Republicans and Democrats are increasing critical of China. The U.S. is drifting ever closer to a cold war with China. Both countries have resorted to expelling media representatives; China is kicking out U.S. journalists and the Trump administration is limiting Chinese media representation in the U.S. China continues to violate the intellectual property rights of American firms; The U.S. has imposed various sanctions on China. Both nations have increased their military budgets.
We have seen this movie before. But let’s remember that the USSR collapsed largely under its own weight. And before we are all swept into a rising anti-China hysteria, let’s acknowledge that there are strong reasons that nations go looking for enemies.
Psychologically, nations tend to attribute dark motives to others and benign ones to themselves, which makes them feel exceptional. Economically, there are major corporations, with armies of lobbyists, that benefit from large defense outlays, whether what they are selling is needed or not. And politically it often pays off to call on voters to rally around the flag. Let’s be careful not to drift further down this road to cold, and potentially hot, war.
The criticisms of China on human rights, particularly its imposition of draconian, oppressive measures in Hong Kong, are very well taken. They would be much more justified, however, if the U.S. did not ally itself with, and mute its criticisms of, other nations that grossly violate human rights, in particular Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
China has put up to a million Uighurs into so called re-education camps; conducted forced abortions and sterilizations to limit the Uighur population; and used hacking, blood samples, cameras, facial recognition, voice prints and other technology to relentlessly surveil the Uighur minority. U.S. criticism of these acts would be more effective if the U.S. had done more when Myanmar drove its Rohingya population, also Muslim, out of their homes, raping women, committing mass murder, burning villages to the ground and forcing over 700,000 survivors to flee to Bangladesh.
U.S. criticisms of China’s aggressive behavior, most recently when its troops clashed with Indian ones, are very appropriate. However, they lose much of their impact when one notes that a U.S. withdrawal greenlit Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria. Turkey’s move led to deaths of hundreds of Kurds; they were forced out of scores of their villages, displacing some 176,000 people.
When the pandemic broke in Wuhan, the Chinese government harmed its people, and people around the world, by first trying to suppress the news. But once it became clear that the virus could not be ignored, the national government in China made very effective, consistent moves to curb the pandemic. It largely succeeded and has been able to reopen its economy safely, now implementing lockdowns on a targeted basis, drawing on widespread testing and contact tracing, to strategically combat new outbreaks without shutting down the economy. The U.S. has a right to criticize China for not acting immediately in response to the initial outbreak. However, the chaotic and irresponsible way in which the Trump administration dealt with the pandemic once it became clear that it posed a clear and present danger detracts from U.S. criticism of other nations’ reactions.
Some fear that China poses a major threat to the U.S. But China has neither the capabilities nor the ambition to replace the U.S. as the world power (a thesis I support in “Avoiding War with China”), despite the vacuum that the U.S. has created by curtailing its international commitments and roles.
After centuries of humiliation, China seeks respect from international communities. It seeks much more influence – not domination – in the nations on its border in the Western Pacific. And it seeks a secure flow of raw material and energy on which its survival depends. The fight against the pandemic will benefit from more scientific international cooperation, especially with China. Recall that trade benefits both nations (although we should increase our ability to make on our own essential products).
If the U.S. would grant China more elbow room in its own sphere, we might be able to step off the hostility escalator that leads to cold wars that can turn hot.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of “Avoiding War with China” and “Reclaiming Patriotism.”