China becomes the centerpiece of U.S. military policy, though there are options

Bob Sheak – May 17, 2021

bsheak983@gmail.com

Introduction

There is bipartisan agreement in Washington that China is the number one threat to US security, economically and militarily. The alleged China threat is a top reason in the justifications for the steadily rising U.S. military budget.

While there are areas of potential military conflict, most notably in the South and East China Seas and over Taiwan, there are also areas of potential agreement. For example, according to economist David Dollar, Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken has indicated that there are three types of issue areas when it comes to China, including “ones where we will confront China, ones where we will compete, and ones where we can cooperate on the basis of common interests.” The emphasis in Biden’s first 100 days, however, has been on confrontation, and, in this regard, President Biden is “largely continuing Donald Trump’s approach.”  (https://brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/04/26/what-does-bidens-first-100-days-tell-us-about-his-approach-to-china).

Confrontation

While the Biden administration has “discontinued the demonization of the Chinese Communist Party and the implied calls for regime change,” it has, so far,” Dollar writes, “maintained and even stepped up enhanced engagement with Taiwan,” as reflected in the “continued high-level contacts with Taiwanese officials and arms sales.” And, a Defense Department review of China Policy is likely to recommend “some shift of military resources away from the Middle East (witness the withdrawal from Afghanistan) to the Asia-Pacific to counter China—within the context of a flat real defense budget proposed by the president.”

Competition

Outside of the military realm, the U.S. and China are engaged competitively on trade. “Candidate Biden criticized Trump’s tariffs aimed at China as a poorly targeted instrument that hurts the American economy (a Federal Reserve study found that they cost us more than 100,000 jobs).” Still, the new Biden administration, Dollar points out, “is leaving the tariffs in place for the moment, as well as the ‘Phase 1’ trade deal in which China agreed to make large purchases of specific American products (soybeans and other agricultural products, oil and gas, manufactures).”

As of late April, 2021, the two-year trade agreement had one year remaining and had achieved mixed results. On the one hand, “U.S. exports to China are up and are a rare bright spot in U.S. trade.” On the other hand, “the amounts [of exports from the U.S. to China] will fall far short of the agreed targets.” Meanwhile, “there are no talks planned and a lack of high-level appointees in the Trade Representative’s Office, Treasury, and Commerce who would be needed for comprehensive economic discussions.

Technology is another realm of competition. Dollar considers Biden’s language here as being “more about seeing China as a competitor than as treating China as an adversary.” The Biden administration is partly justifying its large infrastructure plan “as needed to compete with China and to prevent China from dominating the technologies of the future.”

Cooperation

Dollar identifies only one area of cooperation between China and the U.S. That is, when “President Xi Jinping was one of the dozens of heads of state who participated in Biden’s virtual climate summit on April 22.” Both countries have commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Thus, climate could be an area of cooperation between China and the West, though Dollar warns, “it could also devolve into a new competition as the U.S. administration pressures China to set more ambitious targets, to get serious about them in the current five-year plan, and to stop financing coal-fired power plants throughout the developing world as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.”

Just one other point. Unlike Trump, Biden wants to rebuild and strengthen ties to the traditional allies of the U.S. the Asian area. However, whatever the White House wants, the allies are not interested in supporting a new cold war with China. Here’s what Dollar writes.

“This was evident in Blinken’s visit to South Korea, initial discussions with European allies, and the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Suga to Washington. Our allies have deeper trade and investment relations with China than we do; and, in fact, since Biden’s election the EU, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and ASEAN have all signed new economic agreements with China. There is some contradiction between the U.S. confronting China and working multilaterally, so it is likely that over time Biden’s China policy will have to become either less confrontational or more unilateral.”

U.S. has a militaristic record in foreign relations

Biden and his administration appear all too willing to push ahead on the military front, perhaps slighting opportunities for negotiations on economic and diplomatic issues. While war with China may not be inevitable, the U.S. is, nonetheless, gearing up its already massive military budget and forces to provide increased focus on the China threat. The danger is that the military posture of the U.S. will draw it into an increasingly dangerous escalation of military encounters with China that could lead to war, even nuclear war. Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, both with considerable military experience, develop a fictional, but realistic, account of how nuclear war can happen in their book, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (publ. 2021).

