Few disputes are as vital to global stability as the confrontation of the West with China in the South China Sea. Between one-fifth to one-third of global trade passes through the region each year, and China’s desire to control these shipping lanes has sparked violent territorial conflict.[i] As much as economics or geopolitics may motivate the dispute, beneath the waves of conflict resides the clash of two diametrically opposed worldviews. When China violated international law, the US sought to uphold it. With China emerging as a political and economic force, until China or the US experiences a change in ideology, a resolution to the South China Sea conflict is unlikely. Yet often forgotten is that much of China may convert to Christianity by 2050. What are the implications of such a projection, and how might it affect US and Western foreign policies toward China?

Religious Demographics

According to Fenggang Yang, a leading scholar on Chinese religion, Christianity could become the largest religion in China by 2050, with nearly two-thirds of the population believing in Christianity.[ii] If anything close to Yang’s estimates hold true, China may experience a proverbial religious metamorphosis. Currently, over half of China’s population identifies as unaffiliated with any religion, and over 20 percent believe in folk religions.[iii] Xi Jinping has expressed a strong affinity for Confucianist virtues, even characterizing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a defender of Confucianism.[iv] Given the cult of personality that surrounds Xi, many Chinese citizens and government officials, at least nominally, believe and act according to Xi’s hybrid atheist-Marxist-Confucianist worldview.

A shift in China from an atheist-Marxist-Confucianist worldview to a worldview associated with Christianity would be profound. Combined with Marxism’s proclivity to moral relativism, Confucianist values like filial piety and ancestor worship mix to produce a mindset in Chinese officials that is strongly supportive of the chain of command, regardless of the morality of the orders received. This hybrid worldview is paradoxical to the Christian mindset—a mindset that values objective truth even above the orders or beliefs of one’s superiors or family. When Jesus claimed to be “the way, and the truth, and the life,” he made a claim of moral objectivity and exclusivity. If traditional Christianity saturates China by 2050, the days of broad support for the CCP could end. At the very least, more Chinese citizens would be inclined to question the CCP’s current actions and policies. Prima facie, this threatens Xi Jinping and the CCP’s power. At most, it could change how China operates domestically and internationally.

For instance, much of the ongoing conflict in the South China Sea stems from China’s disregard for international law. According to the Emory International Law Review, the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) clearly states that “China [and other countries] cannot… claim maritime zones beyond its 200-nautical mile… limit.”[v] While China signed and agreed to UNCLOS, numerous Chinese claims in the South China Sea surpass this limit, including China’s claim on the Spratly Islands—a strategic island chain that is over 740 miles away from China’s coast.[vi] The only support China provides for its overreach is its nine-dash line, an expansive territorial claim that scholars think is “absurd” and that some official Chinese law experts have been unable to justify.[vii] By making and enforcing its nine-dash line, China has claimed nearly the entire South China Sea as its sovereign maritime territory. With large portions of the world’s trade passing through these waters, China’s claims act as a direct affront to freedom of navigation and as an attempt to control unlawfully a large portion of the world’s economy.

Recent events in Hong Kong likewise reflect China’s reluctance to honor its international commitments. Before the United Kingdom returned sovereignty of Hong Kong to China, China and the UK signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. The declaration and resulting documents outline that China would grant Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” that includes “freedoms of the press, expression, assembly, and religion” at least until 2047.[viii] Yet in 2017, China claimed that the declaration was a non-binding, historical document.[ix] Additionally, in response to recent Hong Kong protests, China announced plans to enact national security legislation that could substantially undermine a broad range of freedoms in Hong Kong. According to one Johns Hopkins professor, this act by China demonstrates that the “one country, two systems” framework, as agreed upon by the Sino-British Joint Declaration, “is, if not already over, almost over.”[x]

If Yang’s predictions regarding the growth of Christianity in China were to emerge, they could threaten the internal legitimacy of the CCP’s policies. No longer would the CCP be the sole arbiter of morality if many in China view God’s law as the highest law. This could cause many Chinese citizens to question the CCP’s violations of international law or human rights. What happens when Chinese soldiers or municipal leaders doubt the legitimacy of the CCP’s domestic or international actions? While far from certain, the impacts of a surge in Christianity in China could drastically alter China’s internal politics and, over time, alter its interactions with the international community.

