For one thing, the “self-fulfilling prophecy” warning has sometimes encouraged an unwillingness even to discuss honestly the problems that China poses. In 2016, for instance, the White House reportedly ordered the Pentagon to stop using the term “great-power competition” to characterize the relationship, despite the obvious fact that such a competition was well underway. At other points, this concept has thwarted sharper and potentially more effective measures to curb Chinese expansionism. As Ely Ratner, who served as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Biden, has written, the United States repeatedly responded to Chinese island building and coercion of neighbors in the South China Sea by denouncing that behavior, while simultaneously looking “for ways to reduce tensions and avoid conflict whenever possible.” That stance succeeded in avoiding an unwanted military conflict. It also allowed China “to reach the brink of total control” over that crucial waterway.
Finally, this concept has had the perverse outcome of effectively denying agency to the Chinese themselves, suggesting that the most important factor driving Chinese behavior is not what China wants but what America does, and therefore assuming that if Beijing is treated as a friend it will not view Washington as an enemy. Neither of these things is necessarily true; both, in fact, are doubtful. “Because China and the United States have longstanding conflicts over their different ideologies, social systems, and foreign policies,” the Chinese military reportedly argued as early as 1993, “it will prove impossible to fundamentally improve Sino-U.S. relations.” And given how determined China has appeared in recent years to assert its own power and weaken the U.S. position in the Asia-Pacific, it is hard to argue that the chief problem in the relationship is a lack of American reassurance. The idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy may have been worth testing in the 1990s, but it has passed its expiration date by now.
SO HAS a fourth idea that has dampened the U.S. response to the rising threat in the East: the notion that America should be more concerned about a weak China than a strong China. International-relations realists would find this idea quite odd—wouldn’t America want its principal geopolitical rival to be as weak and inhibited as possible? Yet even today, many informed observers insist that Chinese debility is more dangerous than Chinese strength. “We have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful rising China,” Barack Obama explained in 2016.
“If China fails; if it is not able to maintain a trajectory that satisfies its population . . . then not only do we see the potential for conflict with China, but we will find ourselves having more difficulty dealing with these other challenges that are going to come.”
The logic of this idea, as Thomas Christensen has written, is that China has become “too big to fail.” If China experienced economic collapse or even prolonged economic stagnation, the world would struggle to maintain global prosperity and growth. If China fell into political turmoil, it could cause a humanitarian catastrophe within that country and destabilize large swaths of Asia. A faltering China would also, presumably, be less capable of helping to solve critical global problems. And in a worst-case scenario, a China plagued by economic and political upheaval might channel its frustrations outward in a fit of international aggression. “One of the worst possible Chinese futures from a U.S. perspective would be not China’s continued rise but its stagnation or even internal collapse,” Christensen writes. U.S. policy must therefore focus on encouraging continued Chinese growth, self-confidence and global influence, rather than seeking to thwart China’s rise or, worse still, to undermine its economy and polity.
This concept fits nicely with America’s preference for a positive-sum global order—one in which U.S. interests and the system as a whole benefit from the strength and prosperity of its members. Moreover, no one can dispute that a failed or failing China would indeed create grave problems for its neighbors, the United States, and the entire global community. Yet this idea, too, is becoming less and less adequate to addressing a U.S.-China relationship that appears more competitive every day.
If taken literally, of course, this precept would cause U.S. officials to focus more on empowering China than on restraining its more dangerous impulses—even as those impulses become more and more disruptive to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, this idea has frequently led officials, such as President Obama, to argue that the international system cannot function without a strong and assertive China—just as China develops the coercive capabilities and refines the assertive practices that are increasingly allowing it to challenge that system. And as grave as the difficulties caused by a weak China would be, those caused by a strong China, a potential peer rival that is already seeking primacy along its periphery and may well harbor long-term ambitions that are greater still, could be even graver. After all, could there be any threat starker than a revisionist authoritarian power with roughly four times the population of the United States?
Chinese debility may indeed have been more threatening than Chinese strength in the 1990s, or even a decade ago. Today, however, a weaker China no longer looks so bad.
THE FINAL illusion that needs dispelling is that China is the adversary of tomorrow, not today. For many years, U.S. observers have seen the China challenge coming. Yet they have persistently argued that the challenge remains on the fairly distant horizon. “China is like that long book you’ve always been meaning to read,” a U.S. official once told me, “but you always end up waiting until next summer.”
The reasons for this tendency have been multiple. Some American observers have mentally pushed the Chinese threat into the distance because they doubt that Beijing will ultimately be able to maintain rapid economic growth or hold its authoritarian political system together. In other cases, U.S. observers have simply underestimated how quickly China would advance in developing high-end power-projection and antiaccess/area-denial capabilities. “In the past decade or so,” Adm. Robert Willard, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, acknowledged in 2009, “China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity, every year.” In part, this is just because China is a devilishly difficult intelligence target; in part, it is because some U.S. analysts could hardly imagine that a country that was so recently poor and underdeveloped could threaten America’s dominance. “Officers and analysts reared during the Cold War,” observe James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, “found it hard to shed the image of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as a backward force.”
The United States has also found it difficult to confront the China challenge because other threats keep getting in the way. Prior to 9/11, the Bush administration was gearing up for a concerted effort to maintain U.S. military and geopolitical advantages against a rapidly modernizing China; the Pentagon’s 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review depicted the emerging antiaccess challenge as a critical problem to be overcome. After 9/11, however, America’s strategic focus understandably shifted as the nation began what has now amounted to nearly two decades of military conflict in the greater Middle East. To be fair, the Bush administration still took modest steps to strengthen U.S. capabilities in the Asia-Pacific, but as time went on, the diversion of attention and resources began to tell. By 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was reducing or canceling investments in critical high-end capabilities such as the F-22 fighter and a new stealth bomber in favor of lower-end capabilities crucial to ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future . . . conflicts,” he wrote, “that we neglect to provide all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as those the United States is in today.”
Yet if China was a problem for the future in 2001 or even 2009, yesterday’s future has now arrived. China may or may not be able to sustain its economic and political trajectory in the coming decades; its growth rate has already declined substantially from the double-digit norm of the thirty years before 2010. But it would be Pollyannaish in the extreme to count on the wheels coming off soon enough, and completely enough, to avoid a serious geopolitical challenge—not least because that challenge is already here. China’s gray-zone coercion is not some hypothetical problem of tomorrow; it is reshaping the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific in real time. China’s “incremental salami slicing tactics,” writes Patrick Cronin, are progressively adding up to “major changes in the status quo.” And while China is still reluctant to hazard military confrontation with Washington, U.S. advantages in that realm have also eroded alarmingly.
According to the RAND Corporation, the United States may already face grave challenges in defending Taiwan at an acceptable price. Those challenges are growing more acute in other contingencies, as well. In 2014, Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, warned that U.S. superiority was being “challenged in ways that I have not seen for decades.” He added, “This is not a future problem. This is a here-now problem.” And in 2017, the normally circumspect chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, told Congress that America might lose its ability to project power into contested regions within five years, absent corrective measures. The worst of the China challenge may or may not still lie in the future, but the challenge is plenty severe today.