Bear in mind that while Biden plans to withdraw the 3,500 U.S. ground troops from Afghanistan by September 1, 2021, there will still be thousands of U.S. contractors and special forces in the country and the ability of the U.S. to use drone weapons and aircraft to bomb from the sky. There is something else.

John Feffer, author and currently co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies and fellow at the Open Society Foundations, makes the point that withdrawing the troops from Afghanistan is just the tip of the iceberg

(https://fpif.org/is-the-long-war-finally-ending).

Feffer points out, “…after drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq, about 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the greater Middle East, with 7,000 mostly naval personnel in Bahrain, 13,000 soldiers in Kuwait and a roughly equal number in Qatar, 5,000 in the UAE, and several thousand in Saudi Arabia. U.S. Special Forces are also scattered across Africa, while the United States is still conducting air operations throughout the region.”

And he also refers to the extensive “constellation of U.S. bases around the world that serve as the launching pad for myriad operations. About 220,000 military and civilian personnel operate in more than 150 countries and over 800 overseas military bases. A significant chunk of the Pentagon’s $700 billion-plus budget goes toward maintaining this immense archipelago of force.”

The U.S. as the “indispensable” nation

There is also another consideration when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. As analyzed in his book, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018), political scientist Stephen M. Walt, considers how, certainly since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, U.S. policymakers have thought of America as the world’s primary, uniquely qualified, and indispensable nation (pp. 13-14).

However, Walt reminds us, instead of building an ever-expanding zone of peace, America’s policies have poisoned relations with Russia, led to costly quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, and several other countries, squandered trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, and encouraged both states and non-state actors to resist U.S. efforts to exploit them for their own benefit. Instead of welcoming U.S. leadership, allies took advantage by free-riding, adversaries repeatedly blocked U.S. initiatives, and hostile extremists found different ways to attack, divert, and distract. American’s superior economic and military assets could not rescue an approach to the world that was misguided at its core” (p. 14).

Unending U.S. wars

Tom Engelhardt digs deeper into U.S, military history than Walt does. Engelhardt argues that the U.S. has been involved in “unending wars” since he was born in July 1944, “in the midst of a devastating war” (https://counterpunch.org/2021/04/30/american-style-war-until-the-end-of-time).

He points out “[t]hat war ended in August 1945 with the atomic obliteration of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the most devastating bombs in history up to that moment, given the sweet code names ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man.’ Engelhardt’s principal point is this, “The United States has been at war, or at least in armed conflicts of various sorts, often in distant lands, for more or less my entire life. Yes, for some of those years, that war was ‘cold’ (which often meant that such carnage, regularly sponsored by the CIA, happened largely off-screen and out of sight), but war as a way of life never really ended, not to this very moment.” Over these years, “the Pentagon budget would grab an ever-larger percentage of federal discretionary spending and the full-scale annual investment in what has come to be known as the national security state would rise to a staggering $1.2 trillion or more.”

“America’s ‘forever wars’ — once known as the Global War on Terror and, when the administration of George W. Bush launched it, proudly aimed at 60 countries — do seem to be slowly winding down. Unfortunately, other kinds of potential wars, especially new cold wars with China and Russia (involving new kinds of high-tech weaponry) only seem to be gearing up.”

Historian Andrew J. Bacevich complements the thrust of Engelhardt’s analysis in his books about the limits of American power in the world, one of which is appropriately titled The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.” The point: U.S. military-based foreign policies that are celebrated to be about bringing peace and less conflict in the world have failed, significantly because U.S. governments and powerful interest groups have frequently only emphasized security goals or U.S. geopolitical interests. The only hope, a scant one, is through multilateral diplomacy and cooperation.

The Biden Administration and China

What Biden Said About China in His First Speech to Congress

Nick Wadhams reports on what Biden had to say about China in his first speech to Congress (https://bloomberg.com/news/article/2021-04-29/human-rights-defense-and-turbines-what-biden-said-about-china). Most of the speech focused on America’s domestic priorities, but the president did sprinkle references to China through it. Biden said that China is the most “consequential nation in the world,” with the second largest economy, and that the U.S. competition with China will determine which country becomes the most dominant international force.

