Economic Competition in the 21st Century w/ Jonathan Ward author of China’s Vision of Victory.

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Ryan Morfin: Welcome to Non-Beta Alpha. I’m Ryan Morfin. On today’s episode, we have Jonathan Ward, the author of China’s Vision of Victory, talking to us about the economic competition coming to us in the 21st century. This is Non-Beta Alpha.
Jonathan, welcome to the show. Thanks for coming on today.
Jonathan Ward: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Ryan Morfin: So you wrote a book recently called China’s Vision of Victory, and I think it’s a very important book that our viewers should pay attention to because a lot of the financial community, Wall Street, have really benefited from globalization. But I think as you talk about in your book, and in many of your media appearances, that we might be funding a national security crisis. And so could you talk to us a little bit today about what is China’s View of Victory and what should Wall Street pay attention to going forward?
Jonathan Ward: Absolutely. So the way this all adds up, and I’ve been working on this question for nearly 15 years now, when I first started going to China, learning language, exploring the region, wound up doing my doctorate at Oxford after traveling for many years across the Eurasian continent and such, and then consulting for the Pentagon, and, finally, releasing Vision of Victory, and then beginning to advise US corporations on how to revise their Asia strategy.
So I’ve taken in a lot of different angles on this over the past decade. The bottom line was coming to understand the strategic view at the heart of the Communist Party of China provided an entirely different view as to what was going on when we think about the rise of China. Many people, particularly in the business community or on Wall Street, think about the rise of China basically in economic terms, but what they wouldn’t have had access to is what the real sort of end game is for the Communist Party of China.
I lay all of that out in the book in their own words. I was working on this using archival sources from China that have been closed to the world, using all kinds of different strategy documents and statements that go way back in modern Chinese history and also have just recently been coming out in the past years. But the bottom line is they seek domination of the international system.
They see this as a return to power. The whole narrative of the century of humiliation, which I think people have had a sort of glancing exposure to, the idea that they were once the center of the known world, and that’s really a medieval view, but then they were humiliated at the hands of other empires. And then with the founding of the People’s Republic of China and Mao Zedong and all the rest of this, they would set themselves on a course to ultimately rise to the top of the international system again.
How they’re doing this is through all of the news. I mean, if you gather all of the sort of daily information feeds about Chinese industry, economy, finance, the buildup of their military, any of that, I mean, these are really just little facets of a very big vision, which they call The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation, that seeks to create a world in which China is at the center economically, technologically and militarily, and ultimately really to live in a 21st dominated by China and its system of governance.
So that’s what we find ourselves in today. This is not lost on the capitalists of Asia, from Tokyo to New Delhi, and it is not lost on Washington across party lines. We all understand that China is the primary national security threat to essentially democracies worldwide. So to be investing in that, as though it’s some sort of growth opportunity, I think places many investment institutions into direct conflict with US national security and with the national security of many other countries worldwide.
So this is really a reckoning that needs to take shape and you have to get our economy, our business interests and our investors on back on the side of the United States of America, because globalization has essentially created this very dangerous force in the form of the People’s Republic of China, and it seeks power.
Ryan Morfin: So a lot of people often tell me that, “Look, this was similar to what happened in the US with the Japanese in the 1980s.” How is a rising China in the 21st century different given the circumstances today?
Jonathan Ward: Well, right. I mean, think of Japan. Japan was our treaty ally throughout the Cold War. That all took shape in a Cold War world where Japan was on our side. So even if they were becoming a sophisticated economic and technological rival, they were a national security partner. China is in the opposite camp. I mean, China is building a military that’s designed for conflict, for war with its region, and for conflict with the United States.
So even though economics is at the heart of what they see to do… I mean, they’ve envisioned themselves as surpassing the United States in the 2020s… what they’re doing… Here’s an assessment of the latest Pentagon report on China. They now have the world’s largest standing ground force, the world’s largest navy with 50 ships more than the US Navy, largest coast guard, Indo-Pacific’s largest air force, world’s largest substrategic missile forces. And their rhetoric is all about preparing to fight and win wars. Xi Jinping says this on a regular basis. He says, “All must be done with the ultimate goal of improving battle command capacities measured by the standards of being able to fight and win wars.”
