Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Be Wary of China Threat Inflation

Look at what happened with the Soviet threat in the Cold War.

By , the William Preston Few professor of public policy and political science at Duke University.
Schoolchildren and their teacher peer out from under their desks during a Cold War air raid drill
Schoolchildren and their teacher peer from under desks where they took refuge amid sirens during New Jersey's first state-wide Cold War air raid drill on May. 2, 1952. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The China threat helped pass an over $200 billion international competitiveness bill with rare bipartisan support. It’s a stance that has wide consensus in the foreign-policy community. It is ideologically infused as democracy versus autocracy. And when China’s leader warns foreign powers to back off lest they “crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of Steel,” what could be wrong with mobilizing around the threat posed by China?

Plenty. The China threat is being inflated in ways that, as with the Soviet threat in the Cold War and terrorism post-9/11, are counterproductive for foreign-policy strategy and distort domestic politics in dangerous ways.

No question the Soviet threat had some valuable effects. It kept one administration after another sticking with the diplomat George Kennan’s “patient but firm and vigilant containment.” It spawned NATO, the most successful peacetime alliance in history. It convinced fiscal conservative President Dwight D. Eisenhower to build the interstate highway system. It helped President John F. Kennedy energize the country for going to the moon.

The China threat helped pass an over $200 billion international competitiveness bill with rare bipartisan support. It’s a stance that has wide consensus in the foreign-policy community. It is ideologically infused as democracy versus autocracy. And when China’s leader warns foreign powers to back off lest they “crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of Steel,” what could be wrong with mobilizing around the threat posed by China?

Plenty. The China threat is being inflated in ways that, as with the Soviet threat in the Cold War and terrorism post-9/11, are counterproductive for foreign-policy strategy and distort domestic politics in dangerous ways.

No question the Soviet threat had some valuable effects. It kept one administration after another sticking with the diplomat George Kennan’s “patient but firm and vigilant containment.” It spawned NATO, the most successful peacetime alliance in history. It convinced fiscal conservative President Dwight D. Eisenhower to build the interstate highway system. It helped President John F. Kennedy energize the country for going to the moon.

But inflating the threat to a global level—which Kennan himself warned against—led the United States to one failed policy after another in what was then termed the Third World. There was the quagmire of Vietnam, which while no longer America’s longest war remains the most devastating in so many respects. The overthrow of governments in Iran and Guatemala, where aftershocks linger to this day. A hand in mass murders of civilians in Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina. And all too many other examples that neither served American strategic interests nor upheld Americans’ professed values.

At home, McCarthyism swirled like “a gigantic, tumultuous hurricane,” as Sen. Charles Potter put it, reflecting with remorse on his earlier support. In government, business, the military, the arts, universities, and more, careers were destroyed and civil liberties trampled. Films like He May Be a Communist, which included a scene in which a teenage girl told her parents that “the party has convinced me to free myself of the lingering repression of family life,” were embedded in public school curriculums.

Nor were the deleterious consequences limited to McCarthyism. In 1956, only two years after the movement’s eponymous senator was censured, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI invoked the Soviet threat to launch his Counter Intelligence Program. The organization, known as COINTELPRO, became a “vacuum cleaner,” “sweeping in information about lawful activities of American citizens”—including Martin Luther King Jr., feminists, and environmentalists—and it even made efforts to prevent commie “infiltration” of Parent-Teacher Associations. In 1967, despite prohibitions on domestic espionage, the CIA started Operation CHAOS, which accumulated files on more than 300,000 individuals and organizations, “almost all of them United States citizens and organizations unconnected with espionage,” the New York Times reported.

As for 9/11, threat inflation was especially obvious with the Iraq War. The decision to invade was made on the flimsiest of evidence, with political debate stifled by soft-on-terrorism intimidation. There was also little questioning as special operations forces were deployed as part of what was described as a “global war on terrorism” to over 150 countries, with vaguely defined and open-ended missions like “train, advise, and assist.” While the Afghanistan War initially was proportional to the threat, its continuation for 20 years was based on worst-case projections of withdrawal and best-case assumptions for staying. If a terrorism threat increases going forward, it will be less because the war was ended than how the war was fought.