Biden also said that that “he believes the U.S. and China can find areas of cooperation — he cited countering climate change as an example — and that conflict isn’t inevitable. But he vowed that the U.S. will stand its ground when it thinks U.S. or global interests are at stake.” In other words, there may be instances when there is the chance of military conflict. Biden “told President Xi that we will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo—Pacific just as we do with NATO in Europe – not to start a conflict but to prevent one.” He continued: “America won’t back away from our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms and to our alliances.”

Biden’s speech put some emphasis on the need for America to boost its economic resources in the competition with China. The president noted that the U.S. needs to spend more on research and development than it does in order to be competitive. He also criticized China for not playing by the same rules as other major economies, a reference “to everything from trade to currency, industrial policy and the investment needed to combat climate change. He additionally said that the U.S. must increases its production of wind turbines and implicitly other manufactured goods that the U.S. currently imports from China.”Bottom of Form

According to Wadhams, “The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin pushed back at some of Biden’s comments in a regular press briefing Thursday [April 29] in Beijing,” as follows. “Forcing other countries to accept one’s own democratic system and holding the banner of democracy to give orders to the whole world is blasphemy and manipulation of democratic values, which will only create division, hurt relations and undermine stability.”

There are potential political benefits of Biden’s criticisms of China, economic and militarily. His position is “likely to win bipartisan support.” And, it indicates, that there will be a major reorientation in foreign policy and military resources focusing “away from the Middle East and Afghanistan, where he on Wednesday repeated his vow to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops by Sept. 11,” and toward China and the Asia-Pacific regions.

Biden’s initial China policy is consistent with that of previous administrations

Kishore Mahbubani gives the following examples in his book, Has China Won? –  The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy. He points out that, even in today’s deep U.S. partisan divisions, there is partisan agreement on China as a multi-dimensional threat to U.S. national interests, and potential military conflict is of concern.

He refers to General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff who “has said that ‘China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by 2025” (p. 1). America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy included the following statement: “…China and Russia are ‘revisionist powers’ seeking ‘to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions” (pp. 1-2). And “FBI director Christopher Wray said: “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat… and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us” (p. 2).

Amidst it all, there is a “strong conviction that China is becoming militarily aggressive.” On this point, Mahbubani writes:

“The American security establishment, including the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the FBI, has concluded that China is now a direct threat to America. In September 2019, the Department of Defense reported the remarks of undersecretary of defense for policy John C. Rood as saying that ‘it is not an exaggeration to say China is the greatest long-term threat to the U.S. way of life, but China also poses the greatest challenge to the Defense Department. A month later, Vice President Pence made several remarkable allegations that China’s military behavior had become increasingly provocative over the past year, arguing that China has ‘regularly menace[d]’ and ‘strong-arm[ed]’ its ASEAN neighbors in the South China Sea, while provoking Japan in the East China Sea and using the BRI to ‘establish footholds in ports around the world, ostensibly for commercial purposes, but those purposes could eventually become military’” (pp. 90-91).

First high-level “meeting” under Biden administration between U.S. and China “rocky”

David Dollar reports on the first high-level meeting occurred when Secretary Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, met in Alaska on Blinken’s way back from his first overseas trip, to Japan and South Korea. Dollar reports that “the meeting got off to a rocky start as Blinken criticized China with the TV cameras rolling” (https://brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/04/26/what-does-bidens-first-100-days-tell-us-about-his-approach-to-china).

While the Biden administration has “discontinued the demonization of the Chinese Communist Party and the implied calls for regime change,” it has, so far, “maintained and even stepped-up enhanced engagement with Taiwan,” as reflected in “continued high-level contacts with Taiwanese officials and arms sales.” And, a Defense Department review of China Policy is likely to recommend “some shift of military resources away from the Middle East (witness the withdrawal from Afghanistan) to the Asia-Pacific to counter China—within the context of a flat [2% increase] in real defense budget proposed by the president.”

High-level Biden DOD official does not rule out military conflict with China

In an article for the Defense News, David Vergun quotes Biden’s Deputy Defense Secretary, Kathleen H. Hicks, who says that “conflict with China is not inevitable,” but neither is it out of the question (https://defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2591598/deputy-defense-secretary-says-conflict-with-china-is-not-inevitable).

