In his recent meetings with NATO allies President Biden had some difficulty in convincing them of Washington’s view of the gravity of the China threat. But just what is the China threat? It’s certainly not military, at least not to the United States. China’s been increasing its military spending, but in 2019 its arms budget amounted to about a third of the US’s. Considering that China is surrounded by historic enemies (Russia, Japan, India, Vietnam) while the US only has to worry about Canada and Mexico, you might wonder how China can feel secure with such a paltry military budget! Maybe the trick is that China’s military stays close to home. While the US has some 800 military bases in 70 countries across the globe, China has exactly one (in Djibouti). Maybe that’s partly why the Europeans aren’t so alarmed about the China threat.
But China does pose a threat to US global supremacy. The threat, though, is economic and political. The Chinese economy is now about 70% as big as the US’s. By the 2030s it will be clearly bigger. China overtook the US as the world’s leading trading nation in 2013. Now it is the leading source of imports for about 35 countries and the top destination for exports of about 25 countries. So, in terms of its role in the global economy, China is already the world’s premier superpower. And economic power forms a basis for political influence. The Chinese know that, and President Biden knows that: “China has an overall goal … to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world,” [Biden] told reporters at the White House. “That’s not going to happen on my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow.”
Biden is right about China’s ambitions and he is right that they won’t be realized on his watch. But, using plausible definitions of “leading,” “wealthy,” and “powerful,” it will happen. Message to the US foreign policy establishment: get used to it. Some, predictably, will refuse to get used to it. Sino-American relations have been worsening in recent years, a trend that accelerated during the Trump administration. The Biden team has drawn back from Trump’s more inflammatory rhetoric, but Sen. Bernie Sanders still worries that a there’s a new anti-China consensus in Washington that could bring on another Cold War. That’s a reasonable concern. He cites a characteristically febrile declamation by Sen. Tom Cotton, but the Arkansas ultra-rightist isn’t alone in upholding the Bush-Cheney legacy of aggressive hyper-nationalism. There will always be plenty of voices exhorting Americans to unite against foreign enemies, and incidentally to pump up the military budget, in the fight for Freedom and the American Way.
But even with the best of intentions in Washington, there are issues over which tensions between the US and China won’t easily be resolved. China at different times has engaged in a variety of unfair international trade practices, including intellectual property theft, currency manipulation and predatory pricing. Such behavior should be challenged, and the US will need to work with its allies to do so effectively. The Chinese, of course, will resent the formation of any such anti-China bloc. And, while the US has serious credibility problems as an international tribune of human rights and democracy, it is impossible for most of us, or our government, to look away from Chinese outrages like the brutalization of its Uighur minority and repression in Hong Kong.
Then there’s the US’s significant military presence in East Asia, based mainly in Japan and South Korea. China naturally regards East Asia as its rightful zone of influence. (Cf. the US, the Monroe Doctrine and Latin America.) Most of the countries in the region, including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, are glad the US is still hanging around their neighborhood; the US helps restrain the potential regional bully. The situation is particularly fraught with regard to Taiwan. That island, which was the last bastion of the corrupt Chinese nationalists who lost the civil war to the communists, has evolved into a relatively decent and democratic society. China would like to take it back. Most Taiwanese would not want that to happen. The implicit American commitment to defend the island is a major deterrent against a Chinese takeover. In sum, East Asia is the one world region where American power actually seems to play the freedom and stability-supporting role attributed to it by popular mythology. But it’s a role that naturally entails some tension with China.
Notwithstanding all the potential for Sino-American conflict, there are plenty of vital issues—including climate change, global public health, and nuclear proliferation—on which it is in our mutual interest, and in the interest of the rest of the world, for the US and China to cooperate.
So, the Biden administration, and its successors into the foreseeable future, need to strike a balance between inevitable tension and necessary cooperation with China. The European Union, it seems, is closer to getting that balance right than is the US. That points to one of the unintended positive consequences of the Trump presidency. Trump made the Europeans more conscious of the need to develop a foreign policy independent of the US. That’s good. The American temptation to overstate and mischaracterize the Chinese threat undoubtedly reflects in part the injured sensibilities of the world’s only superpower, reluctant to accept the reality of a rising near-peer competitor on the global stage. The Europeans don’t suffer from similar hangups. They can exercise a salutary restraining influence on their trans-Atlantic ally.