Perhaps the most telling example of soft-on-terrorism electoral politics was the reelection defeat of Georgia Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam War hero and triple amputee, who was smeared with ads flashing his picture along with Osama bin Laden’s because he did not vote for every single anti-terrorism measure. Defense budgets were whisked through Congresses with little opposition, and the two wars and global counterterrorism campaigns cost, all in all, close to $7 trillion by fiscal 2020. On indefinite detentions, secrecy in the courts, warrantless surveillance, torture, and numerous other issues, the balance between national security and civil liberties was tipped toward the former. Hate crimes and prejudice against Muslim Americans intensified, culminating under a president who believed “Islam hates us.”

Now there’s China. Between repression in Hong Kong, the genocide of Uyghurs, militarization in the South China Sea, a military clash with India in the Himalayas, the economic coercion of Australia, wolf warrior diplomacy, and the hacking of Microsoft, Beijing sure has provided China hawks with plenty of material.

Emphasis on China as a threat began increasing during the Donald Trump presidency. The “great power competition” thrust of the 2017 National Security Strategy got more praise than most Trump foreign policy. The bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned of Beijing seeking to expand its “China dream” into the “world’s dream.” In the 2020 presidential campaign Trump and Joe Biden tried to out-tough each other on China.

Biden has in many ways been even more fixated on the China threat than Trump. China was made the basis for a full-scale Pentagon policy review. It was the main threat identified in the initial intelligence review. It was at the center of the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. It was the main issue pushed at the G-7, European Union, and NATO summits in June. It is a matter, as Biden put it in his quasi-State of the Union speech to Congress, of who will “win the 21st century”—China or the United States.

No question China has been more assertive and aggressive lately. And it has largely rebuffed direct Biden diplomatic initiatives. But winning the 21st century? I get the motivation-speak, the rally ’round to win mobilization calculation. But there is a real risk of falling into another threat inflation trap.

On the foreign-policy strategy side, I have three main concerns.

First is overstating the threat China poses. We know that China is seeking to accelerate its elevation to a great power. But the evidence is less convincing that is it pushing to be the only great power. As more than 100 China experts put it in an open letter, it is one thing to acknowledge that China poses “serious challenges,” but it is quite another to see it as “an existential national security threat that must be confronted in every sphere.” Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger delivered his own caution about a classic security dilemma vicious cycle in which “acts conceived as defensive in China may be treated as aggressive by the outside world; deterrent moves by the West may be interpreted in China as encirclement.” And whatever the ideological competition, setting up Confucius Institutes is well short of subverting governments and fomenting revolutions.

Even if Chinese objectives are more maximalist, one might ask the question: How’s that going for you, President Xi Jinping? The United Kingdom, which had been resisting U.S. pressure against allowing the Chinese company Huawei to work on 5G wireless infrastructure, joined the ban in retaliation for Beijing’s Hong Kong crackdown. Japan has been taking a stronger position on Taiwan than ever before. Australia largely offset Chinese sanctions by shifting to alternative trade partners. The EU stepped back from a new investment treaty. China’s $4 trillion-plus Belt and Road Initiative has brought only limited leverage over recipient countries. Indeed, Chinese economic statecraft has been largely self-defeating. Wolf-warrior diplomacy has been coming across as brazen diplomatic bluster. Public views in one country after another of China are much more negative than just a few years ago. In these and other respects, China is encountering what other great powers have when they overextend and bully, the United States included.

Second, while having their own concerns about China, key U.S. allies worry about getting caught in a neo-Cold War middle. This is especially true in the Indo-Pacific, where while pleased to have America’s back, countries have their own interests in relations with China. When polled on what Japan’s position should be in a U.S.-China conflict, 58 percent of the Japanese public favored working for international cooperation rather than taking a side, with only 20 percent prioritizing relations with the US. (Only 1 percent prioritized relations with China.) Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister and a China expert, stresses the need for both sides to manage their competition, to both take responsibility for averting “calamity.” Even with India and China clashing militarily, the foreign-policy expert Tanvi Madan cautions against “overestimating how far and fast Delhi might move forward with the United States.” South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong recently met in China with his counterpart and invited Xi to his country as soon as COVID-19 conditions allow. “Don’t make us choose” was the title of a 2019 study of Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries.

