China: Back on Center Stage

In the best-case scenario for China, Beijing achieves its economic development goals and reunifies peacefully with Taiwan, all while containing tensions with the United States. Three key developments are necessary for China to achieve its ideal outcome and maintain cooperation with Russia, without interfering in Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. First, China meets its economic modernization goals, becoming the envy of the modern world. Secondly, China mediates an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and in doing so, lends considerable momentum to the Global Security Initiative, which becomes the main architecture for conflict-resolution.[1] Beijing’s more accommodating rhetoric and diplomatic successes mitigate the urgency for other Asian powers to balance against it, decreasing Taipei’s diplomatic support in the process. Finally, as China’s authoritarian political and economic model reigns supreme, democracies backslide world-wide, and Taiwan’s government agrees to negotiate on unification. In this scenario, the Sino-Russian relationship is considerably imbalanced, but the bilateral military relationship continues, and Moscow joins Chinese-led international institutions.


S. Goldstein
February 05, 2024

Key Development #1: China Meets 2035 Modernization Goals

In this scenario, China has become a global superpower. Buoyed by supply-side optimization and sizable investments in key technologies, China meets its 2035 modernization goals.[2] The Chinese economy is the largest in the world and the country has leveraged artificial intelligence to surpass the U.S. in several critical industries, such as: green energy, quantum computing, robotics and nanotechnology. China’s demographic issues are ameliorated by an able robotics industry, leading to diminished social welfare expenditures. China’s health care system integrates innovations in telecommunications, big data, and machine learning.[3]

Key Development #2: China Negotiates End to Russian War in Ukraine, Tempers Own Aggressive Behavior

Filled with confidence over their country’s preeminent economic position, Chinese leaders expand upon their diplomatic successes—negotiating an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine—and temper some of their own more aggressive behaviors. At the same time that China makes major technological breakthroughs, its leaders have nurtured several diplomatic breakthroughs. The Chinese-brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia holds, and Chinese diplomats follow up by brokering a durable ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine after the latter forswears joining NATO.[4] China's efforts lend considerable momentum to the Global Security Initiative (GSI), which supplants American-led alliances as the driving force in geopolitics.[5] New leadership in Beijing eschews Xi’s bellicose rhetoric and adopts an updated version of Deng Xioaping’s mantra of “hiding China’s capabilities and biding time”.[6] While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) showcases its economic, technological, and diplomatic capabilities, Beijing curtails its military and security activities.

China’s more accommodating rhetoric coupled with its diplomatic successes increases the country’s international appeal and in response, international diplomatic recognition of Taiwan dwindles. Its Asian neighbors no longer balance against a bellicose China with the state’s new leadership model. Countries like Japan and South Korea build upon their deep economic ties with China and do not implement planned defense build-ups. Continual Sino-Indian consultation through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS enables Beijing and New Delhi to peacefully resolve border issues.[7]

China’s economic prowess coupled with its reduced threat perception allow for a softer domestic governance model as well. While the CCP retains total control, its leaders are more responsive to citizen input, which Beijing proudly proclaims to the world as “democracy with Chinese characteristics”.[8]

Key Development #3: Democracies Backslide, Taiwan Government Agrees to Negotiate on Unification

As China is enjoying economic, political, and diplomatic success, democracies throughout the world backslide, and Taipei grows closer to the mainland.[9] Democracies in India, Turkey, Hungary, and Israel grow increasingly illiberal while western democracies struggle.[10] Political division in the U.S. over fiscal sustainability trigger vast cuts in defense spending while the competition over the green energy market creates fissures in the transatlantic alliance.[11] In Taiwan, prominent Democratic Progressive Party leaders are mired in corruption scandals.[12] Taiwanese popular support for the democratic model wanes as it has been discredited at home and abroad. The Taiwanese have no illusions about Washington coming to their defense, as the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science (CHIPS) Act dramatically reduces their country’s importance in the semiconductor chain.[13] Bolstered by the global appeal of a softer, more successful Chinese political system, the Kuomintang Party wins an election and begins the unification process with China.[14] Beijing has heeded Sun Tzu’s maxim, winning without having fired a shot.[15] 


In this future-facing scenario, China attains the per capita GDP of a developed country and achieves energy self-sufficiency by the mid-2030s.[16] Chinese leaders achieve these goals through careful management of the relationship with the U.S. and through accommodating their neighbors in ways that lessen the urgency for other Asian powers to balance against China. While the Kremlin remains wary of China’s rise, Russia is so weak that Moscow joins Chinese-led institutions such as the Global Development Initiative, the GSI, and the Belt and Road Initiative. Russia continues its military exercises and peace-keeping missions with China. When political crises in Central Asia trigger turmoil, Beijing deploys troops but through a multilateral forum.[17] Though China plays a security role in a region previously dominated by Moscow, China’s aim of political stability is aligned enough with Russia’s to appease the politburo. The method—multilateral intervention—is inclusive enough that Russia maintains military consultations with the People’s Liberation Army. Bilateral military collaboration does not increase. Beijing’s motivation for such collaboration is minimal, as China’s defense industries have far surpassed the capabilities of their Russian counterparts. But Russia also does not take meaningful action to balance against China, because Moscow perceives the threat from Beijing—for now—to be low.

