How America Can Stop Its Rivalry With China From Spinning Into War


How America Can Stop Its Rivalry With China From Spinning Into War

Two powerful forces are shaping the future of Sino-American relations: geopolitics and America’s liberal ideology. If managed, it is possible to keep even intense great power competitions from tipping over the precipice into war.

SINCE THE First Cold War ended, the U.S. foreign policy establishment has been divided into two camps with respect to China: hawks and engagers. Engagers have believed that China’s incorporation into international institutions, and integration into the international economy will foster economic and—ultimately—political liberalization in China. On the other hand, hawks see a rising China as a threat to American interests; militarily, but also economically, technologically, and—increasingly—ideologically. The Pentagon invariably has been hawkish on China. Much of the hawks’ worldview can be traced back to the so-called Blue Team that emerged at the tail end of the Clinton administration. Writing in the Washington Post, Robert G. Kaiser and Steven Mufson described the Blue Team as “a loose alliance of members of Congress, congressional staff, think tank fellows, Republican political operatives, conservative journalists, lobbyists for Taiwan, former intelligence officers and a handful of academics, all united in the view that a rising China poses great risks to America’s vital interests.”

Until recently U.S. policy towards China has incorporated both hawkish and pro-engagement perspectives, but with the balance between them shifting. The George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations leaned more toward engagement. The George W. Bush and Trump administrations have taken a harder line toward Beijing. Harking back to the premises underlying the draft FY 1994-99 Defense Planning Guidance, the George W. Bush administration sought to maintain unipolarity by dissuading China from modernizing its military. It warned Beijing that,

In pursuing advanced military capabilities that can threaten its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region, China is following an outdated path that, in the end, will hamper its own pursuit of national greatness. In time, China will find that social and political freedom is the only source of that greatness.

Hammering home this point, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that any moves by China to enhance its military capabilities were necessarily a signal of aggressive Chinese intent because “no nation threatens China.” For emphasis, this point was restated in the administration’s report, The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, which declared that “China’s military modernization remains ambitious” and that “China’s leaders may be tempted to resort to force or coercion more quickly to press diplomatic advantage, advance security interests, or resolve disputes.”

Until recently, however, Pentagon hawkishness was offset by the American business community’s, and the broader foreign policy establishment’s, pro-engagement stance. As already noted, this support for engagement largely has melted away during the Trump administration. Engagement has been displaced by an emerging Second Cold War consensus, which in many respects resembles the First Cold War consensus that coalesced in 1946–1947 as hopes for postwar cooperation with the Soviet Union gave way to implacable rivalry. American strategy seeks to ring China with U.S. military forces and alliances, just as Washington did with the Soviet Union following the Second World War. And the Sino-American relationship increasingly is depicted—as was the U.S.-Soviet relationship—as a clash between two irreconcilable ideologies.

The Trump administration has affirmed its determination to maintain America’s extra-regional hegemony in East Asia (a product of the U.S. victory over Japan in World War II). Indeed, it has widened the geographical scope of U.S. interests to encompass the “Indo-Pacific” (which now includes South Asia and the Indian Ocean in addition to East and Southeast Asia). As then-Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said in June 2019, the United States is a “resident power” in the region. According to the Pentagon, the existing international order in the region—the Pax Americana established after 1945—is endangered by China’s growing power, and the ambitions that it fuels: “As China continues its economic and military ascendance, it seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and, ultimately global preeminence in the long-term.” The Trump administration’s strategic “vision” is that “no one nation can or should dominate the Indo-Pacific.” Administration officials fear that China is catching up to U.S. military power in the region and will use its enhanced capabilities to lock the United States out of the region economically. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy makes clear that the United States will counter China by maintaining U.S. military superiority, strengthening America’s regional alliances and partnerships, and boosting the military capabilities of its U.S. regional allies. As part of its strategy, the Pentagon is developing a new intermediate-range ballistic missile intended for deployment in East Asia in response to China’s military buildup.

