It is tempting to say we are at a crossroads in U.S.-China relations. Tempting. But wrong.
We have passed the crossroads and we are already, unfortunately, dangerously, well on our way down the wrong path.
As Edward Luce pointed out in an insightful column in the Financial Times, we are already effectively engaged in a Cold War with China. “The consensus,” he writes, “is now so hawkish that it is liable to see any outreach to China as weakness.” You could hear that hawkish consensus in the words of U.S. intelligence chiefs as they testified before the Congress during their annual threat assessment hearing on Wednesday.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines cited China’s ruling Communist Party as the “most consequential” national security threat the U.S. faces. Never mind domestic extremism, enabled by one of the two major political parties. Never mind global warming. Never mind Russia waging an active war in Europe while aggressively pumping out disinformation and promoting authoritarianism worldwide.
No, even while acknowledging the existence of threats posed by domestic extremists, Russia, and global warming, the consensus of the intelligence community, supported by leaders of both parties, is that China is the enemy we need to keep an eye on.
Why? Why is it such a great threat even though the country has no history of conquest beyond its region in 5,000 years of history and is far from being able or inclined to pose a direct threat of attack to the U.S.? According to Haines, the reason focusing on China is the intel community's top priority is that China is “increasingly challenging the United States economically, technologically, politically, and militarily around the world.” She continued, asserting that the goal of China’s President Xi Jinping is to “continue efforts to achieve Xi’s vision of making China the preeminent power in East Asia and a major power on the world stage.”
Let’s break that down.
Is there something inherently wrong or dangerous about China seeking to challenge the United States economically, technologically, or politically? Isn’t that what all nations do? Don’t we believe in the inherent superiority of our system? Don’t we believe in the benefits of competition? (I thought that was fundamental to America’s national identity and values.)
Challenging us militarily is more worrisome, of course. But if their primary goal is power in East Asia, if they have never projected force in any meaningful way beyond their region, and if all nations seek to have sufficient power that they cannot be bullied by global hegemons (and let’s be realistic, we’re the only global hegemon in this conversation at the moment), isn’t their desire to have military power consistent with the size of their country, their economy, and their national security interests what we should expect of them? Is that inherently a threat to us?
It’s not if China does not seek to use that force to attack us. And Haines herself noted that China’s leaders believe that “it benefits most by preventing a spiraling of tensions and by preserving stability in its relationship with the United States.”
None of this is to say that China is a benign actor. It is not to minimize our deep and wide-ranging differences with that country and its leaders. Our principles and our interests demand that we challenge China’s human rights abuses among the Uighurs in its Northwest or in Hong Kong. We should continue to actively oppose China providing any assistance, especially of the lethal variety, to Russia, to aid in that country’s brutal and illegal war with Ukraine. And we should use all the means at our disposal to keep China from projecting its power in dangerous or inflammatory ways in its region. Notably, that means we must have policies that provide Taiwan and our other regional allies with the kind of support that we feel is consistent with our interests.
Does that necessarily mean going to war with China to defend Taiwan?
I can understand why we continue to say it might, because preserving democracy in Taiwan is in our interests. But we never talk about going to war to preserve democracy when it is at risk in places like Hungary, Turkey, India, or Mexico. What makes Taiwan a special case? We need to ask ourselves whether that has to do with our predisposition to contain Chinese power more than it has to do with a careful assessment of U.S. national interests. (Especially as we are now finally taking steps to reduce our unhealthy dependence on Taiwanese semiconductors.)
The problem with the current apparent decision to treat China as an enemy and an existential threat is that it can lead to distorted views on certain issues—such as Taiwan. (We should help Taiwan the way we help Ukraine, with military and financial aid, training and intelligence but not more than that.) Such issues can become red lines or trigger points for escalation in an unhealthy way.
We saw that when then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year. Now, it is reported that the U.S is planning to welcome Taiwan’s president to the U.S.
How does doing so help us? Do the benefits of standing shoulder-to-shoulder outweigh the risks of escalation? Are we thinking about this clearly?
Let’s be real for a moment.
What really bothers us about China’s rise is that they are quite open about the fact that they want to challenge our influence in the world. We want to be No. 1. We don’t like being challenged.
But isn’t it reasonable for China to want such influence? After all, throughout world history until the start of the industrial revolution, China had the world’s largest economy and it is now resuming that role. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to expand our influence, to be more prosperous, to enhance the security and quality of life of all Americans. It just means we need to get over the idea that somehow the U.S.-China relationship is a zero-sum conflict, the way the U.S.-Soviet Union relationship was.
It’s not. Our economies are intertwined. Over 70,000 U.S. companies are active in China. There is not a single major global issue we can resolve without cooperating with China. On many of them, our interests intersect. On some of them, they overlap.
In such a world, choosing enmity with an essential sometime partner/sometime influential rival is dangerous and contrary to our interests. Further, even if our goal is to maximize our influence and our piece of the global economic pie, we need to carefully weigh whether a Cold War and ballooning military expenditures are the best way to balance our interests. It can be argued that overspending on defense has and will cost us influence and undercut the dynamism of our economy.
Shouldn’t we at least consider that investing in our people, our infrastructure, our schools, our research facilities, and our overall competitiveness is a better choice? Shouldn’t we consider that growing stronger from within should be our top priority now? That a Cold War stance or one that seeks to decouple from the Chinese economy (or isolate it to the point of exacerbating deep tensions between our economies) is the biggest possible mistake we could make?
And, we must also ask, isn’t it in our interest for China to grow more prosperous, to be able to draw on Chinese industry and creativity to help drive progress?
But, the hawks may ask, isn’t China the one being more bellicose? That was the reading many gave to remarks given this week by both President Xi and by his foreign minister, Qin Gang. The Wall Street Journal reported that Xi “issued an unusually blunt rebuke of U.S. policy on Monday, blaming what he termed a Washington-led campaign to suppress China for recent challenges facing his country.” He asserted that the U.S. had been at the forefront of an effort to contain, encircle, and suppress China. He went on to point out that Western efforts to cut off the supply of advanced technologies to China cause “unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development.”
Being called out by the Chinese leader may have been uncomfortable for the U.S. But, as it happens, everything Xi said was true. The U.S. is actively seeking to contain China and impede its ability to develop key technologies.
China’s foreign minister said, “If the United States does not hit the brakes but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing and there will surely be conflict and confrontation.” That too, as it happens, is true.
Indeed, it is a warning that we in the U.S. should not simply dismiss as the rhetoric of a foreign minister just doing his job pumping out his country’s line.
Just as some of the greatest real threats the U.S. faces come from within our own borders, so are some of the greatest threats we face internationally driven or exacerbated by domestic factors.
China is a rival. China threatens a wide variety of U.S. interests. We should believe in our hearts that our values and system serve the world better than theirs do and we should seek to persuade the world of that.
But if our goal is really to emerge from the period ahead of us stronger, with our people and our world better off, it would serve us well to heed Qin’s words. We have, I fear, entered a period in which the self-interested search of our defense establishment and our political classes for an international enemy are pushing us into misreading and mishandling the most important bilateral relationship in the world. We are applying old models and obsolescent frameworks to something new. We are mistaking our own bellicosity for strength. We are underestimating our strengths and our rival’s weaknesses. We are relying on reflex, when what we need is creativity.
China’s rise poses real risks, presents genuine conundrums, and demands difficult choices. Managing our relations with the People’s Republic of China will be the defining foreign policy challenge of our age. Given the stakes, we owe it to ourselves to retrace our steps back to that fork in the road we seem to have passed through, to reject the Cold War framework that is no one’s interests, and to seek new ideas and approaches for this new era.