Hicks said this in a virtual address to the Aspen Security Forum, where she “talked about the Defense Department’s competition with China and what the department is doing to meet that challenge, especially regarding innovation and modernization.” She acknowledged that China “has the economic, military and technological capability to challenge the international system and America’s interests within it” and that “this is happening all along the continuum of conflict — from routine statecraft, through the use of sharp power or gray-zone tactics, to the potential for sustained combat operations and an expanded and capable nuclear enterprise.”

But the perceived military and security posed by China has high priority. According to Vergun, the Deputy Defense Secretary is particularly concerned about China’s “unlawful claims in the South China Sea.” And she is concerned about how China’s military capabilities are “rapidly advancing in a number of areas, “strengthening its ability to conduct joint operations — and it fields increasingly sophisticated conventional systems, such as long-range precision missiles and integrated air defense systems….  advancing its space and cyber capabilities…. [and] “adding that China presents a prolific and effective cyber espionage threat and possesses substantial cyberattack capabilities.”

Despite such concerns, Hicks said the Department of Defense will do its best to keep open channels of communication and diplomacy. At the same time, the U.S. will continue to support strong military forces and seek to strengthen alliances in Europe and Asia, all of which, Hicks says, “are important in deterring Chinese aggression.”

Additionally, Hicks said, the Defense Department will also continue to devote considerable resources to “the threat and include nuclear modernization, cybersecurity, long-range fires, autonomy, artificial intelligence, shipbuilding and microelectronics.” And the Department will proceed by “[i]ncentivizing innovation, cutting red tape and working closely with the private sector and other government agencies are also important,” along with sharing “best practices and key findings focused on the most important national security challenges.”

And, finally, Hicks notes that “cooperation with Congress is also critical to ensuring the department receives the support required to deter China’s aggression,” concluding that “there be no doubt, China presents a real and enduring challenge.”

DOD galvanizes its resources to assess what they see as the growing China threat

Abhijnan Rej reports on the U.S. Defense Department’s initiative to create a new China Task Force, a “move [that] comes amid a visible push by the Biden administration to meet the China challenge” (https://thediplomat.com/2021/02/us-defense-department-to-create-big-picture-china-task-force). It’s notable that the DOD and not the Department of Defense is undertaking this project. The initiative was made public on February 13, 2021.

According to Rej, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “had briefed Biden on February 10 about the task force during the president’s visit to the Pentagon for the first time since assuming office.

After announcing the existence of the task force to the press, Biden noted later that United States’ approach towards China “will require a whole of government efforts, bipartisan cooperation in Congress and strong alliances and partners.” Then, on a February 7 interview with CBS, “Biden described the China-U.S. relationship as one of ‘extreme competition,’ albeit one where conflict need not be inevitable.

According to a DoD factsheet, “This initiative will provide a baseline assessment of DoD policies, programs, and processes on China-related matters and provide the Secretary of Defense recommendations on key priorities and decision points to meet the China challenge.”

The task force will be comprised “of up to 15 uniformed and civilian DoD employees and headed by Ely Ratner, advisor to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.” The fact sheet indicates “that the task force will ‘align its recommendations with interagency partners to ensure DoD continues to support the whole-of-government approach toward China.’” The task force will focus on “strategy, operations, and force structure, as well as intelligence, role of allies and partners, and U.S. defense relations with China.”

Ratner, who has served under Biden in various capacities in the past. provided further details about the task force, describing its goals as follows:

“What we’re going to do here is try to identify the most important challenges and opportunities for the secretary, try to identify what should serve as his and his team’s top priorities on China, whether those be issues that need secretary-level decisions or guidance, issues that need greater prioritization, attention, and resources, or issues that need either strength and/or new processes to move them forward to address them.”

Earlier, on February 4, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had announced a global force posture review “of U.S. military footprint, resources, strategy and missions.” The review is related to a Biden administration “plan to simultaneously manage a draw-down from legacy conflicts as well as reprogram its military resources towards China and the Indo-Pacific. Making the announcement, Austin emphasized the crucial role U.S. allies and partners as well as well as diplomacy would play in the Biden administration’s defense policy.”

A hotline with China as a measure to avoid war

In an article for Foreign Policy. Jack Detsch reports that Biden is ready to call China in a crisis, but that it’s not yet clear whether Beijing will pick up (https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/05/10/biden-china-xi-jinping-defense-hotline-pentagon). Detsch writes: “The Biden administration is increasingly looking to avoid accidental escalation with China, a senior defense official said, by cooperating on channels to reduce the risk of planes, ships, and troops butting heads on an increasingly crowded map in the Asia-Pacific.”