In other regions, too, U.S. allies and partners show a similar tendency to hedge. Neither the G-7 nor NATO nor the EU would go as far as the Biden administration wanted in the anti-China portions of the June summit communiques. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, all major recipients of American military aid, also have security cooperation agreements with China. Israel struck a deal with the Shanghai International Port Group to run the Haifa port despite American concerns about security risks to 6th Fleet visits to a nearby naval base.

Third, putting the China threat at the core of U.S. strategy crowds out and complicates two issues that pose even greater threats: pandemic prevention and climate change. While the Great Game is traditionally posed in country versus country terms—a rising power challenging a dominant one—COVID-19 and climate change show American security is more threatened by transnational forces than nation-states.

Even if one were to go with the China hawk threat assessment, how could it really be considered a higher priority than something that has inflicted a death toll in the United States greater than that of all U.S. 20th-century wars combined (and still mounting), wrought economic devastation second only to the Great Depression, and disrupted Americans’ daily lives more than anything in our history? While much of that had to do with Trumpian dysfunctional domestic policies, the delta variant surge reminds us how much pandemic prevention is an international issue. Given that the next pandemic is when not if, working on reforming and strengthening the World Health Organization would be much more strategic than pushing the Wuhan lab leak investigation.

On climate change, take your pick of extreme weather disasters just this month: fires in Oregon, a heat wave in the Western United States and Western Canada, floods in Europe and China, droughts in Africa. A recently released study put the global annual death toll from climate change at 5 million. Very few countries have been meeting their 2015 Paris climate agreement targets, and even if these are met, global GDP would still fall by 4.2 percent by midcentury. The 2015 U.S. Defense Department study of how the effects of climate change “threaten stability in a number of countries” is already being borne out.

While the Biden administration has elevated these issues, they still are more peripheral than central to its foreign policy. The crowding out was evident at those June Western alliance summits: Why not have made climate change the central thrust and gone into the November global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, showing what democracies can do, reclaiming global leadership in ways far more resonant than China containment? And how to forge the U.S.-China common ground needed for any chance at effective policy on these issues if both sides continue exacerbating portrayals of each other as the enemy?

As to domestic politics, it’s great that Congress passed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act but sad that, as the New York Times’ David Sanger notes, it needed “an adversary to be the organizing thought for things we probably needed to do anyway.” And as Sanger and colleagues wrote, the beat-China topline was “a godsend to lobbyists,” providing cover for all sorts of pork-barreling and Christmas tree projects. Critics also question whether too much emphasis is being put on countering China’s technological priorities rather than doubling down on America’s own proven research and development strengths.

The soft-on-China political drums are beating louder and louder. One would-be Republican Trumpian successor for the 2024 election, Sen. Josh Hawley, claims China is pursuing “nothing less than domination … a master of home and abroad.” Another, Sen. Tom Cotton, says it’s “time to lower the boom” on China. The Committee on the Present Danger: China, rebranded from its anti-Soviet days, is back on the Washington scene. The American public is doing its best to brake the swing, with 78 percent now seeing China as a security threat but in a 51 percent to 47 percent split on containing China’s power or engaging it cooperatively.

Asian Americans are already suffering an over 100 percent increase in California and 74 percent nationally in violence and other hate incidents. While the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act helps, the long history of bias and discrimination against Asians, going back to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1885 Rock Springs, Wyoming, attacks by white mobs on Chinese workers, killing 28 and looting and burning Chinese businesses and homes, is sobering.

The United States is more likely to effectively meet the geopolitical competition China poses if it avoids the threat inflation that experience has shown is counterproductive strategically and dangerous politically.

Bruce W. Jentleson is the William Preston Few professor of public policy and political science at Duke University and the author of The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons From Twentieth-Century Statesmanship.

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.