Searching for the Next Enemy

by , May 27, 2006

Peace is boring. How else to explain America’s seemingly incessant search for a new enemy? The Cold War might have been scary, but it provided an exciting challenge: contain the Evil Empire. Create an international coalition to defend the “free world.”

Exciting, but we won. So the entire foreign policy establishment had to ask “now what?” Gratefully accept peace, stop meddling around the globe, avoid needless foreign confrontations, demobilize America’s outsize military, and dismantle the domestic national security state? Or find another enemy?

Silly question.

Doing the latter didn’t look particularly easy after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For enemies we were down to Kim Il-Sung of North Korea and Fidel Castro of Cuba, Colin Powell famously said. They didn’t offer much of a replacement for the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was no better enemy. It turned out he was incapable of hurting America. Ironically, the occupation has created a far more formidable enemy. But even today’s messy guerrilla war cannot justify next-generation aircraft, modernized carrier forces, heavy armor divisions, globe-spanning military installations, and pervasive security commitments.

Now Iran is getting the most attention. But many conservatives are looking beyond to the People’s Republic of China. Former Australian diplomat Gregory Clark writes of a “China threat lobby.” On Wednesday, the Pentagon released its latest annual report on Chinese military strength [.pdf], ratcheting up its rhetoric on the potential threat from Beijing.

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 gun sights early in Bush’s term. After all, leading neoconservatives had already tagged Beijing as the next threat.

How widely this attitude was shared within the administration is difficult to assess. Before becoming deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz had compared the rise of China to the rise of Germany, which required two wars to sort out. More than a decade ago, in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, he authored a Pentagon paper that set as America’s strategic objective preventing “potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” Michael T. Klare of The Nation also points to Condoleezza Rice’s writings during the 2000 campaign, which noted Chinese resentment of America’s role in the Asia-Pacific. In early 2001, the president promised to defend Taiwan – before administration officials rushed forward to explain what he really meant.

However, in practice, Washington generally avoided confrontation with Beijing. Indeed, some neoconservatives were apoplectic about the Bush administration’s perceived softness in resolving the EP-3 spy plane incident.

Whatever the administration’s predilections, terrorism supplanted other foreign policy concerns, and Washington found that it needed China’s help. Even the Bushies understood that they were unlikely to successfully browbeat Beijing into compliance. (Heck, the administration couldn’t even bring the supposedly feckless French into line!) So the idea of treating China as an enemy lost favor.

But hostility toward China never disappeared. Policymakers and analysts alike regularly feasted on a smorgasbord of complaints, which John Tkacik of the Heritage Foundation helpfully lists: China was selling WMD, supporting Iran, failing to pressure North Korea, and impeding anti-terrorist measures. Some hawks even suggested that Beijing was manipulating North Korea to create the nuclear crisis.

Now, with the public turning against their disastrous Iraq adventure, neoconservatives are looking for new targets. More than a few lawmakers, analysts, and pundits are sounding the war drums against the PRC. More ominously, the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter surmises that the latest Pentagon report on China’s military is "a resumption of what we saw in the first months of the administration," an emphasis on competition from Beijing.

Some critics focus on economic issues – symbolized by the congressional firestorm that erupted over the proposed takeover by the China National Offshore Oil Corp. of UNOCAL. Chinese trade surpluses and currency practices today top the list.

Fears are rising over Chinese activities in Latin America. “Red China on the March,” warned Steven Mosher a couple of months ago. Equally strong fears have been expressed of increasing PRC political influence in Asia. Even moderate voices, such as the East-West Center, produce studies entitled “Meeting the China Challenge” [.pdf] and see a “shifting ‘balance of influence’ if not military strength in East Asia.”

Concern about China infests Congress. In 2000, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Floyd Spence devoted his “National Security Report” to China. He concluded:

“The resulting combination of China’s military modernization campaign, its apparent unwillingness to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, its growing ties with Russia, its opposition to the U.S. national missile defense program, its criticism of NATO, and its threatening posture toward Taiwan have led many in Congress to wonder if China’s path is one that will lead it to become an adversary, rather than a ‘strategic partner.'”

Congress established the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, largely to criticize China. The Commission concluded last year “that, on balance, the trends in the U.S.-China relationship have negative implications for the long-term economic and security interests of the United States.”

China has become a major concern of the military. The Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College has devoted much ink to assessing China’s future. Cautious worries emanate from the 307-page [.pdf] “The Rise of China in Asia: Security Implications,” published in 2002, and other volumes.

