Its pathway to power is building new networks rather than disrupting old ones. Economists debate when the Chinese will have the world’s largest gross domestic product — perhaps toward the end of this decade — and whether they can meet their other two big national goals: building the world’s most powerful military and dominating the race for key technologies by 2049, the 100th anniversary of Mao’s revolution.
Their power arises not from their relatively small nuclear arsenal or their expanding stockpile of conventional weapons. Instead, it arises from their expanding economic might and how they use their government-subsidized technology to wire nations be it Latin America or the Middle East, Africa or Eastern Europe, with 5G wireless networks intended to tie them ever closer to Beijing. It comes from the undersea cables they are spooling around the world so that those networks run on Chinese-owned circuits.
Ultimately, it will come from how they use those networks to make other nations dependent on Chinese technology. Once that happens, the Chinese could export some of their authoritarianism by, for example, selling other nations facial recognition software that has enabled them to clamp down on dissent at home.
Which is why Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, who was with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken for the meeting with their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage, warned in a series of writings in recent years that it could be a mistake to assume that China plans to prevail by directly taking on the United States military in the Pacific.
“The central premises of this alternative approach would be that economic and technological power is fundamentally more important than traditional military power in establishing global leadership,” he wrote, “and that a physical sphere of influence in East Asia is not a necessary precondition for sustaining such leadership.”
The Trump administration came to similar conclusions, though it did not publish a real strategy for dealing with China until weeks before it left office. Its attempts to strangle Huawei, China’s national champion in telecommunications, and wrest control of social media apps like TikTok, ended up as a disorganized effort that often involved threatening, and angering, allies who were thinking of buying Chinese technology.
Part of the goal of the Alaska meeting was to convince the Chinese that the Biden administration is determined to compete with Beijing across the board to offer competitive technology, like semiconductor manufacturing and artificial intelligence, even if that means spending billions on government-led research and development projects, and new industrial partnerships with Europe, India, Japan and Australia.