Additional Implications

Under Xi, Beijing’s provocative rhetoric and actions aided the U.S. in demonstrating the Chinese threat and assembling a coalition to counter Beijing’s revisionism. However, Washington must consider the possibility that a future Chinese leader–other than Xi Jinping–will return to Deng’s more cautious mantra, to “hide capabilities and bide time”.[18] To some degree, a softer CCP may present a more pressing challenge to the U.S. than Xi’s current regime. Under Xi, the U.S.-China relationship deteriorated, with dwindling trust. Accordingly, the U.S. is unlikely to recognize CCP change—genuine or otherwise—as authentic. If the CCP’s moderation is authentic, however, the United States cannot maintain its current policy without being perceived as war-mongering, undercutting Chinese moderates, and alienating American allies. Chinese moderation—authentic or otherwise—will likely lead the Western business community to advocate for re-engagement with the Chinese market, and global fence sitters will push Washington to lower its guard.

Alternatively, if greater Chinese moderation is a disingenuous ploy for time, then the U.S. must employ a flexible policy that shows its allies (and Beijing) Washington’s openness for improved ties while at the same time preparing for renewed deterioration. The U.S. historically performs best when confronted with clear enemies. By contrast, a more moderate CCP will look nothing like fascist European powers, brutal Soviet communism, or jihadi terrorism. Implementing flexible China policy will not be easy, and establishing clear-eyed estimates of the authenticity of a Chinese shift toward moderation will be difficult. Nevertheless, both elements will be essential for the United States to keep its China policy effective and its allies onside.


S. Goldstein holds degrees from the University of Maryland and Georgetown University. This piece is excerpted from a Master’s thesis he authored about the future of the China-Russia relationship.


[1] Andrea Ratiu, "How Beijing’s Newest Global Initiatives Seek to Remake the World Order," Atlantic Council, November 30, 2023,

[2] Feng Wang, Jianxiong Wu, Min Wu, and Wen Zheng, "Has the Economic Structure Optimization in China’s Supply-Side Structural Reform Improved the Inclusive Green Total Factor Productivity?" Sustainability 13, no. 22 (2021),

[3] David Dollar, Yiping Huang, and Yang Yao, China 2049: Economic Challenges of a Rising Global Power (Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution, January 2020), 6,; "How breakthrough technology in China is helping care for its aging population," UBS, November 6, 2017,,and%20improve%20quality%20of%20life%20for%20elderly%20patients.

[4] Amrita Jash, "Saudi-Iran Deal: A Test Case of China’s Role as an International Mediator," Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, June 23, 2023,

[5] "Why Does NATO Exist," NATO, November 6, 2023,

[6] Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 263.

[7] James MacHaffie, "The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Limited Role In Easing Tensions Between China and India," Jamestown Foundation: China Brief 20, no. 22, December 23, 2020,

[8] ​​Daniel Tobin, "How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions," testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s March 13, 2020 Hearing on ‘A China Model?’ Beijing’s Promotion of Alternative Global Norms and Standards,

[9] Hamish Kinnear, "Hungary, Israel, Poland and Turkey Continue Their Democratic Backslide," Verisk Maplecroft, June 12, 2023,

[10] ibid

[11] Phred Dvorak, Jenny Strasburg, and Kim Mackrael, "U.S. Energy Subsidies Kick Off Global Battle for Jobs, Billions in Investment," Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2023,

[12] Erin Hale, "Taiwan Struggles to Shake Off Era of Corruption in Local Politics," Voice of America, November 23, 2022,

[13] Aidan Powers-Riggs, "Taipei Fears Washington Is Weakening Its Silicon Shield," Foreign Policy, February 17, 2023,

[14] Shelley Rigger, Lev Nachman, Chit Wai John Mok, and Nathan Kar Ming Chan, Why is Unification so Unpopular in Taiwan? It’s the PRC Political System, Not Just Culture (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, February 7, 2022),

[15] Sun Tzu, On the Art of War, trans. Lionel Giles (Leicester, England: Allandale Online Publishing, 2000), 8.

[16] "China Unveiled Green Hydrogen Development Plan 2021-2035," Mobility Innovators, March 27, 2022,

[17] Matthew Southerland, Will Green, Sierra Janik, "Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Testbed for Chinese Power Projection," November 12, 2020,

[18] Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 263.