The need for top-level defense communications will be an issue in June when “Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to Singapore for what is known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, the top defense summit in the region, where U.S. and Chinese officials have traditionally gaggled on the sidelines.”

When Austin has a chance to talk to his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe, “he hopes to prioritize crisis communications and risk reduction in areas such as the South China Sea.” Indeed, Austin will propose creating “multiple avenues to communicate with Beijing to manage the growing strategic competition between the two powers and prevent the onset of a potential conflict, especially as the Chinese navy—the largest in the world—expands its reach further into the Indo-Pacific and is taking an increasingly belligerent posture in the Western Pacific.”

Meanwhile, the DOD believes the risk of conflict with China has increased. Detich reports:

“China has stepped up pressure on U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific in the last several months, including near-daily buzzing of Taiwanese and Japanese air defense zones, and the use of civilian fishing vessels to harden claims to disputed areas in the South and East China Seas, where the U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation operations. Just days after President Joe Biden took office, the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group sailed through the South China Sea, after China passed a law in January authorizing coast guard vessels to fire on foreign vessels seen as endangering Chinese sovereignty. And officials and experts expect U.S. and Chinese vessels to face more close calls, with China building more ships every year to overtake the U.S. Navy as the world’s largest.”

The U.S. naval forces in the South China Seas are not just an passive  bystanders

Kishore Mahbubani, referred to earlier, offers the following evidence in his book, Has China Won? –  The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy.

Mahbubani considers how the U.S. has helped to intensify the U.S. tensions with China. He writes, “we do know that American naval vessels routinely carry out naval patrols twelve miles off Chinese shores. Chinese naval vessels do not, so far, carry out naval patrols twelve miles off California or New York. Under international law, the U.S. Navy (and other navies) is perfectly justified to sail twelve miles off Chinese shores. These patrols are not inherently provocative, but the manner in which these patrols are carried out can be.”

He adds: “American justifies its aggressive naval patrolling in the South China Sea on the grounds that is protecting a global public good: ‘freedom of navigation in the high seas.’ The irony about this American claim is that the biggest beneficiary of the global public good that America is protecting is China. China todays trades more with the rest of the world than America does” (102)

Meanwhile, “most of the sea lanes are open international waters through which many naval vessels cross without problem or hindrance.” In one way, China may have over-reached, as Mahbubani describes it. “China has claimed that the waters up to twelve miles from its new constructed features are territorial waters. Unfortunately for China, the UNCLOS provisions on the issue are clear. Countries are not allowed to claim territorial waters around rocks and reefs, even after land has been reclaimed around them” (103).

UNCLOS is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea treaty, and is an international agreement that resulted from the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which took place between 1973 and 1982 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Convention_on_the_law_of_the_sea).

Mahbubani takes the position that the “best way to resolve the issue is to take China to the world court” (103). At the same time, President XI Jinping has “tried to provide a face-saving way for both parties to deescalate the rising tensions over the South China Sea when he proposed that China not militarize any of its reclaimed features in the South China Sea if American would not send any naval vessels to provoke the Chinese” (103).

“Miscalculation by either the U.S. or China could precipitate war.

Political scientist Joseph S. Nye considers the factors that could lead to war between the U.S. and China in an article published on March 3, 2021, for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (https://aspistrategist-au/the-factors-that-could-lead-to-war-between-the-us-and-china). There are advantages and disadvantages on both sides, as the two countries enter into a period of increased tensions. Despite the economic and ecological interdependence of the two countries, Nye worries that “miscalculation is always possible and some see the danger of ‘sleepwalking’ into catastrophe, as happened with World War I.”

He continues: “It is dangerous for Americans to over- or underestimate Chinese power, and the US contains groups with economic and political incentives to do both.? The growth of the Chinese economy worries some American policymakers and interest groups. For example, “[m]easured in dollars, China’s economy is about two-thirds the size of that of the US, but many economists expect China to surpass the US sometime in the 2030s, depending on what one assumes about Chinese and American growth rates.

China has also expanded its international trading networks to become the “world’s largest trading economy and its largest bilateral lender.” On this, the realty is stunning.