The Pentagon produces its own assessment of Chinese capabilities. In the 2005 “The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” the Pentagon observed [.pdf]: “In the short term, the PRC appears focused on preventing Taiwan independence or trying to compel Taiwan to negotiate a settlement on Beijing’s terms. A second set of objectives includes building counters to third-party, including potential U.S., intervention in cross-Strait crises.” Further, added the Pentagon, “Over the long term, if current trends persist, [People's Liberation Army] capabilities could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region.” The 2006 version reinforces these warnings.

Far more shrill is the Center for Security Policy, which sees conflict on every continent. It warns that “few things would be more dangerous than to continue to give Communist China a pass as it becomes even more brazen about its strategic goal: to displace this country as the world’s leading economic power and to defeat us militarily, if necessary.”

A bevy of “China as enemy” books have hit the American market. Jed Babbin and Edward Timperlake wrote Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States, newly released by Regnery. Similar in tone is Richard Bernstein’s and Ross Munro’s The Coming Conflict with China (Vintage). The late Constantine Menges produced China: The Gathering Threat, from Nelson Current. Conservative web service NewsMax.com is pushing sales of Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America.

Even more measured observers use the “w” word. Last year, Robert Kaplan wrote an article entitled “How We Would Fight China” in The Atlantic. His analysis was sobering:

“Given the stakes, and given what history teaches us about the conflicts that emerge when great powers all pursue legitimate interests, 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.”

Viewed objectively, these hysterical claims and dire warnings look silly. 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. On North Korea there is incomplete cooperation, on trade there is mutual dependence, on East Asia relations there is restrained competition, and on Asian security architecture there is nervous wariness. It’s a situation that calls for thoughtful, nuanced diplomacy, not self-righteous scare-mongering.

Unfortunately, China critics evince little sophistication when they roll out their worst-case scenarios, overstating Chinese capabilities and misstating U.S. interests. For instance, John Tkacik of the Heritage Foundation contends, “Nothing in China’s strategic behavior is more unsettling than its military buildup.”

In May, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack opined: “We believe the Chinese military buildup is outsize to its needs.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld 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. As the Rand Corporation points out in its report [.pdf] “Modernizing China’s Military,” the PRC faces significant economic and social constraints on its ability to quickly create a large and modern force. Estimates of Chinese military spending range from around $35 billion to $105 billion, with the best guesses in the 50s or 60s.

Thus, America’s increase over the last few years most likely equals China’s entire defense budget. Washington spends upwards of seven times as much as does the PRC, is allied with every leading industrial state around the globe, and has allies ringing China. Beijing is decades away from being able to threaten the survival of the U.S., its constitutional system, its democratic way of life, or any truly vital interest. The Chinese military buildup looks like the PRC focusing more on protecting its perceived regional interests and less on challenging America’s expressed global interests.

Unfortunately, as Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute points out, “empathy with China’s perception of these matters is considered as being either soft on China, an apologist for Marxism, a defender of Chinese human rights abuses, or just plain naive.” But fashioning a realistic approach to the PRC requires being honest about its capabilities.

Equally disturbing, much of the discussion of China confuses which “interests” are in conflict. Most U.S. analysts and officials acknowledge that America itself is not threatened. For instance, “The Rise of China in Asia” concluded: “Conference participants seemed fairly much in agreement here. China is not, they argued, a direct military threat to the United States in the way that the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.” Before joining the Bush administration, Zalmay Khalilzad predicted that China would become a regional military power by about 2020, but could not hope to match America’s global power until around 2050.

But defense of America obviously is no longer seen as much relevant to American foreign policy. Rather, China critics cite America’s “interests.” The SSI volume complained: “China works with other countries to try to thwart U.S. interests. It would like to minimize U.S. interests globally, although it has not, as yet, tried to organize an anti-American coalition.” Similarly, former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) contended, “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.”

When these “interests” are spelled out, they turn out to be a grab-bag of economic, moral, and psychic desires, dreams, and preferences. For instance, the SSI observed: “if we define our national security interests rather broadly, to include defense of our values, our way of life, and our allies, it must be conceded that China presents us with some significant challenges.” In fact, for U.S. officials, nothing on earth is not an American interest – including the political evolution of China itself.

Thus, the Chinese threat to U.S. “interests” is primarily a threat to the American empire, not the American republic. The basic issue is Washington’s predominance in East Asia.

For instance, Roger Cliff of the Rand Corporation testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission earlier this year:

“[P]rior to 2025 China is unlikely to have available to it defense resources comparable to those currently available to the United States. However, if China focuses on developing its capabilities for military operations within East Asia, and avoids investing in expensive long-range power projection assets such as aircraft carriers, heavy bombers, strategic transports, and amphibious assault ships, then by 2020 China will be capable of fielding forces that while not equal to those currently fielded by the United States, will at least be in the same order of magnitude.”

