The GOP’s Hawkish Conformism on China

The Republican Party’s foreign policy is increasingly defined by hostility to China above all else. Whether it is current Republican members of Congress or candidates seeking election in next year’s midterms, there is unanimity on the need for a more aggressive and combative China policy. One looks in vain for any elected Republicans urging caution or restraint on this front. We have seen similar marches of folly before, and we know that they lead those that embark on them to ruin.

Foreign Policy recently reported on some of the hawkish Senate candidates that hope to join Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Marco Rubio as part of a Republican majority, including J.D. Vance in Ohio and Blake Masters in Arizona. That report framed the turn towards China hawkery as "a halt to the United States’ foreign adventures and a return to what it sees as the central challenge." It is bizarre to think of a much more dangerous and costly rivalry with China as a departure from "foreign adventures," but this is how the China hawks themselves tend to defend their position. They pay lip service (and nothing more) to extricating the United States from its current wars, and we are supposed to take their criticism of forever wars seriously while they urge the US to plunge itself into another open-ended conflict that could end up doing far more damage to American security and prosperity than the "war on terror" ever did.

Hawkishness on China is a bipartisan phenomenon, as most serious foreign policy blunders are, but it is most intense in the GOP, especially among the politicians that have flirted with or identified themselves with the so-called "national conservatism" that has taken shape over the last five years. That is no accident, since this brand of nationalism thrives on perceived foreign threats and an overly militarized response to them. After supporting fruitless militarism directed against predominantly Muslim countries for decades, Republican hawks are now setting their sights on East Asia for another generational struggle that promises to waste trillions more dollars and cost many more lives if the hard-liners get their way.

With a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party has usually embraced hawkish conformism on foreign policy in the post-WWII era, and that has been especially true over the last twenty years. Most elected representatives take the path of least resistance, and ambitious politicians have learned that hard-line posturing is typically the path to success within the party. Now that China has become the new bête noire to be opposed at every turn, the same suffocating groupthink has taken hold and the only disagreements about China policy take place at the level of tactics. There is virtually no meaningful dissent from the new party line, and this is even more striking when we consider how potentially catastrophic direct conflict with a nuclear-armed major power could be.

In the short term, demagoguing China and agitating for more militarism in a different part of the world will probably play well with the public, but it puts the US on a reckless collision course that the country can ill afford after decades of pointless wars. The US has been able to "get away" with fighting its endless wars since 2001 because it was targeting much weaker and poorer nations that lacked the ability to strike back. China is anything but weak and poor, and the Chinese government is bound to have the advantage in its own part of the world. Courting conflict with an increasingly powerful China cannot end well for the United States. Unlike other adversaries over the last thirty years, China has the capabilities to inflict major losses on the United States, and it is far from certain that the US could prevail even in a "limited" war. China hawks are selling the public the foreign policy equivalent of snake oil, and there is an alarming lack of opposition to their preferred policies.

If this surge of hawkishness were limited to just one party, the problem would be more manageable, but as it is the major parties seem determined to repeat the mistakes of the past by trying to outbid each other in proving how "tough" they are on China. In any bidding war of this kind, the more nationalist and militaristic party has the advantage of being willing to go further than their opponents, and the other party is left echoing their talking points and mounting ineffective rearguard actions to slow them down.

All the usual pathologies of our foreign policy debates make rejecting hawkishness towards China more challenging. Politicians have every incentive to indulge in threat inflation and fearmongering, and vested interests are only too happy to provide them with additional encouragement. The general American inability to understand how other governments perceive the world makes it much easier for China hawks to promote their agenda. Our superficial and limited understanding of other countries makes it all to easy to shape public opinion through propaganda. Add in the bias in favor of "action" and the ideological commitment to US "leadership," and that makes promoting antagonism against China akin to pushing on an open door. All that is true, but we have to remember that going down this path would be ruinous for the United States.

In the last century, the US and China have gone to war only once, and that began when US forces were advancing too close to China’s border. Chinese intervention in the Korean War was a debacle for the United States, and it should be taken as a cautionary tale about the dangers of both overreaching and failing to take Chinese interests seriously. For the last forty years, the US and China have had a peaceful relationship that has delivered significant benefits to both sides. It would be the purest folly to heed the counsel of hawks by putting that relationship in further jeopardy.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.