“Today, nearly 100 countries count China as their largest trading partner, compared to 57 for the US. China plans to lend more than US$1 trillion for infrastructure projects with its Belt and Road Initiative over the next decade, while the US has cut back aid. China will gain economic power from the sheer size of its market as well as its overseas investments and development assistance. China’s overall power relative to the US is likely to increase.”

The Chinese also have disadvantages. Nye refers to several.  He points out: “Even if China surpasses the US to become the world’s largest economy, national income is not the only measure of geopolitical power.” He gives the following examples. “China ranks well behind the US in soft power and US military expenditure is nearly four times that of China. While Chinese military capabilities have been increasing in recent years, analysts who look carefully at the military balance conclude that China will not, say, be able to exclude the US from the Western Pacific.”

The U.S. has geographical advantages. The U.S “is surrounded by oceans and neighbors that are likely to remain friendly,” while “China has borders with 14 countries, and territorial disputes with India, Japan and Vietnam.” America also has an advantage when it comes to energy. The U.S. had grown less dependent on foreign oil imports over the last decade. At the same time, China has become more dependent on energy imports from the Middle East, “which it must transport along sea routes that highlight its problematic relations with India and other countries.”

The US also has demographic advantages. “While the rate of US population growth has slowed in recent years, it will not turn negative, as in Russia, Europe, and Japan. China, meanwhile, rightly fears ‘growing old before it grows rich.’ China’s labour force peaked in 2015 and India will soon overtake it as the world’s most populous country.”

Finally, Nye points out, “America also remains at the forefront in key technologies (bio, nano and information) that are central to 21st-century economic growth. China is investing heavily in research and development, and competes well in some fields. But 15 of the world’s top 20 research universities are in the US; none is in China.”

Withal, Nye comes back to his principal message, that is, that both sides must beware of miscalculation. There are two questions. Will American leaders acknowledge the change in their respective positions in a way that permits a constructive relationship, or will they succumb to fear? Will Chinese leaders take more risks, or will Chinese and Americans learn to cooperate in producing global public goods under a changing distribution of power?”

U.S. doesn’t have a coherent china policy and this increases the chance of miscalculation

Bu Le and Dingding Chen marshal evidence to show that U.S. policy toward China is incoherent (https://thediplomat.com/21021/05/3-reasons-why-the-us-doesnt-have-a-coherent-china-strategy). While there is a consensus in U.S. policymaking circles that the U.S. should be “tough on China,” there is disagreement on what that means and on other significant issues, such as, “how to compete with or confront China, and what issues should be prioritized.” For example, Biden’s administration “still does not have a clear sense of where the trade relationship between the two largest economies in the world should be going.”

The authors identify three major reasons why the U.S. lacks a coherent China policy. First, the U.S. political system is characterized by endless elections, and how consequently policies often change from one administration to the next. As one recent example, “the Trump administration put a heavy emphasis on the trade imbalance issue in the China-U.S. relationship, whereas the Biden administration chose to stress the importance of climate change and human rights issues in the relationship. It is striking how the trade issue is getting so little attention today, whereas two years ago newspapers were filled with it.”

Second, U.S. domestic politics are divided along many lines. On this point, Le and Dingding write: “Even putting aside party polarization, Wall Street, the Pentagon, state capitals, Main Street, and the U.S. Congress all have different views toward China. Sometimes their views might converge on certain themes, but most times their priorities differ widely due to their self-interests. State governments might be actively seeking Chinese investment or trade even as Congress seeks to tighten restrictions on such activities. Wall Street might want to increase high-tech exports to China, while the Pentagon sees this as a security threat. These interests are in constant conflict and competition, meaning it’s hard to even talk about a singular ‘China policy’ in the first place.”

Third, there is in U.S. policy debates “a lack of clear definition of China.” They write on this point,

“Today, China-U.S. ties involve almost all aspects of important bilateral relationships, such as commercial exchanges, security issues, technology trade (as well as competition), values, and global and local issues. Different interest groups within the United States would give different answers as to how to frame the relationship, therefore making a coherent narrative of China very difficult, if not impossible.”

War with China can be avoided and mutual accommodation can be achieved

A new “cold war” with China is unlikely

Journalist and author Jeet Heer takes up this issue in an article for The Nation magazine titled “Cold War Nostalgia Fuels a Dangerous New Anti-China Consensus” (https://www.thenation.com/article/world/china-cold-war-larping).