Although this sounds alarming, it is very different from claiming that the PRC threatens to overwhelm America’s domestic defenses, or even displace the U.S. as the globe’s leading power. Why should Washington be surprised if in the next two decades it lost its ability to deploy predominant military power in every region on earth? That it can do so today reflects a unique period of history. And its ability to do so has yielded far more costs than benefits.

The ultimate threat from Beijing, in the view of analyst Ross Munro, is that the Chinese “grand strategy is to dominate Asia. And that puts the United States and China on a collision course, because the United States has had a single foreign policy toward Asia for more than a hundred years, and that has been to oppose the domination of Asia by any single power.”

But Munro writes as if America was alone and there were no other nations in Asia – but India is also a rising power, Russia maintains a sizable nuclear deterrent, Japan is prosperous and 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. In fact, Beijing faces substantial regional challenges, and its neighbor nations are capable of cooperating to promote regional stability. There’s no need for Washington to micromanage the area’s affairs. The U.S. can play the role of a traditional off-shore balancer, wary and watchful, but aloof from conflicts that do not concern it.

Indeed, in the near term, the only conceivable Chinese military action would be against Taiwan. Peacefully resolving the issue of Taiwan will not be easy. But while Taiwan is an attractive friend, it has lost its Cold War strategic value. There is no intrinsic reason why the U.S. should confront a nuclear-armed power over the issue, ultimately risking Los Angeles to protect Taipei.

The China threat lobby also worries about a loss of U.S. influence, but that is inevitable as Beijing strides fitfully onto the regional and world stage. China already trades more with South Korea than does the U.S. Chinese economic penetration is advancing throughout Southeast Asia. The presence of American military garrisons may preserve some political clout – itself of dubious value – but only at substantial economic cost and significant geopolitical risk.

The principal goal of U.S. policy toward the PRC should be to accommodate the rise of a likely great power, promoting mutually beneficial cooperation while ensuring American security. However, hubris continues to animate U.S. foreign policy, so most policymakers believe that Washington’s primary duty is to dominate East Asia irrespective of changes in the regional and global environment.

Thus, there is widespread support in Washington for increasing U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific. Rand’s Cliff advocates a regional military buildup, including stationing more carriers in Western Pacific. John Tkacik writes, “Congress must appropriate additional resources to bolster America’s ability to project power in the Western Pacific.”

An equally important objective for the China threat lobby is constructing a containment ring of allies. This, however, is proving to be difficult, since even America’s friends have a different view of China’s intentions and are not interested in turning themselves into permanent enemies of a growing power with a long memory. South Korea and Australia, in particular, have distanced themselves from U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

Unfortunately, Washington’s attempt to engage in containment (often packaged with engagement and called “congagement”) makes contentious regional relations more likely. Pushing nations to choose sides may not redound to America’s benefit. Most important, treating China as hostile is more likely to turn it hostile.

America’s objective should be a world without enemies. Even if that isn’t achievable, Washington should not work to create them. But that’s precisely what many policymakers seem determined to do today. And, unfortunately, China is on many of their lists.

A peaceful future requires a change in U.S. foreign policy. Yes, America is far freer and more democratic than is China. But as Ivan Eland points out, Washington’s “foreign policy is far more aggressive.” And that aggressiveness makes America less rather than more secure.

America 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. U.S. officials should speak frankly about disputed issues, such as arms proliferation and human rights, but should do their most contentious work behind the scenes, where they are likely to be more effective.

Washington shouldn’t treat policy differences with Beijing as evidence of hostility and should minimize opportunities for military confrontation. America need not be a pushover, but it should assess its interests far more rigorously. Threats of war should be reserved for protecting the essence of America, not spreading the latest PC version of America’s values.

Most important, the U.S. should not seek to preserve an unnecessary military dominance along China’s boundaries. A half century after the end of World War II and nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War, America’s allies should take over responsibility for their own defense. U.S. security guarantees should be canceled, and military forces should be brought home. Washington should deploy its military to defend itself, not to advance vaporous “interests” and maintain an unnatural dominance in the region.

There will be no more important bilateral relationship over the next century than that between the U.S. and China. Much depends on the ability of the two nations to overcome cultural and political differences to cooperate peacefully. The first and most important step in doing so, to paraphrase John Quincy Adams, is to not go to Asia in search of enemies to combat.

Read more by Doug Bandow