Resist the Chinese Boogeyman Tails
I remember hearing once while working for the U.S. government as a China political and military intelligence analyst and advisor from 1993 to 2005 that America needs to maintain another global superpower as an enemy to fear and oppose. Because, at the time, relations with Russia had greatly improved, one popular assumption was that China would fill that role. In my opinion, they never fully did. Instead China seemed to be more interested in continued, relatively stable economic growth which necessitated a certain amount of mutual cooperation with the United States. However, now that we’re faced with an American President who appears eager to strike up some adversarial international relationships, the old question of a superpower enemy raises its mighty head once more. Putin makes Russia an obvious and perhaps legitimate contender for the role, but the perceived amicability between Trump and Putin complicates that notion somewhat. Meanwhile, Trump appears to have made a point of opposing China at every possible opportunity, and the Chinese seem to have both inherited and developed a reciprocal distaste for Trump.
As such, rumors of an upcoming and escalating hostile rivalry with China abound. There’s concern that Chinese frustration with the current administration will result in military hostility, possibly beginning with an exchange in the Spratlys and increasing to the point of all-out open military conflict. In lieu of or in addition to military conflict, some fear a trade war or an economic war with China, citing the country’s recent economic growth and huge development potential as it becomes the economic hub of burgeoning Asia. Intensified rivalry with the U.S., some believe, could be exactly the spark that ignites a desire in China to leap ahead of the U.S. economically and to make good on the debt advantage in which China has invested so heavily.
These concerns are not completely unfounded, but I do believe they have been exaggerated by the media, first in order to drive up ratings, and then to oppose a President of whom they are more than happy to be critical. China certainly does not and will not enjoy the same relationship with the United States under Trump as it did under the Clintons or under Obama, and they’re undoubtedly displeased about that. What’s more, Trump seems intent on emphasizing that point by opposing China economically, politically, and militarily. The question, then, is not one of whether or not U.S. relations with China will sour, but instead one of the extent to which the Chinese are willing and able to escalate hostilities in response. Rather than fearing extreme and unlikely consequences from a fantastic notion of China, we should instead make an effort to realistically understand China’s state of affairs, capabilities, and true motivations.
The question of military confrontation with China is the most predictable and concretely explainable issue we need to address, so we’ll start there. Until 2005, having a specialized and privileged understanding of the Chinese military’s capabilities, practices, tendencies, and philosophies was a major part of my profession. Admittedly, my access to privileged information stopped in that year, and that means that, since then, I’ve only had access to the same information as everyone else. Because of my history, though, I do have the benefit of seeing that same information through a different lens. That lens, thankfully, is not completely subject to the whims, agendas, and biases of the national news media.
The Spratly Islands have been a source of recent concern among some as an initial flash point for military conflict between the United States and China. While Chinese efforts to claim the Spratlys do seem to have increased in recent years, disputes over ownership of the Spratleys and other small island chains in the area have been ongoing since the late 1800s. These disputes have in the past included European powers, but have most recently involved a significant number of neighboring countries. There have been small scale military exchanges over the islands by these countries for decades, and U.S. political and small-scale military oversight and intervention have long been a factor, though not a constant element. The point to keep in mind is that neither the conflict in the area nor the very limited involvement by the U.S. is new, as we might be led to believe. It is, in my opinion, absolutely possible that at some point soon a small skirmish or two breaks out in the region and tensions rise, as that would be historically consistent. It is also likely that it will be the object of much more media coverage and criticism than it has been in the past. I find it unlikely, though, that such a confrontation ends up resulting in any large-scale or long-term military conflict.
Some people believe in a Chinese military threat to the U.S. regardless of developments in the Spratlys. While it is true that the Chinese military has been making efforts to extend its potential reach in recent years, the Chinese military traditionally has been built almost completely for defense over offense (unlike the U.S. military). Similarly, the Chinese philosophy, both militarily and in general, has been one of national preservation and internal development over external expansion. In other words, the Chinese have historically shown very little interest in extending military force or control outside of China. The grab for the South China Sea islands (including the Spratlys) appears to challenge that tradition, but let us also keep in mind that China has been engaged in that conflict for decades and has still even now not committed a strong enough force to the area to claim it, hold, and defend it. Keep in mind as well that while tensions between Taiwan and China are currently relatively low, Taiwan is still considered by the PRC to be a rogue province. If we believe that China was truly offended by Trump’s implicit recognition of Taiwan as an independent entity, then we have to believe that China is still not comfortable with that idea. And yet, the Chinese have not conducted a full-scale military attack to try to regain control of Taiwan (which stands in glaring opposition to China’s claim of rule just 110 miles off of its coast) since the Kuomintang retreated there in 1949. If China is and has been unable or unwilling to commit militarily to reclaiming Taiwan or even to claiming the Spratlys over multiple decades, it seems unlikely they will be willing to commit to a much more dangerous and costly conflict with the U.S. over the next four years simply due to a decline in political or economic relations resulting from Trump’s temporary Presidency.
