Just How Great a Threat Is China?

It is the most important country for America’s future. Does that mean it’s the most dangerous?

Xi Jinping and Barack Obama at what seems, in retrospect, the high point of their relationship, two years ago at Sunnylands in California (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

It’s still June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown that many young Chinese are completely unaware of, and about which the government is so hyper-sensitive that for years it has blocked any online reference to “June 4” or even combinations of the numbers “6” and “4.” A very early workaround was for Chinese discussants instead to talk about “May 35.”

On this year’s 35th of May, The Atlantic has had three extensive takeouts on developments within China and dealings between the U.S. and China:

— “‘The World Is Too Important to Be Left to America,’” a translated excerpt from a five-year-old hawkish monograph by Liu Mingfu, who was then a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), plus an explanatory preface by Kathy Gilsinan;

— “Where Are the China Hawks?” by Peter Beinart, arguing that China is the “biggest threat” to U.S. national security and thus should be at the center of American political debates; and

  — “How Should the U.S. Engage with China?,” an interview by Judy Woodruff of the PBS Newshour with former U.S. Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson about how the world’s largest economic power should deal with the second-largest.

I hope you read and/or watch all of them. A few notes:

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1) About Liu Mingfu, I suggest that you view this the way you would an absolutist presentation by an American military official or theorist or politician about the coming “inevitable” showdown with China—or with Russia, or Iran, or radical Islam, or another foe. Or view it as you would the latest statements from one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new cabinet allies about the impossibility of ever compromising with Palestinians, or declarations from religious leaders in Iran about the impossibility of ever coexisting with Israel.

That is, statements of this sort matter. But what matters much more, for China and the United States and Israel and Iran, is whether governments act on these beliefs. And in looking at Liu Mingfu’s book as a guide to Chinese policy, bear these points in mind as well:

• The extent to which the PLA feels circled-in and outgunned by the U.S. military is almost impossible for most Americans to imagine. In the United States, everyone assumes that China is ever-ascendant, while America is overcommitted, war-weary, and generally played-out.

For reasons I’ve laid out many times (e.g. here and in our recent American Futures reports), I think the declinist view of U.S. prospects is wrong—or at least premature, and not inevitable. But for very different reasons, the U.S. situation can look simultaneously overextended and highly aggressive from the Chinese point of view.

At Chinese think tanks and government offices, I’ve seen maps like the one below—showing U.S. forces, allies, or non-enemies, all around the Chinese “homeland.” I came to know by heart the speech that would go along with the map: “How would you Americans feel if China had forces staged in Canada and Mexico? [By which they mean the encampments in Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere.] How would you react if we sold attack aircraft to a regime committed to your destruction? [By which they mean Taiwan.]”

The kind of map you’ll see all over China, with U.S. forces or allies on most of China’s frontiers. (This map via the Rubin Center in Israel.)

The point is not that PLA hawks have an accurate or balanced worldview. They don’t. It is to remind Americans of how different things look from the PLA’s perspective, and why they might be itching to say that “American rules” were “unfair.”

• The publication date of Liu Mingfu’s book matters. Five years ago, when the book came out, the people in China who cared about its international standing were really riding high. America seemed to be in total collapse, and through the carelessness and corruption of its Lehman-crash-era financial practices it was inflicting damage on everyone else too. To say nothing of the Iraq War, Guantanamo, and the post-9/11 self-destructive turns in U.S. policy. China, in contrast, had the triumphant Beijing Olympics just behind it and the Shanghai World Expo underway, and it was making a quicker recovery than others from the (U.S.-born) financial crisis. Generally it was feeling the wind at its back. The American phrase “getting a case of the big head” applied to a lot of China’s leadership then. Phillip Saunders did an assessment of Liu Mingfu’s book at the time, stressing some of these themes.

Life has moved on. America’s overall strategic situation, for all its problems, is better than it was five years ago. China has encountered more strategic resistance (yes, even considering the U.S. inattentive-fiasco involving the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). The U.S. economy, for all its distortions, is better balanced than China’s, and has better potential (in my view) for the next stage of innovation and growth.

There are still many people in China who feel aggrieved in the way Liu Mingfu did. But the attitude of “get out of our way, Grandpa USA” is less evident now. Please read this recent piece by James Palmer, from Beijing, on how different the “Chinese threat” seems when viewed up close.

And, of course, most people in China are mainly thinking about their own careers, their own budgets, their own families, their own towns, not theoretical rankings of national greatness.

• Most of the moves Xi Jinping has made since taking power have been disappointing at best, alarming at worst from the international point of view. While saying that he is committed to reform, so far he has mainly seemed repressive internally and aggressive externally. Is this a two-year dark phase? Or have we seen the beginning of a long winter for China and the world?

The more bad news piles up, the more discouraging the prospects become (as very longtime China hand Jerome Cohen has just argued, and as academics Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Timothy Cheek discuss here). But the people who are sure, one way or the other, have to ignore a lot of things: how contradictory the developments within China always are, how masked are the workings of the Chinese leadership, and how many struggles over China’s future path are still underway within leading groups themselves.

The most obvious recent example is the famous environmental documentary Under the Dome. For a few weeks, the government seemingly blessed this end-of-days portrayal of China’s environmental horrors. Then it suddenly reversed policy and tried (vainly) to bottle it up. Had this switcheroo somehow been planned all along? Did it reflect a change in government perspective, perhaps a panic when leaders saw how popular the film had become? Was it a publicly visible sign of struggles within the leadership, a pro-reform camp first promoting the film and then a pro-security camp restricting it? Or all those factors? Or something else entirely?

