Understanding the China Threat

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping chat as they walk along the front patio of the Mar-a-Lago estate after a bilateral meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
November 29, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaTrumpPLANSouth China SeaAmerica

Understanding the China Threat

Conflict is not inevitable, it is chosen.

Common Cause

A second, modern-day source of transparency and narrative creation is the development of a common cause between the two countries. Today there are several causes that the United States and China can coalesce around – mutually growing the economic pie, North Korea, and countering terrorism. There is this notion that partnership in some key areas can serve both the America and China well. While the commonality of objectives certainly does not align in all cases for both countries, there are areas in which objectives do overlap. By virtue of having similar interests or shared goals, these narratives have formed a basis for a semblance of Sino-American partnership. Similar to common Sino-American goals against the Soviets in the early 1970s, goals today have served as a congealing agent for the two countries.

Economically, the United States and China do better by partnering with each other. The vastness of the Chinese consumer base is enticing for American producers. Not only has the individual purchasing power of Chinese increased (China’s GDP per capita as a percentage of the U.S. GDP per capita grew from 8 percent in 2000 to nearly 30 percent in 2016), but the number of potential customers is skyrocketing. For example, a powerful indicator of a Chinese customer with means is that customer’s ability to buy a car. The number of private passenger vehicles in China has risen from 5 million in 2000 to over 125 million in 2015. Opportunity for economic partnership has never been stronger.

Militarily, the United States has leaned on China to assist with North Korea in containing its nuclear weapon ambitions. With dialogue between America and North Korea historically unproductive, the United States routinely asks China to pressure its ally to cease its nuclear program. For its part, China has exercised tacit cooperation on the matter. Even in light of the recent U.S.-North Korea summit, China will be called upon to help keep the peace. Also, in the vein of national security, America and China have struck an accord to cooperate in the anti-terrorism world. Both the United States and China have similar interests in precluding Islamic extremists from exacting terror attacks on their soil.

What Does It All Mean?

There is cause for optimism. Similar to how the anti-communist movement faded into the history books, the anti-China Lobby movement today could face a similar future. Americans realized in the 1960s that an ideological witch hunt was not productive to American progress or its values. Similarly, the anti-China Lobby is experiencing some of the same pressures today with its members starting to feel the repercussions of painting China solely as a threat. Also, major sources of transparency around Sino-American relations are growing in the economic space as well as through the development of common objectives. A prime example of how this economic partnership is moving forward can be seen in the auto industry with major American companies betting on China. In return, China is betting on American companies to assist with its technological growth and move towards a more environmentally conscious country with electric vehicles.

As China’s President Xi embarks upon his next term through 2022, the question will be whether the anti-China Lobby begins to grow louder in the face of his more nationalistic comments. The question is one of timing for China. Deng’s famous maxim around China’s quest for modernity stated, “Hide your strength, bide your time.” We must wonder whether Xi will choose now to stop hiding and have China take an even larger role in the world.

With competing narratives, the ultimate question around American threat perceptions on China is specifically, will sources of bias or transparency win the day in how Americans talk about China? Will the next several years resemble the 1950s when biased narratives of China threat monopolized the scene, or will it resemble the 1970s when transparency and talk of China partnership won the day? We are truly at a crossroads today and must understand how domestic sources of bias present artificial conditions that inform American views of the China threat.

Carl Ciovacco is currently a Director at a major financial institution in the Washington D.C. area. As a graduate of West Point, he served as a military officer in the U.S. Army during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He received his Master in Public Policy degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and his PhD from Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs. He served for nearly a decade as a national security consultant for the U.S. Government focusing on national threat assessment. His articles have appeared in The American Interest, Harvard International Review, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Journal of Policing, Intelligence, and Counter Terrorism, and Armchair General Magazine where he co-authored an article with the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina.

Image: Reuters