So you ask yourself, what wars? They have territorial conflicts with Japan, with India. You saw the first use of the Chinese military against a neighbor in the 21st century in the Himalayas this summer. They’re talking openly about seizing Taiwan now. They’ve enacted the National Security Law in Hong Kong. Their main alliance is with Russian, and the United States is, as they see it, their primary adversary as they go after all these regional ambitions. So we’re in direct national security confrontation here.
Ryan Morfin: Maybe you can talk a little bit about their diplomatic prowess as well about entering and maybe infiltrating, if you will, international institutions post Bretton Woods, how they’ve been picking apart the infrastructure of the Old World Order from the 20th century to redefine it in the US in that anti-US context and the 21st.
Jonathan Ward: Right. This is where I think one has to begin talking about American strategy and the big change that’s underway here. I mean, the entire US strategy towards the People’s Republic of China since Nixon and Kissinger was essentially to bring them into the international system to the largest degree that we could, and that kept expanding so that they could help us balance the USSR.
Ultimately, they became a market, and we thought that that would create stability in the international order. Instead, what it did was it enriched the People’s Republic of China, which is an unreconstructed, Leninist, authoritarian, dictatorship, as we’ve all come to realize. I mean, those that have studied this in real depth understood that. But the US strategy, which we called Engage but Hedge, has failed completely. The idea was that engagement would lead to then becoming a responsible stakeholder and that we’d be able to hold the military balance and disincentivize them from any sort of regional adventurism.
But the bottom line is what we’ve actually done is funded an arms race against ourselves and against their neighbors. And that’s one that they’re essentially winning. That’s the part that we have to remember, is that we are losing this competition with China right now. This is not one where… Our edge shrinks with every passing year as their resources grow.
So, ultimately, this leads to the need for a new American grand strategy. And that’s after a year and a half since Vision of Victory came out and I’ve done over a hundred speeches, media appearances, articles, interviews, all kinds of things. I mean, everything that was coming to me, whether I was speaking to India or Japan or people in the United States or people in a variety of different industries or in the military, the questions that I got were usually two-fold.
One was, “Is this really possible?” And the answer is yes. When you go through all their strategies, as I’ve laid out, you see them making progress on this. The answer is yes. They could achieve this. The other is, “Can we stop it?” That’s the question that matters. So for me, for the past eight months or so, the entire thing has been, “What do we do about this? How do we stop it?”
It’s going to be a new American strategy that allows us basically to maintain the military balance but to fight and win the economic competition. So we’re going to be… I mean, the heart of this contest with China is economic, and this is another reason that the finance community is so important and that they have a genuine understanding of what’s going on here, as opposed to sort of understanding that it has to do with investment and growth alone.
We are going to have to out-compete China in the strategic industries and the emerging technologies that matter. We’re going to have to hold the military balance in the Pacific, create new and deeper alliances with other countries like India, and, ultimately, we’re going to have to stay ahead of them economically.
So the other side of that coin is that we’re going to have to do some level of containment on China, making sure that they do not grow into the superpower that they see themselves becoming.
Ryan Morfin: And so the State Department in some ways has been reduced post the Cold War. Nation building and soft power have not been our strong suits, I would say, as we kind of scale down a bit.
Back in the 1940s, we had the Office of Economic Warfare. What do we need to do as a government approach to recalibrate how we’re looking at competing against the Chinese military-civil fusion?
Jonathan Ward: Right. So yeah. Military-civil fusion or civil-military fusion has a variety of different names here. I mean, it’s basically the militarization of the Chinese civilian economy, which means that any strategic industry, any emerging technology will be brought to the Chinese military so that it can close the gap with the United States and ultimately build a military that can defeat the United States and other partners for us, such as Japan or India or Australia.
That means that you take things like Made in China 2025 and you start looking at their civil military fusion applications, and you take a list of industries, like next generation ICT or aerospace or robotics or high-tech ships. All of this, obviously, has dual-use implications. You take their investments in AI or quantum [inaudible 00:10:06]. And what we’re going to have to do is we have to remember that China only got here because we invited them into the international system.
The People’s Republic of China, their history in the 20th century is not one in which they were part of the sort of formation of these international institutions. They were not. They were excluded fundamental… somewhat late in the 20th century. And we brought them in thinking that that would bring stability again.
