China is a rival, not an enemy

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China has one-fifth of the planet’s population; the world’s second largest economy; a small but significant nuclear arsenal for deterrence; and an increasingly repressive government which combines elements of market economics with single-party totalitarianism, incredibly invasive surveillancemass internment camps; and a newly minted “president for life,” Xi Jinping. Should it also be the recipient of Washington’s antagonism?

A rising chorus of voices from across the spectrum say yes. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday he wants to deploy intermediate-range missiles to Asia, acknowledging the move would rile China and even framing it as a counter to Beijing. Some “80 percent-plus of [China’s missile] inventory is intermediate range systems,” Esper said, “so that shouldn’t surprise them that we would want to have a like capability.” (Not mentioned was the reality that China and Russia are longtime adversaries who share a border, so its missiles—which cannot reach America — might not be about America.)

Though he boasts of a personal friendship with Xi, President Trump has likewise taken an adversarial stance toward Beijing, at least in economic terms, launching round after round of onerous tariffs on Chinese goods over the protests of American business owners and farmers. Several 2020 candidates and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have taken a similarly hostile position, while an open letter spearheaded by Ret. Capt. James E. Fanell, former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, declares China a “virulent and increasingly dangerous threat” whose “ambitions are antithetical to America’s strategic interests.”

This confrontational approach is as dangerous as it is popular. It directs Washington toward an unnecessary collision with Beijing, guaranteeing mutual economic loss and increasing risk of great power conflict — or even nuclear war. It also drives Beijing and Moscow closer together when we should instead pursue policies that drive a wedge between them and balance them off one another.

A more sober-minded and realistic model of U.S.-China relations would recognize that though China is in some ways a partner for the United States and in other ways a rival, it need not be our enemy. With prudence, diplomacy and a rejection of simplistic enemy/friend dichotomies, we can avoid counterproductive hostility that at its worst could claim the lives of millions.

In the immediate future, there are two obvious steps for this strategic reorientation. The first would require halting and in short order reversing, the cycle of trade war escalation from the past year. While U.S.-China trade may not happen on a perfectly level playing field, it is beneficial for both sides. Continuing to stifle positive economic engagement has negative effects on both countries’ economies and poisons relations with Beijing more broadly. The Trump administration should prioritize a return to normal trade as soon as possible, abandoning chancy, utopian notions of a trade deal which gives us everything we could ever want at China’s expense.

The second step, arguably more important for avoiding tragic and needless military confrontation, is backing away from this missile deployment plan. Though Esper and other supporters may cast it as a necessary means of deterrence against Beijing, that framing is based in an imagined capabilities gap. The United States is already more than capable of deterring China, which though growing in military strength nevertheless has a far smaller and weaker military capacity. We do not need to extend America’s global military footprint to maintain our deterrence; this proposal is functionally a plan to do other countries’ defense for them instead of expecting them to defend themselves.

Moreover, this missile deployment would not be a risk-free bolstering of established defense options. On the contrary, it runs a real chance of inciting a new arms race as China, feeling threatened, responds by increasing its own missile arsenal.

The deployment could also unintentionally incentivize Chinese first strikes as Beijing, ringed by U.S. firepower, perceives itself beset by a serious security dilemma. In either of these scenarios — each made likelier by a general attitude of antagonism from Washington — the missile deployment would make the United States less secure while requiring U.S. taxpayers to spend even more on an already bloated military budget, subsidizing other nations’ defense, including that of wealthy allies like South Korea and Japan.

And speaking of that more general antagonism, it is vital that this hardline approach not be permitted to intensify into a new Cold War footing. That does not mean pretending China is not the authoritarian state we know it to be. It does not mean denying human rights abuses or acceding to every demand from Beijing regardless of U.S. interests at stake.

But it does mean recognizing, as a group of more than 100 diplomats, academics and former officials recently wrote in a letter to the White House, that China is not “an economic enemy or an existential national security threat that must be confronted in every sphere.” Productive, realistic engagement which recognizes China’s multi-faceted role as partner and rival stands the best chance of averting horrific great power conflict, improving quality of life and even political freedom for ordinary Chinese people and benefitting the American and Chinese economies alike.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The American Conservative, among other outlets.


Tags Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Geography of Asia Mark Esper Military Missile defense Nuclear strategies Pre-emptive nuclear strike Terminal High Altitude Area Defense United States national missile defense

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