Implications for Policies toward China

If such religious demographic changes in China occur, there are significant implications for US policy. The US should consider a strategy of long-term stalling in the South China Sea, aiming to avoid conflict with China in the near-term while still defending freedom of navigation. Any direct military confrontation with China in the South China Sea would be difficult and costly for America to win. Likewise, ceding China control of the sea could result in an effective blockade of Taiwan, the enforcement of an air defense identification zone, or the prevention of effective defense agreements between Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and the United States.[xi] Consequently, by balancing displays of force with displays of restraint, the US should aim to avoid conflict with China and to buy time for Christianity to transform substantially China’s aggressive policies.

A second implication is that the initial stages of such a sea change could prove even more threatening than the status quo. First, the recognition of such a shift in-progress could stimulate adventurism by China’s elite, designed to rally popular Chinese unity around the defense of the nation and political control by the Chinese Communist Party. Second, it could also initiate a repression against Chinese Christians inside and outside China that would make the Uighur persecutions pale in comparison.

In the first case, there are historical precedents for concerns over Chinese adventurism due to the response of Japan to its pre-World War II problems. As Kitajima Masamoto and Takeshi Toyoda describe in their work The Rise of the Militarists, Japan ended up concluding it had no alternatives to military action to solve its economic and social problems. These circumstances were brought about by the depression of the 1930s, tariffs on food and other imports on which it depended, and immigration issues that the League of Nations was unable or unwilling to solve.[xii] China may be headed down a similar path, with their ongoing “island making” in the South China Sea and the condemnations of those actions by the United Nations. These are strikingly similar to the condemnations by the League of Nations of Japan’s Manchurian adventure for economic and industrial reasons in the late 1920s and 1930s, which ultimately led to Japan’s entry to WWII.

In the second case, the ongoing mistreatment of the Muslim Uighurs underscores the potential for unintended consequences for Chinese Christians from such religious trends. China’s leadership appears to have made the calculation that repression of a religious-based minority—in the current situation, the Muslim Uighurs—is a small price to pay for civil security and a remedy to its perceived ideological threat to the Chinese Communist Party. If Christians in China were to be perceived as a truly significant social and political influence in Chinese society, it is not difficult to imagine an attempt at an overwhelming repression of such a threat by the leadership of the CCP.

What Is the West to do?

How should Western nations react to these circumstances? Do we continue diplomacy to periodically assert the dominance of Western power and international frameworks, underscoring the importance of intellectual property rights or rights to freedom of navigation in international waters—figuratively drawing a line in the sand? Do we take a more flexible approach in the near-term and attempt to avoid military conflict with China and potentially yield literal or figurative strategic ground, hoping for an improvement in relations over time? In either case, do we actively attempt to foster such an ideological revival in China, as some Western efforts attempted to do in the Soviet Union during the Cold War with Radio Free Europe and smuggling popular books and periodicals behind the Iron Curtain? If Christianity begins to emerge as the largest religion in China over the next few decades, answering these questions will be one of the most important strategic political challenges to Western and US leaders in the first half of the twenty-first century.

Please note that the opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the US government.

[i] China Power Team, “How much trade transits the South China Sea?” China Power, August 2, 2017, last modified October 10, 2019, chinapower.csis.org.

[ii] Fenggang Yang, “Exceptionalism or Chinamerica: Measuring Religious Change in the Globalizing World Today,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 55 (June 2016): 7-22, onlinelibrary.wiley.com.

[iii] “East Asia/Southeast Asia: China,” The World Factbook 2020, last modified June 11, 2020, accessed June 17, 2020, www.cia.gov.

[iv] Chris Buckley, “Xi Touts Communist Party as Defender of Confucius’s Virtues,” New York Times, February 13, 2014, sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com.

[v] Julie Franki, “Seize the Sea: The Territorial Conflict Between the United States and China Over Military Operations in the South China Sea,” Emory International Law Review, accessed June 17, 2020, https://law.emory.edu/eilr/recent-developments/volume-31/essays/seize-sea-conflict-united-states-china-military-south-china.html.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Eleanor Albert, “Democracy in Hong Kong,” Council on Foreign Relations, last modified May 22, 2020, accessed June 17, 2020, www.cfr.org.

[ix] Ben Blanchard et. al., “China Says Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong no longer has meaning,” Reuters, June 30, 2017, www.reuters.com.

[x] Shibani Mahtani et al., “China to impose sweeping security law in Hong Kong, heralding end of city’s autonomy,” Washington Post, May 21, 2020, www.washingtonpost.com.

[xi] “U.S.-China Strategic Competition in South and East China Seas,” Congressional Research Service, March 13, 2020, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R42784.pdf.

[xii] Kitajima Masamoto, Takeshi Toyoda, and others, “The Rise of the Militarists,” Encyclopedia Britannica,accessed May 27, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/place/Japan/The-rise-of-the-militarists.