China's 21st Century Aspirational Empire

| May 2023

How the Chinese party-state chooses to exercise its economic, financial, diplomatic, military and soft power in the next 25 years will make a great difference to U.S. national security and foreign policy, and to developments in the rest of the world. One way to frame China’s power trajectory is to explore whether and how it might become more empire-like—seeking to bolster its own national advantages by eroding or suborning the sovereignty of states in all world regions.

The goal of this paper is to outline an argument that China could pursue a strategy of building and reinforcing an empire-like position in the world in the next 20 years. The paper is intended to offer a view of China’s rising power that is orthogonal to the prevailing set of views in Washington, and so stimulate thinking among U.S. policymakers and analysts on how China could succeed, or fail in this strategy. The paper does not seek to advance an alarmist view of China’s rising power: The Chinese empire-like position that the paper charts would not resemble the British empire of the 19th century or first-half of the 20th century, with territorial control, resident administrations, codified authorities, and intricate commercial and economic ties.

Just as the United States built and maintained such an empire under 20th century conditions, it may pass that China seeks to undertake a similar grand strategy under 21st century conditions. The term American empire carries definite accusatorial or normative uses, but also describes a U.S. position in every region of the world with complex, overlapping forms of power and influence—diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement. This U.S. position in the world also had a strong values component of support for democracy, civil liberties, and civil rights—not just intended as a counterpoise to the ideology or the Soviet bloc. The U.S. position also included occasional exercise of hard power and coercion—sometimes erupting in war.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Odell, Robert. “China's 21st Century Aspirational Empire.” Paper, May 2023.

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