, the bet is that a powerful China two or more decades hence, woven into the fabric of international society and a beneficiary of the globalization that energized its growth in the first place, will become, in the words of one Chinese scholar in Shanghai, “a responsible, decent role model for others.” In the phraseology of the U.S. government in September 2005, the hope was (and remains) that China will progressively become more of a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.

The above is an excerpt from the newly-published book, “The Three Faces of Chinese Power: Might, Money, and Minds,” by David M. Lampton, Director of the China Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Reprint permission granted by the author, a Trustee of The Asia Foundation. For information on the book, contact University of California Press. It can be purchased on

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