Ultimately, it’s going to be about cutting them out of the things that give them power and that give them undue growth potential and the ability to exploit the international system and the international economy such that they continue to progress in industries and technologies that count. At the same time, China’s rise is basically made up of access to global export markets, to global capital markets and to technology worldwide. So you start to cut back on those three things.
Many people see inviting them into the WTO is the turning point, but we’ve really just begun to use the toolkit. The US has a very sophisticated toolkit for economic containment and even economic warfare. Commerce is unleashing that and in a variety of different directions that go beyond technology. You look at China Communications Construction Corporation being sanctioned over the summer, and you’re seeing that this has been applied to industries that are not just the high-tech contest. And then, we’re going to have to start doing that.
Ultimately, Treasury is going to have to get involved too. It’s our financial system. It’s China’s access to the international financial system that really will allow them to reach the next horizon in their quest for power. So we’re going to have to start cutting them off from that too bit by bit.
Ryan Morfin: What are your thoughts on the TikTok transaction and how that’s unfolded? It seems that [inaudible] in the US, Trump took a hard line on this and multinationals came into the rescue for the Chinese company with a very opaque solution that similar to the, we’ll call it the Germans in the 1930s, have some vague language about how the outcome is going to look so they can stretch the outcome in the way they want to.
What are your thoughts about what happened with TikTok?
Jonathan Ward: Well, I guess we are in the midst of that news emerging. So, at this point, we’re sitting here with a potential Oracle Walmart purchase there that would keep [inaudible] in the picture, and that therefore would keep the Chinese government in the picture.
I think the other thing that’s happened as this news emerges is that the Party’s Central Commission released a new basically policy guideline in strengthening the role of the Party in the private economy. So, now, there’s even less reason to believe, not that there ever was a reason to believe, that the Party was separate from private businesses. But now they’re breaking those lines down even further.
So they’ve called to strengthen ideological guidance in private corporations and to create a backbone of private, essentially, business people who can be reliable at useful critical moments. And then for private companies to participate in what they call major national strategies from [inaudible] to the basically safeguarding China’s overseas and other national interests.
So bottom line is if China is still in the deal, Chinese [inaudible] anything, that to me seems to be the heart of the problem. So the idea that it would be American controlled, the algorithms would be turned over to the United States, the data security would be protected that way, that seems to be the only outcome that’s really going to solve the objectives that the president stated as to safeguarding of [inaudible 00:13:53].
Ryan Morfin: There’s been movies about it. It’s starting to get more traction in written press, this idea that Chinese companies are getting listed in the US with potentially fraudulent financials, and they’re not held by the same standards. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Jonathan Ward: Sure. And Secretary Mnuchin said that they would have to be compliant by 2022. So the bottom line is there is a timer being set as to the old rules on Chinese listings on US exchanges, the idea that they could call their books national state secrets and therefore not let the SEC see them. This is crazy. This is the entire sort of meltdown of US engagement with China.
At a certain point, nobody was watching this strategy anymore and everybody just assumed that the end state would arrive that integrating China was an inherent good, so we just let them break every single rule. They never became a market economy. They never abided by SEC rules in their listings. None of this. You take the entire list and they’ve broken everything.
Now, it’s almost as though, guess what? All we’re trying to do is impose the rules that existed that we just never held them to. And that still is going to create a series of disruptions, because it’s going to mean less integration of China into the global economy, and it’s also going to be more pushback from the Chinese government.
They have their own way of fighting this contest against the United States. We’re going to start to see that happen too. The biggest problem we’ve gotten, I think, is the exposure of multinational corporations to the China market. This is why, as we were talking earlier, you’re really going to want to see… I think there may be some level of fiduciary responsibility to explain a company’s risk exposure to China, supply chain risk, market risk, risk of retaliation.
And that risk in any earnings call should be a much bigger discussion now, whether you’re Nike or Starbucks or Apple or any of them, because at the end of the day, I don’t think the market really has priced in the nature of this geopolitical turning point. We’re at the beginning of the decisive decade in US-China relations.
