Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently claimed that Chinese leadership has “announced its ambition to create a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power.”
Blinken is wrong: no Chinese leader has ever made such a clear statement. But Blinken’s mischaracterization is only the latest notable signal of a dangerous trend in Washington, where U.S. government officials are significantly inflating the threat that China poses to the United States. This threat inflation actually hurts America’s interests at home and in the region, and it increases the chances of a disastrous U.S.-China conflict.
In May, I published a study examining the widespread presence of threat inflation in assessments of the Chinese military and Beijing’s general strategic intentions. Blinken’s speech is practically a case study in threat inflation, and his insistence on Beijing’s globe-bestriding ambitions is a sterling example. Blinken was likely referring to a speech made by Chinese leader Xi Jinping that has often been wrongly translated. At the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017, Xi stated that China will become “a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.” Although many analysts translate the original Chinese phrase into English as “the” global leader, this is far from clear in the original Chinese, and the official Chinese translation of the term uses “a,” not “the.” It was hardly a clear announcement.
In Blinken’s defense, he’s not alone. Throughout history, individuals, governments, and leaders across disciplines have shown a strong tendency to exaggerate and distort threats, both in general and in relation to other countries.
Political experts and government advisers tend to overestimate the likelihood of threats because they can easily imagine the pathways to war, giving less attention to threats that have not led to war before. Policymakers appear inclined to believe hawkish advisers over dovish ones, as psychological impulses lead many leaders to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries. And the political culture and identity of some nations—like America—that rely on beliefs and values rather than ethnicity or race for their identity are inclined to create threat narratives that bolster domestic solidarity and legitimacy.
Many might think that inflating the threat posed by another country is better than underestimating or ignoring it. In reality, threat inflation can pose as much or more danger than underestimating a threat.
Threat inflation can create a dangerous, vicious circle in which each side reacts to inflated threat perceptions with excessive military buildups and overreactions to real and imagined challenges. Opportunistic politicians often inflate threats to create public alarm, justify domestic witch hunts, and impose restrictions on personal liberties. Threat inflation can also divert public attention and resources from more serious threats to the nation and undermine cooperation between states.
U.S. perceptions of China today bear all the hallmarks—and carry the attendant risks—of threat inflation. For many in Washington, China has now become ten feet tall. Depending on who you ask, Beijing threatens the very existence of the United States, its political system and society, the global economy, the security order in Asia, and the entire so-called rules-based international order—or all the above.
But in each of these areas, the level and nature of the threat China presents is routinely and almost invariably exaggerated. As a result, U.S. officials and policy analysts almost always argue for zero-sum, confrontational policies toward Beijing while ignoring or dismissing as “tried-and-failed” other possible approaches that could reduce the chance of crises or conflict with China and would better serve U.S. interests.
The U.S. must devote more attention and resources to right-sizing China's threats–and it certainly does pose some. To do this, U.S. leaders and policy analysts first need to recognize the common tendency to inflate threats built into human psychology and political systems—which routinely influences their own perceptions—and the specific, inflation-creating biases and misperceptions that operate in the case of China.
America needs to develop policies and approaches toward Beijing that accurately reflect the more complex set of concerns, threats, and opportunities that China presents to the United States, other democracies, and the world. And, by the way, Beijing needs to do something similar, given its own tendency toward threat inflation. The objective for both nations should be to create a stable regional and global balance based on restraint and focused on limited deterrence, bounded, clearly defined competition (both zero-sum and positive-sum in nature), and a certain level of reassurance and mutual accommodation, all to facilitate a stress on the truly existential threats both countries face, beginning with climate change.
The United States has long inflated threats posed by non-democratic states and others—often with disastrous results. And yet few in Washington acknowledge U.S. threat inflation. Worse yet, many argue that we underestimate the threat China poses. Washington can’t seem to see things straight when it turns toward Beijing. Until we come to grips with this tendency, the likelihood of overreaction leading to conflict and even war will only grow.
Michael D. Swaine is director of the Quincy Institute’s East Asia program.