H. R. McMaster: Whether Trump or Biden wins, China still offers biggest...

H. R. McMaster: Whether Trump or Biden wins, China still offers biggest challenge to our security, prosperity


Whether President Donald Trump or Vice President Joe Biden is elected as the next president, the fact remains that the China Communist Party’s (CCP) strategy of co-option, coercion, and concealment will remain the most crucial challenge to our security, prosperity, and influence in the world. 

The story in my new book “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World” reveals how under Chairman Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has resolved to strengthen its grip on power, take center stage in the world, and establish new rules and a new international order sympathetic to Chinese interests. 

The Chinese Communist Party is not only strengthening an internal system that stifles human freedom and extends its authoritarian control it is exporting that model across the globe.

China’s New Tributary System

The party’s effort to stifle human freedom and extend authoritarian control does not stop at China’s borders. China uses a combination of co-option and propaganda to promote its policies and its worldview.

China’s expanding influence in the world, what scholars and policy makers call tianxia (天下, meaning “everything under heaven”), goes beyond the peaceful development of a new international order sympathetic to Chinese interests.

Chinese leaders aim to put in place a modern- day version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states. Under that Imperial system, kingdoms could trade and enjoy peace with the Chinese Empire in return for submission.

If the Chinese Communist Party succeeds in creating a twenty-first-century version of the tributary system, the world will be less free, less prosperous, and less safe.


China intends to establish the new tributary system through a massive effort organized under three overlapping policies: Made in China 2025, One Belt One Road (OBOR), and Military-Civil Fusion.

Made in China 2025 is designed to make China a largely independent science and technology innovation power. To achieve that goal, the party is creating high-tech monopolies inside China and stripping foreign companies of their intellectual property through theft and forced technology transfer. SOEs and private companies work in concert to achieve the party’s objectives.

In some cases, foreign companies are required or coerced to enter into joint ventures with Chinese companies to sell their products in China.

These Chinese companies mostly have close ties to the party, making routine the transfer of intellectual property and manufacturing techniques to their partners and, by extension, to the Chinese government. Thus, foreign companies entering into the Chinese market often make huge profits in the short term, but after transferring their intellectual property and manufacturing know-how, they see their market share diminish as Chinese companies, advantaged by state support and cheap labor, produce goods at a low price and dump those goods into the global market.

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As a result, many international companies lose market share and even go out of business.

Made in China 2025 aims to fuel China’s economic growth with a vast amount of transferred technology and eventually dominate sectors of the emerging global economy that will give it military as well as economic advantages.

The party’s international efforts to achieve national rejuvenation and realize the China Dream come together under the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, later labeled the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for foreign audiences, to mask its China-centric nature.

OBOR calls for more than one trillion dollars in new infrastructure investments across the Indo-Pacific and Eurasian continents and beyond. While the initiative initially received an enthusiastic reception from nations that saw an opportunity both for economic growth and to satisfy their need for improved infrastructure, by 2018 it had become clear to many of those nations that CCP investment came with many strings attached, most prominently unsustainable debt and widespread corruption.

The Chinese Communist Party is not only strengthening an internal system that stifles human freedom and extends its authoritarian control it is exporting that model across the globe.

Under the CCP’s integrated strategy, economic motives are inseparable from strategic designs. OBOR projects are meant to gain influence over targeted governments and place the “Middle Kingdom” at the hub of routes and communications networks.

New or expanded transportation and shipping routes will ease the flow of energy and raw materials into China and Chinese products out. More routes would significantly reduce the risk that the United States or other nations could interdict those flows at critical maritime chokepoints, such as the Strait of Malacca (the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific). 

To ensure control at key geographic points, the CCP uses investment and indebtedness as the basis for servile relationships between the Middle Kingdom and modern- day vassal states.

OBOR is, in large measure, a colonial-style campaign of co-option and coercion.

Military-Civil Fusion extends beyond the use of Chinese companies to include efforts that are varied, comprehensive, and unconventional. In addition to espionage through traditional channels such as cyber-theft by the Ministry of State Security or undeclared intelligence personnel at Chinese diplomatic missions, the party tasks some Chinese students and scholars in U.S. and other foreign universities and research labs to extract technology.

Military-Civil Fusion fast-tracks transferred and stolen technologies to the People’s Liberation Army in such areas as maritime, space, cyberspace, biology, artificial intelligence, and energy.

Military-Civil Fusion also encourages state-owned enterprises and private companies to acquire companies or a strong minority stake in companies with advanced technologies so they can be applied not only for economic, but also military and intelligence, advantage.


The Chinese Communist Party’s obsession with control and its drive to achieve national rejuvenation converge on Taiwan, the island territory that gained autonomy as the last bastion of the Republic of China after the ROC’s defeat at the hands of the Communists during the 1945–1949 Civil War.

Taiwan constitutes a particular danger to the mainland’s autocracy and authoritarian capitalist economic system because it presents a democratic, free-market alternative.

Taiwan is a threat because it provides a small-scale, yet powerful example of a successful political and economic system that is free and open rather than autocratic and closed. It has been the object of a relentless CCP campaign of co-option and coercion.

Co-option efforts included expanding investment and trade to make the island more dependent on the mainland.

In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election in Taiwan, the party did its best to ensure the defeat of the incumbent, Tsai Ing- wen, and the Democratic Progressive Party due to her party’s position that Taiwan is an independent country. Those efforts, based in part on the CCP’s erosion of citizens’ rights in Hong Kong and its heavy-handed tactics, backfired.

The setback is likely to heighten Xi’s desire to push for unification. Xi’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, commented after the election that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory” and that “those who split the country will be doomed to leave a stink for 10,000 years.”

A cause for greater concern is the possibility that the PLA will intensify preparations for a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan.

After Xi removed term limits on the presidency, a move that allowed him to rule indefinitely, some speculated that he did so to force unification on Taiwan during his tenure.

Statements of CCP officials under Xi were aggressive; many implied military action.

In 2019, Chairman Xi said in a speech that Taiwan “must and will be” reunited with the mainland. China’s preparations for a cross-strait assault include rapid modernization and expansion of its Navy and Air Force and increased patrols around Taiwan of bomber, fighter, and surveillance aircraft.

The sustained campaign of co-option and coercion aimed at Taiwan may represent the most dangerous flashpoint for war, but it is only the first priority in a much larger CCP campaign designed to achieve hegemony in the Asia Pacific region.

The PLA has modernized its land, maritime, and air systems to extend military power out to the “second island chain,” comprising the Ogasawara and Volcano Islands of Japan and the Mariana Islands of the United States.

China hopes to gain coercive power over nations and territories in the region through not only demonstrated military prowess, but also economic coercion and the use of information warfare and maritime militias.

In response to the threat from the CCP, the Trump administration implemented the most significant shift in U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. 


In “Battlegrounds,” I recommend ways that the United States and the free world can compete more effectively and defeat the strategy of cooption, coercion, and concealment. 

If we and citizens of like-minded countries do not continue to demonstrate collective resolve to counter the CCP’s aggression, our world will be less free, less prosperous, and less safe. 

This op-ed is adapted from “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World.”

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