This is where the contest really gets serious, because they could surpass us economically. They will try, and we will realize that that’s unacceptable. That’s the heart of the competition. A whole bunch of new tools are going to have to be deployed. So our companies need to be dealing with this in their boardrooms, in their C-suites, in their strategy offices, in their risk offices. And so do our banks. Because at the end of the day, our companies are how we win this.
You start to bring the US Fortune 500 back to a sort of US national interest worldview. That’s how we won World War II. That’s how we won the Cold War. It’s even how we won the mini contest with Japan, which was not at all as serious as any of these events.
Ryan Morfin: In a recent survey from Bloomberg, 84% of companies, US companies, have no intention of moving back infrastructure back to the US. They spent $14 trillion last year in long-term investments globally into China.
What way can we wake up the boardrooms, can we wake up the C-suite, institutional investors, shareholders? What do we need to do to get Americans focused on bringing back infrastructure to Mexico or near shoring it somewhere where they can have a much friendlier, just in case kind of footprint for supply chain?
Jonathan Ward: Sure. I think they’re dealing with the supply chain questions already. That’s sort of become the… Hot topic right now is China Plus One or diversification or just… But I don’t think they’re moving fast enough. I think that’s clear.
I think we have to remember that there are two ways that people actually wake up to big things, and that’s either with foresight or through events. You don’t want to be in a boardroom that’s dealing with the US-China problem because it was an event, because something has really happened in your sector or to your company that you just chose to ignore or sort of cross this bridge when we come to type thing.
People need to be looking a little farther down the field. Not even 10 years. Ideally, you’re looking at a timeline that gets you to the whole 2020s and understanding how this shakes out. But at least three to five to understand how this relationship between China and the world is really changing, because then suddenly getting deeply into that market doesn’t look so wise.
This is a country that’s in confrontation with its region and with the United States. So to consider that that’s going to be a stable long-term bet just doesn’t make sense.
Ryan Morfin: No, that’s interesting. That coupling that you mentioned is really interesting. Like in the financial industry, we always have to disclose conflict of interest. Some might say that the huge amount of treasuries China buys gives them undue leverage in our political system and our capital markets.
Do you think we’re at risk as a country? I mean, whether it’s the university systems, corporate America, of falling into a trap where knowingly or unknowingly Americans and executives have… There’s been an engineered kind of bribery scheme by the Chinese, as they implement in Africa, in Asia. Have they created these conflict of interest that may put leadership at the highest levels here in this country exposed to conflict of interest?
Jonathan Ward: Well, I think they’ve been very sophisticated at… A lot of China’s influence operations, which at this point are very well documented and well understood. The United Front Work Department, the way that it operates globally from Australia to Europe to America, this is known. They’re basically trying to create an image of China is a friend, China is an investment, China is a win-win, China is an inevitability. That’s done pretty sophisticatedly throughout the international system.
There are many, many countries that are exposed to that, including our own. But I think at the end of the day, it’s basically something where I don’t think they’ve really made those inroads as profoundly in the United States as they have in many other places. It’s still very possible to… I think the political consensus has already emerged in both parties that China is the main adversary.
Look at what’s been passed in Congress on a regular basis. It’s being passed almost unanimously, whether it’s Hong Kong or related to Xinjiang or all sorts of things. So I think you’re seeing a real coming together around this issue here. But what’s more dangerous is the incentivization of the business community to continue to engage in China. That’s really where they’ve been most successful, much more so than with governments or politics in general.
So you really don’t want a world in which, as has happened, a group of CEOs are going to Beijing and coming back to sort of say, “Hey, look, we really should try and fix this relationship.” That is arguing against the broader national interest here. So I think the more that the business community waits to acknowledge the sort of scope of this problem, the harder it’s going to be, not just for their risks in China but for their opposition to US strategy and policy.
We really need to make that switch as soon as possible, where we can start working on the same team, looking for new growth opportunities, looking to rebuild a lot of things in the United States, looking to position the United States as the leader in all the key industries and technologies of 21st century, and looking to continue to globalize across the international system that is made of democracies. That’s still two-thirds of world GDP, from Europe to Japan to Australia.
We take the whole sort of US Alliance system and you’re talking about two-thirds of the planets gross domestic product. So that’s where we want to be focused. I think those that are thinking that way are playing the long game, whereas those that are trying to go into China are playing the short game that’s going to put them in a pincher between both the Chinese Communist Party and ultimately the US government.
