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China Takes on America in a 'Zero-Sum Game'

What is the best way for China to take over the world? Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University suggests a game plan in his Monday New York Times op-ed, first published online on Sunday.

In “How China Can Defeat America,” Yan, perhaps Beijing’s leading international relations analyst, argues that, even without democracy, China can present a more attractive model to the world than the United States and therefore win over allies around the globe. “It is the battle for people’s hearts and minds that will determine who eventually prevails,” Yan writes. “As China’s ancient philosophers predicted, the country that displays more humane authority will win.”

In making his points, Yan distorts Chinese history, misdescribes the current global situation, and maligns the United States. Yet along the way he also performs a valuable service for Americans, giving them an opportunity to view his government in a more realistic light. In the provocative op-ed, a distillation of his recently released book, Yan explains that competition between Beijing and Washington is “inevitable.” And then he ends his piece with this thought: “China’s quest to enhance its world leadership status and America’s effort to maintain its present position is a zero-sum game.”

Zero-sum competition? That’s not the way Washington’s foreign policy specialists see the international system. Since the end of the Second World War, they have believed that every nation can better its lot with free markets, free trade, and free politics. Chinese leaders have eschewed all three of these “Western” concepts, but they have appropriated that awful phrase, “win-win,” and assure us they believe in it. With a win-win mind-set, governments around the world have sought to “engage” China, nurture it, and ease its entry into the international community.

Naturally, the Chinese state has prospered in such a benign environment. But instead of accepting the international system as it was—the fond hope of the engagers—Beijing has sought to upend and replace it with something more friendly to its brand of authoritarianism. In short, liberal institutions are seen as a threat to China’s one-party state, and so it should come as no surprise that its leaders view geopolitics as an I-win, you-lose proposition.

Should the United States change its conception of geopolitics in response to Beijing’s world view? No. Yet one thing is clear: the global community needs to understand that engagement with China has not changed the darkish perspectives of its leaders—who continue to believe that it is in their interests to undermine America and its many friends.

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