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Searching for America's Next Enemy

July 17, 2006

Tags War and Foreign PolicyInterventionismPolitical Theory

Peace is boring. How else to explain the search by some conservatives for a new enemy?

After the Cold War the foreign policy establishment could have gratefully accepted peace, stopped meddling around the globe, and demobilized America's outsize military. Instead, it found other enemies.

Doing so wasn't easy. Saddam Hussein's Iraq proved to be easy prey. Now Iran is getting the most attention.

But the Pentagon has just issued its latest alarmist assessment of Chinese military spending. Former Australian diplomat Gregory Clark writes of a "China threat lobby."

In fact, had there been no 9-11, which yielded both an enemy ("Islamofascism") and a conflict ("Global War on Terrorism"), China might have ended up in Washington's crosshairs early in Bush's term. Years before joining the Bush administration as deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz authored a Pentagon paper that advocated preventing "potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."

After 9-11 Bush officials apparently recognized that they needed Beijing's help and weren't likely to browbeat the PRC into compliance with their demands. But conservative hostility towards China never disappeared.

Some critics focused on trade issues. Anger over human rights violations plays a role. Fears have been rising over China's rising influence in Asia.  Now Beijing's critics point to its military build-up.

For instance, the congressionally created US-China Economic and Security Review Commission contends that "China's methodical and accelerating military modernization presents a growing threat to US security interests in the Pacific." Clinton H. Whitehurst, Jr., writes for the Strom Thurmond Institute: "For the second time in half a century the United States is engaged in a 'cold war' with a powerful adversary — the People's Republic of China."

A number of "China as enemy" books have been hitting the American market, most recently Jed Babbin's and Edward Timperlake's Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States. Last year Roger Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic: History suggests "the result is likely to be the defining military conflict of the twenty-first century: if not a big war with China, then a series of Cold War-style standoffs that stretch out over years and decades."

You may have thought that the end of the Cold War, which left America as the planet's dominant power, meant peace. Think again. Washington must occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, attack Iran, confront North Korea, and, most importantly, beat back the yellow horde. It all would be silly if the neocons had not already dragged the United States off into one unnecessary war. Instead, it's frightening.

Yet why should we assume Beijing and the United States will come to blows? China today is more prosperous, accessible, and responsible than ever before. Although Beijing is not a close ally, it is not hostile either.

Rather, it is a significant power with a range of interests which, unsurprisingly, do not always match those of America. The situation calls for thoughtful, nuanced diplomacy, not self-righteous scare-mongering.

Unfortunately, China critics routinely overstate Chinese capabilities and misstate US interests. For instance, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently suggested that "Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment. Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?"

In fact, that question would be better asked by Chinese officials to Secretary Rumsfeld. Who threatens whom?

America's increase in military outlays over the last few years alone equals China's entire defense budget. Washington spends upwards of seven times as much as the PRC, is allied with every leading industrial state around the globe, and has allies ringing China. The idea that Beijing's modest (after inflation) increases in military outlays are preparing it for a global or even regional war of conquest is simply silly.

Equally disturbing, much of the discussion of China confuses which "interests" are in conflict. Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) contended that "They don't have to be a threat sufficient to invade the United States. They just have to be a threat sufficient to go against our interests."

Unfortunately, there are "interests" and then there are "interests." In today's world, the United States purports to have an interest in everything in every country, and therefore believes itself to be entitled to go to war to make every country everywhere do what America wants.

In the case of China, the "threat" is primarily a threat to the American empire, not the American republic. The basic issue is Washington's predominance in East Asia.

The ultimate threat, in the view of analyst Ross Munro, is that Beijing's "grand strategy is to dominate Asia. And that puts the United States and China on a collision course."

But America is not alone. India also is a rising power, Russia maintains a sizable nuclear deterrent, Japan fields a capable military, South Korea is growing in influence, Australia is a regional leader, the ASEAN states are developing new cooperative ties, and more.

Washington has a hard enough time dominating this crowd. How will a nation that remains socially unstable, economically underdeveloped, and politically uncertain take over? The United States can play the role of a traditional off-shore balancer, wary and watchful, but aloof from conflicts that do not concern it.

The principal US goal should be to accommodate the rise of a likely great power, promoting mutually-beneficial cooperation while ensuring American security. Unfortunately, Washington's attempt to engage in containment (even if packaged with engagement as "congagement") encourages conflict.

Pushing China's neighbors to choose sides may not redound to America's benefit. Most importantly, treating Beijing as hostile is more likely to turn it hostile.

Washington should encourage private economic and cultural ties with the PRC, depoliticizing much of the relationship. Washington should seek China's cooperation on issues of shared interest, such as stability on the Korean peninsula. US officials should speak frankly about issues of proliferation and human rights, but should do their most contentious work behind the scenes. Most important, America's allies should take over responsibility for their own defense.

Indeed, what would offer a better constraint to China than a nuclear Japan and South Korea? Washington should not push its friends to adopt any particular defense and foreign policy. But the United States should make clear that the good ol' days when allies could ignore their military needs while expecting American troops to ride to the rescue are over.

There will be no more important bilateral relationship over the next century than that between the United States and China. Much depends on the ability of the two nations to overcome cultural and political differences to cooperate peacefully. The first step in doing so is for America not to go to Asia in search of enemies to combat.

 


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