If we try really hard, we can make an enemy out of China

If we try really hard, we can make an enemy out of China
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The relationship with China is one of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing the Biden administration. The current National Security Strategy identifies China as the main peer competitor to the U.S. and a growing power seeking to extend its influence globally. This explains why the new secretaries of State and Defense made their first foreign visits to Asia.   

The U.S. has been the only nation with truly global reach since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, so naturally our interests will rub up against each other as China extends its reach. Serious economic conflicts have arisen as China resists playing by the commonly recognized trade and other international rules of the road, which, in their view, favor the West in general and the U.S. specifically. And, as a growing, global economic power, China is increasing its military capabilities to ensure it can defend its expanding interests.

As the Biden administration puts together its first defense budget proposal, the consensus view in Washington predicts the 2022 defense budget will, at best, given the rising deficit and other national priorities, be no more than the $740 billion authorized in 2021. When the Department of Defense (DOD) does budget drills, they focus on the National Military Strategy, derived from the National Security Strategy, which has identified the key threats and buys the capabilities they think are needed to address those threats. Most strategists view the Pacific, especially the Northern Pacific, to be primarily a naval and air theater of warfare, which would seem to favor air and naval forces. This is why the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently warned that the debate over how to divide up a declining defense budget will be bloody.  


This trail of logic has the Army getting nervous about how small its share may be. This may be why the Army general in charge of armored vehicle modernization recently asserted that a war with China inevitably would spread to land and there would be a role for tanks, just as in World War II. To support his plea that Army land forces not get less funding, he quoted a Chinese general saying that war with the U.S. is inevitable. We need to maintain a strong Army, but asserting that large armored forces will be needed to fight China is a stretch.

In the mid-1980s, a NATO general got a lot of media coverage when he said that the Warsaw Pact, starting from their bases in Eastern Europe, could be on the English Channel in 36 hours.  Having served a previous tour in the 3rd Armored Division, I can safely say the 3rd Shock Army could not have road-marched to the English Channel in 36 hours, unopposed, in peacetime. And had they tried it, there would have been armored vehicles broken down all along their route because of historically poor maintenance.

These examples of flogging the threat matter because exaggerating the military aspects of a relationship can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. When someone predicts or expects something to happen, and takes action based on those expectations, the other side is driven to take more of the expected actions. In international relations, this is called the Thucydides Trap, a term popularized by Harvard professor Graham Allison. Thucydides, an Athenian historian and general, in his history of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens, concluded it was the rise of Athens and the fear this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable. Translation: If both sides believe war is inevitable, it’s likely to happen.

The Athens-Sparta example mirrors the sense of worry and anxiety in some American quarters concerning China’s rapid rise, which is believed to threaten the dominant power status enjoyed by the U.S. We need to compete with China more effectively across the board and contain/deter aggressive action that threatens our interests and allies. But overdoing it, particularly in the military domain, could lead us into a Thucydides Trap.  

During his first visit to the Pentagon, President BidenJoe BidenWarren calls for US to support ceasefire between Israel and Hamas UN secretary general 'deeply disturbed' by Israeli strike on high rise that housed media outlets Nation's largest nurses union condemns new CDC guidance on masks MORE was briefed on planning for a review of China strategy and, as reported, his guidance was to look beyond just confronting China militarily. The president emphasized the White House is taking a “whole of government” approach to dealing with China and intends to consult with key allies in the region. 


Speaking of allies, China is bordered by 14 countries, none of which could be described as allies.  The U.S., on the other hand, has numerous security arrangements with key allies near China — Japan, South Korea and India, to name a few. China has serious domestic issues and portrayals of China’s overwhelming force are misleading. We have real issues we need to resolve with China, but there is no need to beat the threat drum to hype the defense budget.

An excellent quote on point can be found in comments made by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at West Point in February 2011. Gates bluntly told the cadets: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”

John Fairlamb, Ph.D., is a retired Army colonel who served for 45 years as a commissioned officer and Department of the Army civilian in a variety of Joint Service positions formulating and implementing national security strategies and policies. His doctorate is in comparative defense policy analysis.