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Beijing is a conventional rival — not an existential threat

Beijing is a conventional rival — not an existential threat
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In Washington, it’s never been a better time to be a China hawk. Both sides of the political aisle see the issue as a winner: even as President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Biden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot MORE vows his administration will compete with China and take its government to task on everything from trade to human rights, Senate Republicans are preparing to grill his Cabinet nominees with a “China litmus test.”

One of the least controversial parts of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was the billions of dollars allotted for a new Pacific Deterrence Initiative. This, while the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), bowing to government pressure, has announced it will delist three big Chinese telecommunications companies. Advocates of a hardline approach, it would seem, are ascendant.

And not only in Washington. The trend from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific has been for formerly quiescent countries to push back against Chinese power. Alarm over Hong Kong and the exclusion of Huawei from Britain’s 5G network presaged a new nadir for Sino-British relations; India has begun an ambitious project of “decoupling” following border clashes; and Australia is enmeshed in an escalating diplomatic and economic dispute with its largest trading partner. Even the typically conciliatory European Union (EU) has branded China a “systemic rival.”

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There is a good reason for this. Finding itself with enough economic, political and military clout to be a global player, China has wielded this newfound power with the clumsiness of an arriviste. An oppressor to its neighbors and to its own population, and the origin point for a global pandemic, President Xi Jinping’s China has done its best to anger and alienate much of the world. 

For U.S. policymakers, it is therefore tempting to press the advantage and exaggerate the nature of the threat. In a report on the “Elements of the China Challenge” published in November, the U.S. Department of State (DOS) alleges Beijing, driven by an unholy mixture of Marxism-Leninism and extreme Han nationalism aims at nothing less than the total overthrow of the international system. In December, the Defense Department (DOD) released its own “Tri-Maritime Strategy,” which asserts “the rules-based international order is once again under assault,” thanks to China’s mobilization of “all instruments of national power to undermine and remake the international system.” To borrow a phrase from Michael Brendan Dougherty, this is a view of China less as a conventional rival than as geopolitical arsonist.

As a corrective to years of neglect, this is understandable. After all, the first two administrations of the 21st century failed to manage China’s rise, naively betting engagement would lead to liberalization. But China is not the Soviet Union, and contrary to Robert O’Brien, Jinping is not the second coming of Stalin. Although Marxism has taken center stage domestically, Beijing is not pursuing the exportation of its political model abroad, still less the establishment of “a globe-spanning socialist order,” as the DOS report claims. Rather, it is engaged in a fierce — but conventional — struggle for power, prestige and position.

To the extent that ideology drives Chinese strategy, it is the ideology of national interest and Weltpolitik. China sees its current rank in the geopolitical pecking order as woefully inadequate: a major goal, as China’s most recent Defense White Paper put it, is thus to acquire power “commensurate with the country’s international standing.” Like Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, China is impatient to attain its place in the sun. And this impatience often translates into crude or clumsy conduct: self-righteous arrogance in dealing with other countries, an inability to handle criticism and a willingness to roll the dice on regional aggression from the Himalayas to the Taiwan Strait.

But China’s leaders are also confident in their underlying strength, which makes them comfortable playing the long game and often by the existing rules. Despite U.S. claims, it’s not quite accurate to say China aims at the overthrow of the rules-based international order. Instead, it has taken what scholar Robert Williams calls “a flexible and functional approach to international law.” Beijing champions the rules when they coincide with its own interests and ignores them when they don’t. In this respect, China is following the example of other powerful countries (including the U.S., whose own relationship to international law is less than stellar).

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This distinction matters. Misreading or exaggerating Chinese intentions, the U.S. puts its own interests and security at risk. A state that credibly seeks to overturn the existing international order and achieve global dominance is a profound danger, demanding far-flung military commitments and astronomical expenditures. War with such a government becomes vastly more likely. A conventional competitor, however, requires less in the way of blood and treasure; the stakes are lower and the game is more predictable. Moreover, much of this competition can occur outside of the military domain: Washington can focus on decoupling the U.S. economy from its dependency on China, for instance, or boost the country’s technological edge in areas like quantum computing and space travel.

Treating China as a great power competitor also raises another issue. As historian Rana Mitter points out in an excellent essay, America has done a thorough job of identifying the illegitimate aspects of China’s behavior, but has studiously avoided asking another question: what might constitute legitimate aims? China is too powerful and too ambitious to have the terms of its international conduct entirely dictated to it by the West; until a modus vivendi acceptable to both Beijing and Washington is identified, our strategy will lack a realistic end-state.

Unfortunately, powerful political incentives stand in the way. For Republicans, portraying China as an existential threat offers a convenient way to hammer the Biden administration on foreign policy. For many liberals, it is a useful rationale for interventionism abroad, replacing the discarded shibboleths of the Obama years. A “Cold War 2.0”’ would also give America’s military-industrial complex a new lease on life as our Middle Eastern adventures wind down. But if competition is not to end in catastrophe, the United States must adopt a clear-eyed view of China as a rival: one to be checked and contained, surely, but with which we must also learn to coexist.

Luke Nicastro is a defense analyst in Washington, D.C. He has worked on international issues for a variety of organizations, including the Department of the Navy and the National Defense University.