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Xi Jinping at a military parade in Beijing in 2015. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

By the time China's ambitions of displacing the U.S. as the dominant global power were widely understood, Beijing's success had already begun to feel inevitable.

Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party has exploited America's desire to "sleep through difficulties," writes Jonathan Ward in the new book, "China's Vision of Victory." He contends that the outcome of the battle for global supremacy remains to be determined, but that the U.S. must quickly and dramatically change course in order to prevail.

  • The longstanding U.S. strategy of engaging economically while hedging against China's rise militarily was a mistake of historic proportions, essentially "putting wind at the back" of a burgeoning rival, Ward told me in an interview.
  • In his book, Ward traces China's vision of global preeminence back decades. He says President Xi Jinping merely "took the mask off" in recent years.
  • Ward, whose research included poring over since-closed Communist Party archives, adds that "the greatest thing China’s given us is a very clear image of what they’re going to do.”

The big picture: “The objective is dominance in global affairs on a longer-term time frame," Ward told me. "So, ideologically the idea is to restore their position — restore because they say they used to be the world’s supreme power and now they’re going to return to that — by the year 2049, which is the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic of China."

  • To that end, China is endeavoring to "produce national champions in every sector" and dominate emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and 5G networks.
  • The Belt and Road network of ports, roads and railways, meanwhile, is intended to impose the "coercive force of the Chinese economy... to build strategic beachheads" around the world. "In the 19th century we'd understand that as empire building," Ward says.
  • Ward says China's government is mobilizing its economy, its military and its citizens toward the mission of "national rejuvenation." He describes it as "the most comprehensive effort assembled in human history towards a very singular goal.”

The bottom line: “Essentially it's full steam ahead on pretty much every human activity, from space to seabed, with the objective of becoming the world’s leader in all of these things. And with that, you build a foundation of power that is absolutely beyond what can be achieved by any other nation."

  • “I think it’s easy to understand their strategy. What’s hard is that it’s a good strategy.”

But, but, but: Ward emphasizes in his book that the U.S. "retains enormous advantages in terms of economic and military power, a global alliance system, and leadership in the innumerable institutions built under the Pax Americana."

  • He says the consensus that China will replace the U.S. as the world's largest economy is premised on the continuation of the status quo. Ward argues that "we have to start thinking the unthinkable" now, in terms of unwinding economic ties to China and shifting supply chains to politically friendly countries.
  • “These are tough things but this is where great minds should be applied," Ward told me. "How do we retain these economic advantages, the technological advantages, the military advantages. Let’s face it, we’re the ones who’ve already won. We’re just giving it away."
  • Ward argues that the contests that will define China's success or failure are underway now, and will be decided over the next ten years.

Zoom out: “A contest between the United States and China will be a close-run thing," Ward writes. "However, a contest between China and the democratic world will be impossible for China.”

  • “In many ways Chinese global strategy is actually focused on Europe," he told me. China knew the U.S. would eventually wake up to its "problem in the Pacific," but "Europe is a world away from the security questions in Asia.”
  • “If you’re going to have problems with the U.S., where do you go next? To Europe. That’s where they can harvest technology, it’s where they can harvest education, it’s where they can build their technological advantages. You have to do that by engaging with somebody who’s higher up the value chain, so if they’re going to see that erode in the United States they have to double down on it in Europe."
  • "That’s the Chinese approach. And they have to convince the Europeans they’re benign. ... What you have to think about in Europe is, what would it mean for your superpower partner to be defeated by authoritarian China?"

Ward says the solution is "the democratic world consolidating, integrating, pushing back, cutting China off from the things that will enable the continued rise toward their vision of power."

What to watch: "What will it mean for the prevailing norms in international relations to be decided by an authoritarian state where freedoms of speech, press, and assembly are extinguished for its citizens and those under its power?” Ward writes that if we lose the next decade, we'll soon find out.

  • I asked him where the U.S. will find the political will needed to truly embrace this challenge. He said to watch out for "Sputnik moments."

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