The Decisive Decade: American Grand Strategy for Triumph over China

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The Decisive Decade: American Grand Strategy for Triumph over China by Jonathan D. T. Ward. Diversion Books, 2023, 304 pp.

In early 2023, General Mike Minihan of Air Mobility Command (AMC) published a provocative memo to his Airmen, warning of war with China in 2025. The memo incited not only immediate controversy, but also a sense of urgency.1 Qualifying every AMC military member on the Air Force service pistol, as suggested, wasn’t likely to defeat China. What actions, then, would be significant enough to shift the tide of conflict or stop it from breaking out altogether?

The Decisive Decade by Jonathan Ward seeks to answer this question. It analyzes the fundamental nature of competition between the United States and China and offers a framework for American victory. Ward’s background as a scholar and consultant on China and Russia is apparent in the broad-ranging threads the author calls upon to make his case. Serious scholars of the region may find the text light on historical examples and hard evidence, but it serves as a good entry point for readers new to the strategic competition space. Ultimately, it aims to persuade American and Allied business leaders to adopt a lens of Western values and national security, rather than one of pure economics.

The Decisive Decade imparts three takeaways: first, that the 2020s is the determinative decade in the US-China competition and the United States must force a “Great Divergence” between the two nations and their worldviews; second, that economic power is the key to victory and private industry currently holds that key; and third, that America must understand its adversary in order to defeat it, and out of this comprehension must come a new grand strategy (252). Ward analyzes each of these arguments through the four arenas of state power: economic, diplomatic, military, and information—or as he deems it, the arena of ideas.

Nearly half the book dissects economic power, arguing for the economic containment of China and renewed focus on American and Allied growth. This section proves the most compelling. China’s economy is projected to double America’s by 2030, underpinned by a “global grand strategy of the Chinese Communist Party CCP” contingent on economic supremacy (8–9). The past several decades of industrial and logistical offshoring have left key Western companies, including Apple and Caterpillar, overexposed. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has consolidated control over crucial segments of the semiconductor supply chain, creating US economic and defense vulnerabilities.

The book’s core takeaways for policymakers and business leaders prove to be one of its greatest strengths. It calls for an “alliance based trading system,” “secure allied supply chains,” “North American economic integration,” and the “engagement of American CEOs and business leaders” (252). Ward’s proposals represent a new American grand strategy. Its success will come down to business leaders and industry shifting away from profit maximization to values-driven decision-making. This strategy is likely to fail in a vacuum and will require strong government incentives in areas like education, research and development, and tax policy to move the needle.

This decade may be the last available window for course reversal. For now, total exports to and imports from China remain relatively low, leaving room to decouple. Ward lingers on the theory of economic interdependence, arguing that this strategy has failed to democratize China and must be abandoned. He points to gross Uyghur human rights abuses, as well as the state’s emergent form of techno-authoritarianism, to reinforce this argument. Further economic entanglement in China would be madness. The Civil Military Fusion Initiative—the CCP’s push to eliminate barriers between civilian commercial and research sectors and the military industrial base—in particular implicates most forms of investment or collaboration in research and development, high-tech industry, and advanced manufacturing as the CCP seeks to harness high-skill talent and resources from the West. If China’s rise has been powered by unfettered Western investment and offshoring, the solution is clear, at least to Ward: turn off the tap.

The Decisive Decade argues for immediate containment. The West should deny access to its markets, critical technological components, and global financial systems. It must do so by arresting legal, illegal, and extralegal transfers, curtailing US corporations in China and tasking the Intelligence Community and law enforcement to identify and stop illegal technology transfer. Ward’s piecemeal suggestions are not new; the Commerce Department, Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, and Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States have aggressively pursued counter-PRC efforts along these lines for the better part of a decade. Ward briefly touches on their work, where a deeper analysis of effectiveness would strengthen his case.

The remaining three arenas—military, diplomatic, and information—are relatively slimmer sections of the book. The Decisive Decade lays out a peacetime strategy to militarily deter and defeat China. The framing feels somewhat dated in 2024, with senior military leaders preparing for open conflict. Ward lauds the Department of Defense’s Pacific Deterrence Initiative—its move to strengthen its efforts and investments in the Indo-Pacific to meet the increasing threat of China—and calls for further efforts to create “archipelagic defense” along China’s flank via deterrence by denial (163). The strongest points in the military arena remain economic at their core: reconstituting US and Allied advantage in the “geographic, industrial, and technological domains” and fusing the civil-military defense industrial base across Allies (161). Ward paints the current moment as a decision point between American revanchism and isolationism, while in reality the tradeoff is between action and complacency. The section never fully answers the question of how to force urgency short of crisis; nonetheless, it paints a way ahead for competing with China not just in the Indo-Pacific, but also globally.

The Decisive Decade fills a niche in foreign policy literature, bridging the gap between the academic and accessible. It argues for reinvigorating innovation, uniting global democracies, and containing the threat of the PRC in the present decade and appeals to the better angels of American industry. The roadmap provided by Ward is a compelling one—if only those with the power to change the current course have the ears to hear it.

First Lieutenant Alexandra P. Vreeman

1 “Read for Yourself: The Full Memo from AMC Gen. Mike Minihan,” Air & Space Forces Magazine, January 30, 2023, https://www.airandspaceforces.com/.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."