No one who hasn’t been sleeping in a cave can have missed that U.S.-China relations are at a moment of dangerously high tensions. Just yesterday, Chinese President Xi Jin Ping stated that “Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.” Meanwhile, in the United States, tough rhetoric has been reinforced by systematic – and in many cases misguided – denunciations of a perceived Chinese threat that is portrayed as all-encompassing, from spy balloons to cargo cranes that can allegedly be used for surveillance of goods coming in and out of U.S. ports.
The newly formed House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party has added fuel to the fire, devoting its first hearing to a litany of alleged threats posed by Beijing, present nearly anywhere one might look, if the committee and its witnesses are to be believed. The stated purpose of the committee is to raise public concern about China. But as Max Boot noted in a recent column in the Washington Post,
“The problem today isn’t that Americans are insufficiently concerned about the rise of China. The problem is that they are prey to hysteria and alarmism that could lead the United States into a needless nuclear war.”
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal has begun a multi-part series on great power competition that largely accepts the views of the Pentagon and China hawks. The first article in the series ignores the underlying fact that the most effective way to prevent a conflict between the United States and China is to develop some diplomatic rules of the road, not by spinning out scenarios for a war between two nuclear-armed powers that could cause unprecedented devastation to all concerned.
Among the flawed assumptions put forward in the Journal piece is that the Budget Control Act of 2011 “hampered initiatives to transform the military, including on artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous systems and advanced manufacturing.” In fact, despite some early reductions from the Pentagon’s spending blueprint, the United States spent as much on the military during the ten years of the Budget Control Act as it did in the prior decade, when it had 200,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. This year’s budget for national defense of $858 billion is one of the highest since World War II, higher than the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam Wars or the height of the Cold War. It is also about two-and-one-half times what China spends on its military forces, even after pending increases on the part of Beijing are taken into account.
In short, the Pentagon has plenty of funding to invest in new technologies, but it has chosen to squander funds on misguided priorities like maintaining a global military presence of 750 military bases and 170,000 troops statIoned overseas and a $2 trillion plan for building a new generatIon of nuclear weapons that will do nothing to increase deterrence even as it threatens to accelerate a dangerous and costly arms race. In addition, none of the Pentagon’s new favorites, from hypersonics to autonomous weapons to artificial intelligence, are likely to perform as advertised. They could even make matters worse, by making weapons harder to operate and maintain even as they increase the risk of false alarms or inadvertent attacks on the wrong targets. There is no magic military solution to the challenges posed by China, many of which are political and economic rather than military in nature.
A second flawed assertion in the Wall Street Journal piece on great power competition is the implication that the fact that China has more ships than the United States is a major security problem. U.S. ships are larger and carry more firepower than Chinese vessels. The problem is not in the number of ships, but the composition of the force. The Navy continues to invest in $13 billion aircraft carriers that are vulnerable to modern, high speed anti-ship missiles. Furthermore, due to pressure from Congress, the Navy still possesses too many copies of the Littoral Combat Ship, which has had a hard time even functioning at sea, is ill-equipped for the missions it was designed to carry out, and has no relevance to a potential conflict with China.
To get back to the underlying point, inflating the military threat posed by China and seeing Chinese influence in every action large or small risks locking in a new Cold War that could lead to an actual conflict down the road. Reaffirming the “One China” policy that limits U.S. military commitments and political relations with Taiwan as long as Beijing seeks only peaceful means to integrate Taiwan into China is one essential step. In addition, engaging in talks to establish some short-term guardrails and ongoing channels of communication to lower the temperature of U.S.-China interactions should be a priority.
A policy that balances reassurance with deterrence and dialogue with prudent defense planning is the best way to avoid conflict and open the door to cooperation on issues of mutual concern. It’s time to calm down and take a realistic view of the challenges posed by China, and then craft a carefully considered policy for addressing them.