WASHINGTON — Peace is boring. How else to explain America’s seemingly incessant search for a new enemy?
After the Cold War, America’s foreign policy establishment could have gratefully accepted peace, stopped meddling around the globe, and demobilized America’s outsize military. Instead, it found other enemies.
Doing so wasn’t easy. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq proved to be easy prey. Now Iran is getting the most attention.
But the Pentagon has just issued its latest alarmist assessment of Chinese military spending. Former Australian diplomat Gregory Clark writes of a “China threat lobby.”
In fact, had there been no 9/11, which yielded both an enemy (“Islamofascism”) and a conflict (“Global War on Terrorism”), China might have ended up in Washington’s gunsights early in Bush’s term. Years before, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz authored a Pentagon paper that advocated preventing “potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.”
However, after 9/11 Bush officials understood that they were unlikely to browbeat China into compliance with their demands. But hostility toward China never disappeared.
Some critics focused on trade issues. Fears are rising over China’s rising influence in Asia.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission contends that “China’s methodical and accelerating military modernization presents a growing threat to U.S. security interests in the Pacific.” Clinton H. Whitehurst, Jr., writes for the Strom Thurmond Institute: “For the second time in half a century the United States is engaged in a ‘cold war’ with a powerful adversary — the People’s Republic of China.”
The latest “China as enemy” book to hit the American market is Jed Babbin’s and Edward Timperlake’s “Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States.” Last year Roger Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic: History suggests “the result is likely to be the defining military conflict of the twenty-first century: if not a big war with China, then a series of Cold War-style standoffs that stretch out over years and decades.”
These hysterical warnings look silly. China today is more prosperous, accessible, and responsible than ever before. Although Beijing is not a close ally, it is not hostile either.
Rather, it is a significant power with a range of interests that, unsurprisingly, do not always match those of America. The situation calls for thoughtful, nuanced diplomacy, not self-righteous scare-mongering.
Unfortunately, China critics routinely overstate Chinese capabilities and misstate U.S. interests. For instance, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently suggested that “Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment. Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?”
In fact, that question would be better asked by Chinese officials to Secretary Rumsfeld. America’s increase in military outlays over the last few years alone equals China’s entire defense budget. Washington spends upwards of seven times as much as does China, is allied with every leading industrial state around the globe, and has allies ringing China.
Equally disturbing, much of the discussion of China confuses which “interests” are in conflict. Former Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, contended that “They don’t have to be a threat sufficient to invade the United States. They just have to be a threat sufficient to go against our interests.”
That is, the Chinese “threat” is primarily a threat to the American empire, not the American republic. The basic issue is Washington’s predominance in East Asia.
The ultimate threat, in the view of analyst Ross Munro, is that Beijing’s “grand strategy is to dominate Asia. And that puts the United States and China on a collision course.”
But America is not alone. India also is a rising power, Russia maintains a sizable nuclear deterrent, Japan fields a capable military, South Korea is growing in influence, Australia is a regional leader, the ASEAN states are developing new cooperative ties, and more. The U.S. can play the role of a traditional off-shore balancer, wary and watchful, but aloof from conflicts that do not concern it.
The principal U.S. goal should be to accommodate the rise of a likely great power, promoting mutually-beneficial cooperation while ensuring American security. Unfortunately, Washington’s attempt to engage in containment (even if packaged with engagement as “congagement”) encourages conflict.
Pushing nations to choose sides may not redound to America’s benefit. Most importantly, treating China as hostile is more likely to turn it hostile.
Washington should encourage private economic and cultural ties with China, depoliticizing much of the relationship. Washington should seek China’s cooperation on issues of shared interest, such as stability on the Korean Peninsula. U.S. officials should speak frankly about issues of proliferation and human rights, but should do their most contentious work behind the scenes. Most important, America’s allies should take over responsibility for their own defense.
There will be no more important bilateral relationship over the next century than that between the U.S. and China. Much depends on the ability of the two nations to overcome cultural and political differences to cooperate peacefully. The first step in doing so is to not go to Asia in search of enemies to combat.