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Title: An Assessment of Chinese Mercantilism as a Dual Circulation Strategy with Implications for U.S. Strategy
Date Originally Written: October 16, 2020.
Date Originally Published: October 30, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The article is written from the point of view of China towards regional states and the U.S.
Summary: China has become a dominant regional and global power through its export-centric mercantilist practices. This mercantilism underpins a larger expansionist foreign policy. China has reacted to U.S. and global economic pressure by instituting the Dual Circulation strategy, focusing on domestic consumption markets. U.S. strategies that do not take into account China’s Dual Circulation strategy will not be effective.
Text: Mercantilism, specifically Chinese mercantilism, is the macroeconomic policy of emphasizing exports and minimizing imports, and relates to the broad long-term economic strategy of Chinese trade and supply chain management. Mercantilism is tied to the broader concepts of Chinese expansion strategy which underpin its foreign policy. That Chinese foreign economic policy is growing and seeks to become a dominant regional and global power has, at the time of this authorship, become a relatively elementary platitude. Chinese economic and larger foreign policy is more complex and nuanced. The 2020 introduction of a Dual Circulation policy calls into question the monolithic approach of mercantilism, and has critical implications for U.S. strategists.
For historical background, in 1987, a Chinese economic policy advisor, Yuon Geng, suggested to then de facto state leader Deng Xaopeng the concept of Dual Circulation. In that context, he meant relying on low labor costs within the Chinese labor market to develop export capabilities, building foreign investments which thus improve domestic financial resources. This suggestion began an economic opening of China, and in the decades that followed, China developed into an export centric nation. The Chinese socialist system’s advantage in focusing and underwriting industrial capabilities allows China to, in Deng Xaopeng’s words, “concentrate power to do great things.” In this way, China emerged as the commonly understood world’s factory, especially after China’s admittance into the World Trade Organization in 2001.
With the now famous One Belt and One Road Initiative, China has devoted significant financial and diplomatic resources to developing infrastructure and trade relationships with dozens of states in the Indo-pacific region and beyond. This is a foundational tenet of Xi Jingping’s foreign policy.
One could thus assume that China uniformly pursues mercantilism strategy of concentrating all instruments of national power to develop a dominant, yet supporting, relationship in emerging markets and developing states and bolster an export economy.
However, the new reintroduction of a Dual Circulation Strategy adjusts the original meaning of Dual Circulation as intended by Yuon Geng. Here, China seeks to enhance its domestic markets and consumption over foreign investments, markets, and technology. It seeks to ease its dependence on foreign markets in favor of the domestic.
China’s policy goals of moving up the value chain, improving the overall wealth of China, and having a resilient economy are working under its export centric strategy, yet there has been an inward shift via Dual Circulation. China policy expert Andrew Polk believes that this inward shift is not a response to internal demand in China as much as it is a reaction to the external environment. External variables have changed significantly in recent years. In one way, the global economy and its state actors have exerted pressure on Chinese technology companies, such as in the case of the semiconductor industry. Second, the massive impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on the global economy has not yet receded. The Chinese export industry has been negatively affected as consumer demand falls. Dual Circulation is a reaction of the vagaries of the external economy that China seeks to remain resilient.
For those familiar with the ways, means, and ends framework of strategic thinking, Chinese economic ends have not changed. The ways, relying on and enhancing domestic economic capabilities, has shifted within the national strategic framework.
Vice Premier Liu He, Xi Jingping’s top economic advisor, has developed the Dual Dirculation concept, and seeks to de-risk the oversupplied industrial sector. This de-risking is reminiscent of his proposed Supply Side Structural Reform strategy of 2015, in which Liu He feared China relied too much on the export industry.
Most imperatively, the introduction of Dual Circulation amidst China’s mercantilist tendencies signifies a fundamental inflection point in strategy and macroeconomic thinking. Proximately, Dual Circulation means that China is unified on restructuring its macroeconomic strategy, which directly challenges other high-end manufacturing economies. More broadly, Dual Circulation indicates that China is vulnerable, or at least reactive, to external pressure and environments. This new policy further demonstrates that China estimates that powerful western economies, such as the U.S. and U.K., have focused too much on services and consumer centric industries and have not adequately supported and developed their manufacturing capabilities. China seeks to add the most value by dominating the high-end manufacturing sector in both its domestic and global economy, what Polk refers to as the German economic model of manufacturing.
Lingling Wei of the Wall Street Journal believes that Dual Circulation also exposes key defense industry implications in Chinese policy making. She argues that now is China’s “Sputnik moment” in that the recent U.S. trade war provides an opportunity to make significant policy shifts. The Chinese defense industry has been a focus of Xi Jingping’s reforming attention in recent months, moving key political allies with defense industry background. The defense industry focus includes recently installing a new deputy of the National Development Reform Commission. Wei suggests that China acknowledges its exposure in the defense supply chain where competitors like the U.S. can exert pressure.
Dual Circulation is highly relevant to U.S. national security and economic strategists. Since March, U.S. President Donald Trump has increased pressure on China, significantly shifting his policy azimuth. The Trump administration has closed the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas on charges of espionage, dispatched carrier strike groups to the South China Sea, blocked Chinese technology company activites, increased support to Taiwan, and made headlines with conflict and eventual merger with Tik Tok. Numerous political factors contributed to President Trump’s decisions which are outside the scope of this assessment. However, U.S. and allied leadership needs to understand the degree and nature of the impact from President Trump’s efforts. Strategists use all elements of national power to impact the environment: diplomatic, informational, military, and economic. China has signaled it will adjust its ways, enhancing domestic economic consumer markets, in order to ensure its ends, a resilient and regionally dominant economy, based on the external environment. If China can successfully pivot away from a pure mercantilism economy to a more resilient, self-sustaining economy, U.S. strategists may calculate a diminishing effect of its pressure tactics.
 Center for Strategic & International Studies. Online Event: The End of Chinese Mercantilism? YouTube.
 Blanchette, J. & Polk, Andrew (24 August, 2020). Dual Circulation and China’s New Hedged Integration Strategy. Center for Strategic & International Studies. https://www.csis.org/analysis/dual-circulation-and-chinas-new-hedged-integration-strategy
 Davis, B., O’Keeffe, K, & Wei, L. (16 October, 2020). U.S.’s China Hawks Drive Hard-Line Policies After Trump Turns on Beijing. Wall Street Journal.