Ryan Morfin: How do we bring our allies along? You’ve got Germany kind of at odds with us on the Russia treatment. You’ve got Australia saying, “We’d love to confront China, but they’re our biggest trading partner.”
What can the US do to get that alignment of Western democracies to confront China?
Jonathan Ward: Well, it’s case by case. Each country has its own sort of assessment. Germany is a good example of a country where, by most accounts, Merkel has been all about engagement, even as that becomes sort of a longer walk off a short pier, in western governments. Whereas, her backbenchers aren’t having this anymore, and that’s starting to become a real reckoning in German parliament.
But I think the real key to this is going to be… And I think India is a very important key to this picture because you have to have the potential for another center of growth, another emerging economy that can handle some of the… do some of the things that don’t make as much economic sense in the industrial democracies. I think once you have India as kind of a linchpin of an international democratic system…
If Indian America are working together, as we clearly at this point have a very robust military relationship, but the economic relationship hasn’t reached its full potential. I think many companies outside of certain industries, like tech and IT are just… India is too complicated for them. But going and figuring out India in the 2020s, I think we would benefit similar to those that spent the ’90s and the 2000s trying to figure out China.
One of the important pieces of that is the long-term political stability of the US-India relationship and the fact that many of these other countries that you’ve mentioned, from Australia to parts of Europe, are also… I mean, the security relationship with India is becoming more and more important in the Pacific. You look at the Pentagon, for example, and the entire… I gave the opening speech to the Indo-Pacific Command last year at their China conference, and the entire command was renamed from Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command to essentially account for what the geopolitics of Asia look like today when you include India and China.
So getting a new view of the world, that’s really what needs to happen in every boardroom and every chief investment officers’ team, just starting to understand what the dynamics of 2020s really look like, because we haven’t been through geopolitical disruption on this scale since the end of the Cold War.
This is an era-making disruption. I think looking at it in a short-term way is going to be very dangerous. You really want to have a long-term game plan.
Ryan Morfin: Absolutely. It’s something that people needed to be factoring into their investment strategies.
Are you worried at all about China’s alignment further with Iran, and now you’re seeing the peace deals between Bahrain, UAE and Israel. Are we starting to see the shaping up of a conflict Sunni-Shia, Shia backed by China, West backing the Sunni, for a broader disruption here in the Middle East?
Jonathan Ward: No, I think that’s possible. I spent a couple of years in the Middle East. Arabic is one of my languages. I got to see a whole lot of the region. Yeah, the realignment of the Middle East is basically happening because of Iran’s growing power and the Israel sort of Arab alignment that’s happening now is driven by that. And then China is stepping in, partly because you can look at a whole lot of their international strategy simply as resource procurement and energy security and that kind of thing.
It’s like, where can they secure long-term political relationships as they begin to understand that the West is going to come into some kind of coalition against them? So I think that Iran certainly seems to be where they’re making their long-term bets, And it also has, from their vantage point, the added benefit of being in the anti-Western camp.
So if you put Russia and China and China and Iran and the sort of three of them together, I think you’re starting to see one of the bigger geopolitical alignments that’s going to last for a while, if that does indeed continue.
Iran does have relations with India, of course, and that’s going to make things very interesting too. India has been looking to offset China’s CPEC corridor through building their own relations with the Iranians.
So a lot of these things are going to change at a very tectonic level. This is not going to be the politics of globalization, sort of competitive advantage and full-spectrum just economic possibility of this is going to be the sort of investment landscape of oppositional blocks that have sort of different capabilities here. But yeah, I think China and Iran is shaping up as an interesting piece of the picture.
Ryan Morfin: A few last final questions for you. This is what we call the human factor. It’s just a quick yes or no type of answer to these questions we ask all of our guests and the end of season two.
First question is, if there is a COVID vaccine available right now, would you take it?
Jonathan Ward: Oh, I don’t think I should comment on that.
Ryan Morfin: Okay. No problem.
Number two, who do you think is going to win the election? Trump or Biden?