When it comes to U.S. policy toward China, great power politics is only part of the story. American policymakers are revisiting the First Cold War by characterizing Sino-American relations as a Manichean ideological struggle between freedom and communist authoritarianism. In his July 24 speech, “Communist China and the Free World’s Future”—delivered at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California—Secretary Pompeo recycled the First Cold War’s harshest, most over-the-top rhetoric. He stated that Chinese president Xi Jinping is a “true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology.” He asserted that unless the United States pushes back hard, the Chinese Communist Party will “erode our freedom.” For good measure, he stated that the United States “can’t treat this incarnation of China as a normal country, like any other.” Indeed, for Pompeo, China as a state does not exist. For him, the sole reality is the Chinese Communist Party.

When American policymakers and foreign policy analysts continually play up the fact that China’s government is communist, they do so with a purpose. At least subliminally they seek to: recall the direst First Cold War depictions of the Soviet “threat” (“the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin”); de-legitimize China’s government in the eyes of the American public; and create an “enemy image” of China as a bad actor in international politics. In short, they seek to unleash America’s “crusader state” mentality. While not—quite (or yet)—employing the kind of overwrought, lurid language of official U.S. pronouncements during the First Cold War, the rhetoric emanating from Washington about China does evoke memories of documents such as NSC-68. The Trump administration says great power politics is “defined by geopolitical rivalry between free and repressive world order visions...” Which means that for the United States, the Sino-American relationship is more about ideology than it is about the balance of power. Lest there be any doubt that ideology is a driving force in U.S. China policy, the Indo-Pacific Strategy report declares:

Yet while the Chinese people aspire to free markets, justice, and the rule of law, the People’s Republic of China, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, undermines the international system from within by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order.

Similarly, Vice President Michael Pence’s October 2018 and October 2019 speeches on China also emphasized the ideological differences between the United States and China. And speaking in London in January 2020, Secretary of State Pompeo declared that the Chinese Communist Party—not China as a great power—is “the central threat of our times.”

The signs of the Second Cold War are hard to miss. In a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. One of the bill’s sponsors, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said, “The United States and the international community must make clear to Chinese leaders and power brokers that their aggression toward Hong Kong risks swift, severe and lasting consequences.” Rubio warned that Hong Kong is not “simply China’s internal affair.” Gordon Chang, who comments regularly on China, has suggested that “contagion” from Hong Kong could spill over onto the mainland and cause the collapse of communism. Beijing’s policy toward Muslims in Xinjiang has been widely denounced in the United States. And Congress has passed veto-proof legislation to compel the Trump administration to punish China for its human rights violations. While geopolitics and economics play a role in deteriorating Sino-American relations, the salience of ideology is increasingly apparent on the American side.

Although the policy of engagement had widespread bipartisan support, it has given way to an almost equally widespread sense of disillusionment with China. As the Indo-Pacific Strategy report says, “At the turn of the 21st century, the United States advocated for China’s admission into the World Trade Organization, with the belief that economic liberalization would bring China into a greater partnership with the United States and the free world.” Instead, according to Pence, “China has chosen economic aggression, which in turn emboldened its growing military,” and it “has taken a sharp U-turn toward control and oppression of its own people.”

The growing disenchantment with China is a result of the American foreign policy establishment’s own naivete. There never was any realistic basis for believing China would change its economic growth model, or its political system, in response to American expectations. U.S. pressure on China to adhere to American norms and values serves only to heighten Sino-American tensions. This is not a new story. Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s October 1995 remarks to the UN Security Council are illustrative. In that speech, Jiang observed that “certain big powers, often under the cover of freedom, democracy and human rights, set out to encroach upon the sovereignty of other countries, interfere in their internal affairs and undermine their national unity and ethnic harmony.” It is commonplace for U.S. leaders to assert that American values are “universal.” Obviously, they are not, but when the United States acts on this belief, it is going down a path fraught with peril.