The point, again, is that “Chinese intentions” are very hard to be sure about, and (as with Under the Dome) may still be contested inside the leadership. A five-year-old book like Liu Mingfu’s is one sign, to be weighed against others. China’s recent fortification of new islands is a more ominous sign, as these ChinaFile essays discuss. But is this a deliberate, frontal challenge to the United States and the existing Pacific order? Is it a feint, which the government will back away from as it has some others? Is it mainly a chest-beating gesture aimed at an audience inside China, to demonstrate that the country’s leaders are strong, strong, strong? I contend that no one knows for sure. The United States has to prepare for the possibility that this is a deliberate challenge—while remaining aware of the other possibilities, and gaming out its own reactions accordingly. That means being ready for a confrontation with China if it comes, but not acting as if one is inevitable and thereby insuring that it becomes so.

For more in this vein, please see the Judy Woodruff interview with former Secretaries Rubin and Paulson. Or perhaps consult The Sleepwalkers or other chronicles of the drift that made war “inevitable” a century ago.

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2) About Peter Beinart’s essay: Through the years I have agreed with Peter Beinart on most of his strategic arguments—about Israel, Iran, dealing with terrorism, the overall U.S. predicament, etc. And I would have no comment about his new essay beyond “please read it” if, instead of saying that China was a bigger threat to America than ISIS, al-Qaeda, Iran, etc., it had said that China was more important. Here is why I emphasize the distinction:

• I think there’s no reasonable dissent to the view that, for the foreseeable future, America’s management of its relationship with China matters more than its relations with any other country. Economically, environmentally, for matters of war and peace—in these and other matters, if things go badly between the U.S. and China, they go badly for everyone. (You think it’s difficult working out an Iran deal with Russia and China sitting on the same side of the table as America? Imagine if they moved to the other side.) If they go better between the U.S. and China, there’s more hope.

You could call the bad side of that equation a threat. But it’s a “threat” of a very different sort from the one via ISIS or al-Qaeda, which from the U.S. point of view are of course threats and nothing else. The China “threat” is also different from the ones Beinart mentions via Pakistan, Iran, and the Israel-Palestine impasse. In all of those cases, from the U.S. perspective there’s an asymmetry: benefits if things go well, but much, much larger dangers if they don’t.

So let’s say that China is more important than the countries U.S. politicians spend the most time declaiming about—and important because of the potential benefits and the potential risks. That’s different from being the “biggest threat.” The United States needs people who think and talk more about China, not “more China hawks.”

• Peter Beinart says that American politicians need to be talking more about China. I’m not sure—and I’ll explain via another sensitive international relationship.

If you told my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg that Americans needed to “think more” about their relationship with Israel or have politicians talk about it more, I assume he would either laugh or be puzzled. There are already huge numbers of Americans, and Israelis, and Europeans, and Palestinians, and others who spend great portions of their lives thinking about Israel—its history, its evolution, its promise, its challenges. And they debate these topics constantly. That’s what you see in the series of interviews that President Obama has done on the topic recently with Jeffrey Goldberg and then with Ilana Dayan of Israel’s Channel Two.

In the Dayan interview, Obama said what many people have thought: that if Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to rule, Dick Cheney-like, on the basis of fear rather than hope, he could (again Cheney-like) endanger what should be best about his country. As Obama put it:

I am more worried about what I described earlier, which is an Israeli politics that’s motivated only by fear. And that then leads to a loss of those core values that, when I was young and I was admiring Israel from afar, were what were the essence of this nation. There are things that you can lose that don’t just involve rockets.

Obama, as he frequently points out, is not running for anything any more. And that is the point. No candidate for national office in America could say what the president just did. There is an extremely active debate in America about Israel’s future. But the blunt instrument of presidential politics means that campaign rhetoric boils down either to saying nothing or saying “I stand with Israel.”

Something similar is true with China. Huge number of Americans spend huge portions of their lives thinking about relations with China. Journalists, academics, business people, diplomats, financiers, military people, travelers, musicians, filmmakers, museum curators, college enrollment officers, lawyers, you name it. Trust me: You could spend all day, every day, following the listservs and websites trying to weigh the latest indications from China. If you’d like a sample immersion, you could start with the recent report overseen by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia for Harvard’s Kennedy School; then read the Council on Foreign Relations’ manifesto arguing that it is time for a new and less accommodating “U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China”; and read Daniel Bell’s Atlantic essay last week on why “Chinese Democracy Isn’t Inevitable.”

The debate is intense, it is complex, it goes on and on, and it is important. Everyone involved thinks more Americans should pay more attention to China. But do many of them wish there were more speeches about China during the coming presidential campaign, which is what Peter Beinart seems to be asking for?

Not necessarily. Because in a presidential campaign speech or attack ad, anything about China is likely to boil down to, “Hey, they’re screwing us, watch out!” That’s how campaigning is. If a topic is complicated, if it involves both good and bad, then it’s not really useful as a campaign issue—even though it would be of great importance while governing. It’s conceivable that a national candidate could make a campaign speech about China, or about Israel, that fully reflects the complexity any (successful) president would apply to those challenges in office. But it’s not likely. I’ve never seen it.

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On May 35, I think of and honor the many Chinese people working to create a civic culture worthy of their achievements in other realms. They and their country are genuinely important. Which is different from being America’s “biggest threat.”

Less sober-toned update. If the photo of Presidents Obama and Xi reminds you of something, you may be dredging up the same ancestral memory that occurred to a number of web-based wits in China after the photo was taken. As I described two years ago, the illustration below very quickly became very popular in China: