- The Trump administration has taken an assertive approach to China, seeking to rebut Beijing’s propaganda and to cast its ambitions in the starkest terms.
- But the US doesn’t need to court conflict to counter China, and it can commit to “telling the truth about China,” without needlessly antagonizing Beijing, writes Defense Priorities fellow Bonnie Kristian.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The nations of the world should “see each other as members of the same big family, pursue win-win cooperation, rise above ideological disputes, and avoid falling into the trap of a clash of civilizations,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a recorded address to the UN recently.
As for his own country, Xi added, China is “committed to peaceful, open, cooperative, and common development. We will never seek hegemony, expansion, or a sphere of influence. We have no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot war with any country.”
He went on to extol the merits of diplomacy, transparency, and mutually beneficial economic engagement, pledging to make the world a better place.
It was a compelling message, or would have been, were it believable. The notion that Beijing — with authoritarian control over the world’s largest population, second-largest economy, and second-strongest military — will not seek some sort of regional dominance is impossible to credit. China is a rising great power, and Xi is now president for life.- ADVERTISEMENT -https://s.yimg.com/rq/darla/4-5-0/html/r-sf-flx.html
Beijing’s increasingly insistent claims to the South China Sea are the basis of a sphere of influence; its Belt and Road Initiative is hegemonic even if also beneficial to participant nations; and Xi’s sunny language about family and prosperity conveniently eludes his government’s oppressive domestic policies, including Orwellian mass surveillance and genocidal treatment of the Uighur minority.
But here is where a sober mind is needed in US foreign policy: To see a great deal of propagandizing in remarks like these from Xi does not mean we should court conflict with China.
Washington can commit to “telling the truth about China,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it in an address in Wisconsin, without needlessly antagonizing Beijing or taking steps that could send us on a course toward war.
We can chart a middle way between politely ignoring Beijing’s totalitarianism for economic convenience and choosing rhetoric, trade policies, and troop placements that risk, in the worst case scenario, catastrophic military conflict.
Unfortunately, Washington is not traveling that middle way. Pompeo’s Wisconsin speech envisioned the United States in an existential contest with China, with Beijing intending to “struggle — and prevail — against capitalist nations like ours.” He has hit similar notes in a series of comments this past summer.
In May, Pompeo played coy, declining to rule out President Donald Trump’s suggestion of “cut[ting] off the whole [US-China] relationship” in retaliation for “the calamity that has befallen the world as a result of the actions of the Chinese Communist Party.”
In July, he escalated to describing a half-century of US interaction with China as “fealty,” “flattery,” and “acquiescence,” insisting talk of a new Cold War isn’t appropriate only because the present threat from China exceeds the threat once posed by the Soviet Union.
And in August he announced Washington will “not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” which can be read as an explicit embrace of Cold War-style containment.
If history repeats itself, it could be remembered as a step toward hot war, too, whether smaller but still bloody and costly proxy fights or even battle between nuclear powers. Indeed, the surest way to make the China hardliner’s talk of existential threat come true is to continue in the aggressive approach.
Happily, we can do better than staying this course of reckless and unnecessary “tough on China” posturing.
A prudent middle way would recognize both the inevitability of China as a regional power and the fact that this does not endanger vital US interests, because Chinese power projection capabilities are geographically limited, and we can rely on distance and US military might to maintain deterrence against aggression from Beijing.
A middle way would center US-China relations on productive diplomacy and end trade war measures that hurt our economy as much as China’s. It would call out Beijing’s propaganda without adding escalation of our own, and thus, hopefully, avoid the clash of civilizations Xi pretends not to want and China hawks seem to relish.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.
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