The much more credible threat from China than the military, in my opinion, is the economic one. I am not and never have been an expert on national economies or even the Chinese economy specifically, so I’m in over my head when it comes to discussing complex economic details. I have, however, had the benefit of specialized and privileged knowledge of Chinese politics and policies during the period of China’s greatest economic growth, so I have had more experience with it than your average layman, or even someone who is not well-versed in economics but pays a great deal of attention to mainstream global economic news. I probably also have a different perspective on Chinese economics than most economists because I see it from a cultural and political standpoint and not one of concrete numbers or economic theory.
At any rate, supporters of the idea of the Chinese economic threat point to continued, rapid, long-term Chinese economic growth and yet-untapped economic potential as the basis for the notion of a Chinese economic juggernaut that could potentially bulldoze the U.S. China has averaged an amazing 9.76 annual GDP growth rate since 1989, which is truly impressive. In addition, China’s potential for continued development seems staggering. While Chinese metropolitan areas have reached the point of rivaling or even surpassing other major global cities, a relatively huge portion of the population is still rural. For comparison, the Chinese urban population surpassed the rural population for the first time in history in around 2012. In the U.S., in 2010, the urban population accounted for over 80% of the total population. When we account for the much larger gap between urban life and rural life in China and for the much larger population, the potential for growth and development really does seem staggering.
We are correct, then, to be both impressed and slightly intimidated by the Chinese economy and its potential. Just as with the military, however, we should try to maintain a realistic view of China’s economic status, capabilities, and motivations. We’re often offered the impressive average GDP growth rate since 1989, but what we’re usually not told is that it peaked at an incredible 15.40 in the first quarter of 1993 and has fallen relatively steadily since. Last year showed the weakest annual growth in China in the last 26 years. China’s economy is not gaining momentum (in term of GDP growth); it is losing it. Additionally, Chinese economic growth is currently and has recently been dependent on the U.S., according to economic analysts and publications like Forbes and Fortune. This is not to say that the U.S. economy is not also currently dependent on China, but it does mean that China is not necessarily in the position to abandon its trade relationship with the United States, as some in the U.S. media tend to suggest.
There has been some speculation recently over whether or not China could defeat the U.S. in an all-out trade/economic war, and that speculation has caused, what in my opinion is, unnecessary concern. Since the beginning of the economic reforms originally engineered by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese government and the Chinese people have shared the goal of steady, sustainable economic growth. Having learned a costly lesson from Mao’s disastrous attempt at a huge economic jump during the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese have abandoned the idea of rocketing in front of other economic superpowers over short periods of time for a more conservative approach. As such, the threat of China kicking economic acceleration into high gear in order to attempt to pull above and far beyond the U.S. in nominal GDP in the next four years seems unlikely.
There are, of course, plenty of detailed and specific reasons why an immediate and substantial fear of China is neither very practical nor very realistic. The improvements necessary in Chinese military forces, weapons development, national infrastructure, domestic security, social issues, cultural philosophies, internal political complications, international relationships, and a number of other specific areas all suggest that China is a long way from truly engaging in any earth-shattering conflicts with the U.S. and that they most likely would not be internally motivated to do so even if they were abundantly capable. My intention in this piece was not to complete a comprehensive list and explanation of all of these elements, but rather to provide the awareness that they exist. My ultimate goal in doing that is to combat the popular misconceptions and media fear-mongering that cause the average American an unnecessary and unproductive fear of an unrealistic level of Chinese threat. China’s size, potential, and recent growth and development are impressive, and we should all acknowledge and respect those. The use of China as an intimidation tool with which to frighten the American population or drive popular opinion, though, is unethical and manipulative, and it should be opposed.