Is the China Threat Overhyped?
  • Fri, 03/02/2012 - 20:10

By Lara Crouch
Friday, March 2, 2012

American leaders are overhyping the China threat, Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman recently argued. Is he right?

Unfortunately, Chapman mischaracterizes American concerns on both the security and economic fronts. In the process, he is dismissive of very valid issues and perpetuates two age-old myths about the U.S.-China relationship.

The Mischaracterizations

On security: “It's true that China has been upgrading its defense forces. But that's what you would expect of a country that has gotten much richer in the past few decades … Like any normal regional power, China aspires to have some capacity to dictate to others rather than be dictated to.”

It may be that China’s military modernization is expected and that China has every right to build up its arms; nonetheless, modernization can be destabilizing and Washington does have reason to worry about how Beijing is using its growing capabilities.

China may indeed want to avoid being “dictated to.” Ironic, then, that China has been dictating to others in the region. Its actions in the South China Sea last year—from firing shots at Filipino fishing boats to cutting cables of Vietnamese oil vessels—show China’s willingness to press its claims on others in the region. This is why the Philippines, for example—after kicking the U.S. Navy out of Subic Bay 20 years ago—is now engaging the United States in talks about temporary basing options. Japan is bolstering defense ties with Southeast Asian nations and shoring up its relationship with India. These moves are reactions to China throwing its weight around.

China’s military modernization itself is another reason to worry. New capabilities may limit American freedom of action in Asia, threaten U.S. assets, and—in a worst case scenario—prevent the United States from coming to the aid of its allies. The land-based anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), for example, could potentially take out a U.S. aircraft carrier, an essential platform of American power projection.

The ASBM also demonstrates the fallacy of Chapman’s simple defense budget comparisons between the United States and China. China certainly does not spend as much as the United States, and its military will not possess the strength and agility of the U.S. armed forces anytime soon. But China is focusing on gaining asymmetric advantages that could preclude the United States from securing its interests in the Asia-Pacific. China is the only country that has land-based ASBMs, which creates serious strategic vulnerabilities for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

On economics: “In our daily lives, someone who sells us things and lends us money is to be valued, not feared … China's rapid growth has been a good thing, not a bad one.”

Yes, the U.S.-China economic relationship has been largely mutually beneficial. And perhaps even more importantly, China’s economic development since 1980 has succeeded in raising millions of Chinese citizens out of abject poverty.

What worries the United States are some of the methods China employs to gain an economic advantage. The Chinese currency should not be the main point of contention, as Chapman notes correctly. But as Derek Scissors pointed out at a recent event at the American Enterprise Instistute, intellectual property rights (IPR) and commercial cyber-theft raise serious concerns. Last year’s World Trade Organization (WTO) report on China’s compliance with WTO mandates and rules details several improvements and commitments made by China on protection of IPR, but there are still many areas for improvement, particularly in enforcement. China’s commercial cyber-espionage is rampant, costing U.S. companies tens of billions a year.

The Myths

On political freedom: “And the economic changes China has made are bound to lead, over time, to political liberalization.”

This myth about China has been peddled for three decades now and is part of what James Mann calls the “Soothing Scenario” in his book, The China Fantasy. American and other Western leaders use this construct to make themselves feel better about their close relationship with China, and to explain away Chinese domestic repression.

There is often a correlation between economic development and political liberty. But in China’s case, some recent developments suggest that political liberalization has slowed if not reversed. In the last several weeks alone, Chinese security forces have opened fire on and killed Tibetans, jailed and killed Uighur Muslims, denied an invited human rights lawyer entry to a dinner with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and banned any visitors to recently re-jailed human rights advocate Gao Zhisheng.

Additionally, as Minxin Pei and Derek Scissors both argue, China may be moving away from the very economic liberalization that Chapman touts as the gateway to democracy. As Pei notes, the state sector is reasserting itself in most areas of the economy, including banking, finance, and energy. And according to Scissors, state banks dominate lending and generally favor state enterprises; private firms face widespread discrimination in obtaining capital and financing.

Pei explains most succinctly why economic reform will not lead to political change in China: “as long as pro-market reforms are used as a means to preserve the political monopoly of the CCP, such reforms are doomed to fail.” In other words, the Chinese Communist Party is committed to reform only when it serves its purposes, rather than viewing market reform as an end in itself.

On China as an enemy: “But it is not fated to be an enemy, unless we decide to make it one.”

As AEI fellow Dan Blumenthal has written, this “self-fulfilling prophecy” is the most common myth in U.S.-China relations:

Treat China like an enemy, the belief goes, and it will become an enemy. Conversely, treat China like a friend and it will become a friend. But three decades of U.S.-China relations should at least cast doubt on this belief. Since the normalization of relations with China, the aim of U.S. policy has been to bring China “into the family of nations.” Other than China itself, no nation has done more than the United States to improve the lot of the Chinese people and to welcome China's rise peacefully. And, rather than increase its deterrence of China—a natural move given the uncertainty attendant to the rise of any great power—the United States has let its Pacific forces erode and will do so further… Here is just one example of how unserious we are about China: As China continues to build up its strategic forces, the United States has signed a deal with Russia to cap its strategic forces without so much as mentioning China. Unless Beijing was insulted by this neglect, surely it could take great comfort in an anachronistic U.S. focus on arms control with Russia. But despite our demonstrations of benevolence, China still views the United States as its enemy or, on better days, its rival.

Demonstrating strength, seeking a balanced Asia not dominated by China, articulating policy stances clearly, and refusing to cave on issues important to us does not constitute treating China as an enemy.

Maintaining a good relationship with China should not come at the expense of U.S. interests and commitments, nor should it prevent us from seeing the current state of U.S.-China relations as it really is. Mischaracterizations and mythologies distract from the real policy differences and distort the lens through which we view the U.S.-China relationship.

Lara Crouch is a research assistant in the Asian Studies department at AEI.