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Beware a 'War on China'

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Putting a stop to the "endless wars" the United States is embroiled in has become a powerful political message that garners support on both the left and right. Unfortunately, as the push to bring troops home from places such as Iraq and Afghanistan gains momentum, there has been a countervailing call to ratchet up conflict with China. We may not be sending in troops, but we are nevertheless on the verge of repeating many of our Middle East mistakes in a different part of the world. If we are not careful, the same overreaction that led us into the "War on Terror" could lead us into something akin to a "War on China."

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there was a strong, and very reasonable, sentiment that we should go after the people responsible. But that limited response quickly morphed into a broader effort to take on "radical Islamic terror." Islam itself even became a target for many people, and there were hyperbolic concerns about an Islamic Caliphate taking over North America. In response, the United States began a War on Terror and several regime change operations that turned into endless wars that we are still fighting nearly two decades later.

Today, many regret this state of affairs. Unfortunately, while there are lessons to be learned from what came before, it's not clear that everyone learned them. The same patterns and themes from the War on Terror are reemerging in our approach to China.

Itis true that there are real threats from China and reasons to be concerned with the behavior of its government. Territorial expansion, oppression of minorities, and crackdowns on democracy are prime examples. But the picture painted is often exaggerated. Conspiracy theories about Chinese government actions are not helpful, and could lead us down the same path we took after 9/11.

Just as an Islamic Caliphate was supposedly out to conquer the world, China is said to be set on "world domination" as well. More realistically, though, China wants control over Hong Kong and Taiwan, enough power to ensure economic and military superiority in its region, and allies around the world that can help it resist pressure from other countries (mainly the United States). These Chinese goals merit serious responses from the United States and others, but "world domination" suggests something much more threatening.

Further, if we are concerned with "China," who exactly are we worried about? The threat is often presented in a way that sounds like the Chinese nation as a whole is out to get us. A more narrowly constructed version refers to the Chinese Communist Party, but even that is close to 100 million people. Portraying all, or even 100 million, Chinese people as mortal threats to the United States is absurd.

And we see hints of the same overbroad definitions of the problem that were rooted in bigotry in the case of Islamic terror. Just as some people worried about Muslims in general, there have been hints from the Trump administration that the "non-Caucasian" nature of China is somehow relevant.

One possible lesson here is that, unfortunately, the issue goes beyond the actual threat from any particular group of people. Rather, certain U.S. policymakers and analysts who are instinctively hawkish look around for threats and elevate the biggest one they can find into something "existential" that must be fought for the country to survive. This is a dangerous approach to foreign policy.

What we need instead is objectivity about Chinese government behavior and realism about what the United States might do in response. For example, we need to base our decisions about human rights abuses in Xinjiang on the credible reporting that exists rather than conspiracy theories and political grandstanding. Officials in the Trump administration and members of Congress often seem to use this issue as a way to demonize foreigners for domestic political purposes rather than to help the people affected or craft a constructive response.

In fact, we are in danger of adopting policies that prop up those responsible, much as we have done for 60 years with Cuba. There are measures we could undertake that may help, such as allowing individuals who are oppressed by the Chinese government, either in Hong Kong or in China itself, to come to the United States. It is noteworthy that some of the strongest "China hawks" do not support such a response.

Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, China is too powerful for regime change to be in play. But a "great power rivalry" of some sort is clearly happening (some politicians and analysts say we are already in a cold war), and these sorts of rivalries can involve real military conflict. There are people who will benefit from a "War on China" (defense contractors, certain politicians), but most people on both sides will be harmed. Before we blunder into another endless war, we should remember what we think about the ones we are still fighting.

Simon Lester is the associate director of Cato's Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies.

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