Heer is optimistic that a new cold war is unlikely and makes two points to support this view.

First, the issues dividing the U.S. and China can be solved through diplomacy. He posits: “The United States has many legitimate issues with China ranging from trade practices to environmental management, labor rights, and human rights. But these are all matters to be settled by diplomacy. None of them call for anything comparable to a Cold War–style global struggle.”

Second, “China has no universalist ideology to sell and it has embraced a capitalist mentality and a nationalist ethos.” To make this point, he quotes Melvy Leffler, “one of America’s most respected diplomatic historians,” who “called attention to the fact that the ideological divide that animated the Cold War no longer exists.” Here is the quote.

“while the Soviet Union’s anti-capitalist message of proletarian justice and equality resonated in much of the world, China has no universalist ideology to sell. Beijing today may disparage Western democracy and tout socialism with Chinese characteristics, but all the world can see that it has embraced a capitalist mentality and a nationalist ethos. The Chinese are not champions of equality and justice, as the Soviets pretended to be, and they have little ability to exploit the discontent in neighboring nations.”

Rather, Heer continues, “In truth, in a world of Covid and climate change, China and the United States are two capitalist world powers with intertwined economies that need to work on finding common solutions to the problems that threaten all of humanity.” Cold War rhetoric is a dangerous distraction from that reality.

China doesn’t pose an existential threat to US

Michael D. Swaine, director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute, addresses this issue (https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/21/china-existential-threat-america). He doesn’t doubt that “Beijing’s behavior in many areas challenges existing U.S. and allied interests and democratic values.” And, under Xi Jinping,

“China has used its greater economic and military power to intimidate rival claimants in territorial disputes and punish nations that make statements or take what Beijing views as threatening or insulting actions.”

Moreover, China has also “engaged in extensive commercial hacking and theft of technologies and favors military intimidation over dialogue in dealing with Taiwan. And it has employed draconian, repressive policies in Tibet and Xinjiang and suppressed democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.”

Nonetheless, Swaine insists, “it is extremely counterproductive to U.S. interests to assert or even imply, as many now do, that the above Chinese actions constitute an all-of-societyexistential threat to the United States, the West, and ultimately the entire world, thereby justifying a Cold War-style, zero-sum containment stance toward Beijing. Such an extreme stance stifles debate and the search for more positive-sum policy outcomes while leading to the usual calls for major increases in defense spending.”

A peace agenda

The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, with which Swaine is associated, “has issued an East Asia strategy report that takes up this task. It stresses the need for a U.S. policy toward China involving both cooperative and competitive efforts to deal with common overriding threats such as climate change; a more defensive, denial-based (not control- or primacy-based) U.S. and allied force posture in the Western Pacific; more clearly defined and agreed-on sets of international economic and technological norms, structures, and dispute resolution mechanisms; and agreements to limit arms racing and manage future crises. These activities, not an approach tied to a near-total focus on strategic competition with Beijing based on China as an existential threat, will better serve U.S. interests over the long term.”

Concluding thoughts

Military conflict involving the U.S. and China can be avoided if the decision makers in the U.S. and China can find ways to cooperate and compete peacefully, and if they come to understand the potentially existential danger of military conflict. Once initiated, such conflict could escalate to an apocalyptic nuclear war.

Indeed, sadly, the powerful military-industrial complex benefits from conflict and real and manufactured foreign threats and is likely to support a hawkish foreign policy. There are also those on the ideological right who believe there is no compromising with “the yellow menace” and think of China as an unprincipled, expansionist society that wants to dominate the world.  

The future in U.S. relations with China, in foreign relations generally, as well as in domestic policies is, in the final analysis, political. As this post has emphasized, there is always the danger of miscalculation. And there is too much talk even in the Biden administration about the need to maintain America’s dominance in the world.

But there are signs that the forces for peace may be gaining some momentum. The organization Peace Action reports favorable results in the 2020 election (https://peaceaction.org/2020victories). Here’s one example. Peace Action endorsed 75 candidates for Congress who support the charge for a more just, responsible, and peaceful U.S. foreign policy. In a major victory for the peace movement, 54 of them, nearly three-fourths, won their races.

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