Made in China 2025, and Beijing’s Bid to Become the Global Superpower

Chinese President Xi Jinping / Getty

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) on Tuesday released a new report by the Senate Small Business Committee, which he chairs, on Made in China 2025, the Chinese government's initiative to transform the country into an advanced manufacturing economy. The ambitious plan, first issued in 2015, seeks to move 10 Chinese industrial sectors—aerospace, robotics, advanced railway, new materials, biotechnology, new energy vehicles, high-technology shipping, agricultural machinery, energy and power generation, and artificial intelligence and new-generation information technology—up the global value chain, first to become competitive with other advanced economies, and then globally dominant. To reach this pinnacle, China aims to become less dependent on foreign production, with the goal of increasing the domestic content of core materials to 70 percent by 2025, among other measures.

The report describes Made in China 2025, or MIC2025, as an existential threat to American industry. With its industrial plan, "China aims to become the global leader in innovation and manufacturing," Rubio writes in the introduction. "This would be an unacceptable outcome for American workers."

The report later explains why that outcome would be so detrimental. "A common defense of expanded trade with China is a claim of advantageous value chain position: in theory, the production of cheap mass-market consumer goods in China would produce an increase in the standard of living for American consumers and allow the United States to increase high-value exports to China and the rest of the world," the document states. "But what happens if, in reality, China makes these high-value products instead? That is the future envisioned by the ‘Made in China 2025' plan."

In other words, if Beijing's plan comes to fruition, Americans would need to spend more on imported goods and make less on exports, putting the United States in a vulnerable position—less wealth, less freedom, less power and influence.

To counter this threat, Rubio proposes several policy recommendations, including legislation that would restrict and tax Chinese investment in the United States and raise import duties on goods produced by industries that MIC2025 supports.

Rubio is right to identify China's plan as an effort to compete with, and ultimately supplant, the United States as a manufacturing power. But that is only a partial view of what the initiative represents. Made in China 2025 fits into Beijing's broader efforts to achieve the Chinese Dream, which President Xi Jinping has described as the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation." The implications of this vision go far beyond manufacturing or economics, encapsulating military might, culture, even the very makeup of society.

China is vying to supplant the United States as the center of power in international affairs. This desire stems from China's imperial history as the central power in Asia, during which states and territories in the region were deferential to the Middle Kingdom. China enjoyed self-reliance, which the country now seeks to recapture. In centuries past, Chinese leaders could put their feet up and watch Western powers beg for access to their market. Today, like then, many Chinese leaders, especially Xi, see themselves as rulers of a great civilization superior to other societies, deserving of deference by virtue of its very existence.

Beijing's various activities—from MIC2025, to its Belt and Road initiative across Eurasia, to its island-building in the South China Sea—betray its claims about a peaceful, innocent rise. China's near- and medium-term goal is to dominate east Asia, but China clearly has grander, global ambitions in the long run.

Beyond yearning for the imperial glory of old, China's industrial plan is "influenced by intense concerns about the dangers of lagging behind or remaining reliant upon foreign technologies, informed by the historical memory of China's past weaknesses and technological backwardness," writes Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Kania's statement brings to mind the century of humiliation from 1839 to 1949, when foreign powers, especially in the West, intervened in China at will and subjugated the country to their imperial desires. Xi and his comrades are well aware of this history and do not want their country to relive that moment, and fostering greater self-reliance and global economic power is a way to avoid such a fate.

Critics will say this description of China creates a dangerous zero-sum game with the United States. After all, China, like other countries, naturally wants to develop, so why should Washington have a problem? The issue is that China represents a different kind of vision for the world that is much darker, less free, and less prosperous. America's economy and security would suffer accordingly.

American supremacy has meant an open global economic system, international institutions meant to foster cooperation, and liberal political norms. It would be the great folly of modern history for American leaders to let that order dissolve away into the history textbooks, to be replaced by a corrupt Chinese system that is based on economic coercion, political submission, and ruthless brutality in the name of keeping some kind of "harmonious order" at home and abroad.

The Made in China 2025 initiative is not just a plan to become a manufacturing superpower, but also a plan to become the global superpower, period—meaning at America's expense.