Avoiding a war with China

It is a safe rule of thumb that at any given time, the US needs a external threat that requires a heavy military response. That is how the military-industrial complex keeps the gushers of money flowing their way. They can never allow a time when people say to themselves “Hey, I feel safe!” because then they might ask why the country spends vast amounts of money on the military and its adjuncts when so many other pressing needs exist. So we went from the Cold War to the war of drugs to the wars in the Middle East to the war on terrorism and now some are urging that the US is facing a resurgent threat from Russia. There was even a time when Nicaragua and Grenada were portrayed as existential threats. China was initially portrayed as a threat after the Communist revolution and during the Vietnam war, then faded for a while but has recently risen in the charts as a result of its rapid economic growth that will soon make it the world’s largest economy.

Writing in the February 2019 issue of Harper’s Magazine (possible paywall), Kishore Mahbubani says that the rhetoric in the US that sees China as a military threat needs to be countered. He reviews four recent books about the rise of China that suggest that in the US, a shift away from military thinking is needed.

Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-being.

Yet since China is not mounting a military force to threaten or invade the United States, not trying to intervene in America’s domestic politics, and not engaged in a deliberate campaign to destroy the American economy, we must consider that, in spite of the increasing clamor about the threat China poses to the United States, it is still possible for America to find a way to deal peaceably with a China that will become the number one economic, and possibly geopolitical, power within a decade—and to do so in a way that advances its own interests, even as it constrains China’s.

Since 1978, however, China has lifted 800 million people out of poverty and created the largest middle class in the world. As Graham Allison wrote in an op-ed for China Daily, an English- language newspaper owned by the Chinese government, “it could be argued that 40 years of miracle growth have created a greater increase in human well- being for more individuals than occurred in the previous more than 4,000 years of China’s history.” All this has happened while the CCP has been in power. And the Chinese did not fail to notice that the collapse of the Soviet Communist party led to a decline in Russian life expectancy, increase in infant mortality, and plummeting incomes.

In American eyes, the contest between America’s and China’s political systems is one between a democracy, where the people freely choose their government and enjoy freedom of speech and of religion, and an autocracy, where the people have no such freedoms. To neutral observers, however, it could just as easily be seen as a choice between a plutocracy in the United States, where major public policy decisions end up favoring the rich over the masses, and a meritocracy in China, where major public policy decisions made by officials chosen by Party elites on the basis of ability and performance have resulted in such a striking alleviation of poverty.

When I first went to China, in 1980, for instance, no Chinese were allowed to travel overseas as private tourists. Last year, roughly 134 million traveled overseas. And roughly 134 million Chinese returned home freely. Similarly, millions of the best young Chinese minds have experienced the academic freedom of American universities. Yet, in 2017, eight in ten Chinese students chose to return home.

The Chinese have, for instance, avoided unnecessary wars. Unlike the United States, which is blessed with two nonthreatening neighbors in Canada and Mexico, China has difficult relations with a number of strong, nationalistic neighbors, including India, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. Quite remarkably, of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom), China is the only one among them that has not fired a single military shot across its border in thirty years, since a brief naval battle between China and Vietnam in 1988. By contrast, even during the relatively peaceful Obama Administration, the American military dropped twenty-six thousand bombs on seven countries in a single year. Evidently, the Chinese understand well the art of strategic restraint.

However, there is a growing perception in China and beyond that the real goal of the Trump Administration is not just to eliminate these unfair trade practices but to undermine or thwart China’s long- term plan to become a technological leader in its own right. Although the United States has the right to implement policies to prevent the theft of its technology, as Martin Feldstein has indicated, this should not be conflated with its efforts to thwart China’s long- term, state- led industrial plan, Made in China 2025, designed to make China a global competitor in advanced manufacturing, focusing on industries like electric cars, advanced robotics, and artificial intelligence.

It was rational for the United States to have the world’s largest defense budget when its economy dwarfed every other in the world. Would it be rational for the world’s number- two economy to have the world’s largest defense budget? And if America refuses to give this up, isn’t it a strategic gift to China? China learned one major lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Economic growth must come before military expenditure. Hence, it would actually serve China’s long- term interests for the United States to burn money away on unnecessary military expenses.