Jonathan Ward: I think it’s a coin toss, at this point. I think it’s easy to argue that either way. But American politics is… I spend more time thinking about sort of US strategy and such than US politics. I think, one thing that’s worth talking about, commenting on here, is a lot of people see this election as a juncture in the US-China relationship. I don’t think that’s entirely true.
I think that the assessment of what China means in the Pentagon and the intelligence community and Congress, that’s fully there. We know that China is the adversary. I think in US government very broadly that that’s known. So then the question of how you go out and deal with this is another subject.
I think Biden would prioritize some things and Trump would prioritize others. Biden, for instance, likes to talk about being able to go out and build a coalition around this problem. Trump has obviously demonstrated that they’re willing to take the bull by the horns when it comes to the economic issues.
So either way, you’re dealing with this. This isn’t going away. I think if we take our foot off the gas on this, for any reason, the problem just gets bigger. So this is what’s going to happen in the 2020s. We’re dealing with the problem of China.
Ryan Morfin: Do you think we’re in an economic recovery right now? Does it feel like that too?
Jonathan Ward: I’d say to some degree but not compared to what it’s going to be when we all get to leave the house again.
Ryan Morfin: Anything you achieved this summer, personally, that you’re proud of, like any new hobbies or write a new book?
Jonathan Ward: Sure. Well, bringing my company online. So I founded Atlas Organization in 2017, realizing that over the long run, pretty much every American business is going to have to change its strategy towards Asia and that this is the central geopolitical issue of our time.
I basically did that, built the business by going out and speaking to numerous audiences. And then I’m necessarily an internet guy, but I’m starting to take it there and do all kinds of briefings to funds and banks and companies through the internet, which actually can lead to a whole lot of engagement here. Because it’s a lot easier now to bring your team together around these questions, start dealing with them and they’re pressing issues. They are issues that give you foresight. But it’s never been easier to get people together to start digging into this and what it means for you, your portfolio, your company, and our country.
So that’s been a big benefit, but as an entrepreneur and a sort of former scholar, bringing this all into the new era of sort of how things work has been a real summer project.
Ryan Morfin: Absolutely. All businesses have shifted their marketing channels, which is great. It’s making us all, I think, more efficient. Any silver linings you see for us, the US-China relationship in ’21?
Jonathan Ward: I guess the way I look at it, some people say that the US-China relationship is the world’s most important relationship, and I really don’t think so. I say this as someone with a doctorate in sort of Chinese studies, China-India relations, who’s been studying this since I first got into the language as a 21-year-old.
I don’t think our key relationship is with China. Our key relationship is with everyone else. It’s about bringing the world together. I think the silver lining here is that there’s still an opportunity for us to go out and build the world that we wanted to have before these dictatorships grew powerful in the free system. So that can be built now. I think that’s where the opportunities are.
Again, the right way to go is to be working on how growth works in America, how integration works around the democracies and the allied nations, and what the next frontier in strategic industries and key technologies is going to be. Because it’s going to be driven by the biggest tailwind of geopolitical necessity that those living today have ever witnessed.
Ryan Morfin: Wow. That comment you made there a minute ago, “Our key relationship is with everyone else,” that’s a really powerful comment and I totally agree with that. It’s building those allies.
Last question for you. What are you reading, watching, listening to on podcasts? What are you doing to kind of gather more information or achieve your interests?
Jonathan Ward: You asked about another book. I am working on a new book about US grand strategy in the 21st century. So a lot of what I’m reading is sort of esoteric tomes, like Western Economic Warfare in 1957 to ’65. I’m reading something by Clyde Prestowitz right now that’s fascinating. Talking to a lot of people that actually were part of the US-Japan 1980s, and getting back into American grand strategy, history US grand strategy.
But my bookshelf is mostly China, India related stuff from the old doctoral days. But the key thing now for me is figuring out how the US goes forward and how we engage our business community. I read a ton of CEO biographies as written biography [inaudible]
Ryan Morfin: Fantastic. Well, Jonathan, learned a lot today. I appreciate your time. I appreciate your book. I appreciate your scholarship on this very important issue. As we go into the post-election season, it’s something that I think no matter who wins is going to be top of mind, top of agenda. So thank you so much.
Thanks for watching Non-Beta Alpha. And before we go, please remember to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, YouTube and Spotify. This is Non-Beta Alpha, and now, you know.

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