The leaders of both China and India understand that we now live in a small, interdependent global village, threatened by many new challenges, including global warming. Both China and India could have walked away from the Paris Agreement after Trump did so. Both chose not to. Despite their very different political systems, both have decided that they can be responsible global citizens. Perhaps this may be the best route to find out if China will emerge as a threat to the United States and the world. If it agrees to be constrained by multiple global rules and partnerships, China could very well remain a different polity— that is, not a liberal democracy— and still not be a threatening one. This is the alternative scenario that the “China threat” industry in the United States should consider and work toward.

But since the War Party in the US needs an external threat, China will play that role until some other threat takes over.


  1. says

    While the Hamberdler has been ranting about cutting foreign aid, China has been doing things like helping to build in African countries. Yes, they now find themselves beholden to China, but the people won’t mind if their lives are getting better. The United States has also been making it so easy for authoritarian governments to point at it and say democracy doesn’t work (the UK has been working its way into being a secondary example). The soft power China has been projecting has to be much more palatable than the hard power the US is used to doing for a lot of nations screwed over by American foreign policy through the years. How many have tried democracy only for the US to help overthrow their democratically elected leaders because they didn’t make the “right” choice?

    If Orange Yeller pulls out of NATO, it’s all over the the US’s standing in the world. The buffoon doesn’t realize that isolationism is going to destroy American prosperity and power. While I’d be happy to see the end of the US as a super power and end to its bullying and warmongering, and ascendant Russia and China scares me.

  2. says

    China’s expansionism is on the other side of the planet. It’s only a threat if we suppose that the entire planet is ours to control. It’s not as if China is going to start preparing to take Florida or perhaps take over Canada and pressure us from the north.

    China is only a threat to our assumed global hegemony. If you understand things that way, then China’s actions are more in the vein of containment than threat. If you see Russia’s US-strategy also as containment, suddenly the situation looks a lot clearer. The US is frustrated by these upstarts that threaten to keep us from ruling the world.

  3. says

    If you assume American interests are global domination, then China is a threat to our interests. But in that case, who is the threat to whom?

  4. lorn says

    Why would we want to avoid war?

    China has long been plagued by a large rural population of poorly educated peasants who are glad to see material gain but easy to antagonize if things turn downward for long. They see their move to the big city as a good thing and largely view what we consider near sweat-shop labor as a step forward. They don’t wan to hear about the down side of capitalism where protecting labor is entirely secondary to investor interests. It is easy to take the side of financial and political elites when you get a piece of the pie. Much harder to countenance the wealthy when your pay went toward their pay raise.

    The peasants are revolting. Boy howdy. If there was some way we could neaten things up by giving all those young, energetic people something to do so they don’t have time to pester elites and complain about how they have been used and how it isn’t fair.

    Similarly the US has a large number of hyper-patriotic rural youths who love guns, but are otherwise so unoccupied as to make suicide and suicidal drug addiction seem to be a viable options.

    If there were something for the callow, disappointed, outraged populations to do. This was, more or less, the situation following a long series of wars, including the hundred-years war, in England. The solution was to declare Christendom in jeopardy and organize the crusades. The idea was to have a nice little war over there, to profit as much as possible from it, while occupying or disposing of the excess populations of angry disenfranchised youths. Who just happen to be fascinated by the weapons of war.

    Negotiate an acceptable kill-ratio (3 to 1 sounds about right); select a battlefield (Taiwan or Spratlies would be good. Close enough to nation or supposed interests to be a credible casus belli (but far enough away to really not matter.) ; establish limits as to what weapons can be used and how it is allowed to spread (We want to convert inconvenient populations into passion and profit, not burn down the house) and then arrange an exit strategy that allows both sides to declare victory and leave smelling good. Sounds sort of like a plan.

    I am playing devils advocate and noting that it can be argued, perhaps not credibly, and certainly not ethically, that a war might be seen to serve the interests of the elites in both nations. In a perverse way a friendly and well controlled war might be just the thing. Unfortunately war, once started, is a wild and uncontrollable thing. Reputations get involved. Other nations wade in. People take things personally. Things get out of hand. Profits might be lost. Things go far enough wrong and elites might lose money, be injured, or, God forbid, might actually die. That would be entirely unacceptable.

    Then again, at least on this side of the Pacific, our present leadership is not known for deep thoughts or advanced planning so that last bit might be entire overlooked in the rush to capitalize on the opportunity that war might represent.

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