The fact is, we cannot afford a confrontation with China, no matter how it is packaged.
The hawks that speak loudest about the importance of great power competition don’t have the first clue what the U.S. needs to do to remain competitive against other major powers. This has become impossible to miss in the growing push for pursuing a confrontational China policy.
“Great power competition” has become the slogan that hawks now use to justify never-ending increases to the military budget without paying any attention to the importance of developing the social, intellectual, and economic resources at home that the U.S. would need to stay competitive. That development would require substantial increases in spending on infrastructure, education, and research, but when it comes to those things the China hawks are typically nowhere to be found. The sectors that the U.S. has shortchanged for decades desperately need major investments simply to bring them up to date, but there is no evidence that the new Cold Warriors desire to do any of this. The path that many of these China hawks would have us take is instead one of overextension, exhaustion, and bankruptcy.
Perhaps the loudest of all these hawks has been Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. He has typically been the first to advocate punishing China in response to the pandemic, and he has a record of backing the most inflammatory and provocative measures against whichever country is unfortunate enough to be caught in his crosshairs. Last week, Tom Cotton introduced a bill that would bar the granting of visas to Chinese students working in STEM fields. This legislation, the so-called SECURE CAMPUS Act, would have the effect of devastating American research universities by depriving them of a huge number of their prospective students and the tuition payments that come with them.
While Cotton claims to be doing this to safeguard U.S. research from being exploited by the Chinese government, the end result would be to kneecap our own institutions through short-sighted government interference. An effective ban on Chinese nationals studying at U.S. universities in STEM fields would also redound to the Chinese government’s benefit in another way. Instead of drawing talented Chinese science and engineering students to the U.S. where many of them would end up relocating and working, Cotton’s bill would guarantee that they never come to study here. Like so many other hard-line stunts that Cotton has pulled over the last decade, this legislation is clumsy and self-defeating. Even if it never becomes law, this bill represents the sort of blinkered thinking that prevails among so many proponents of a Cold War-like rivalry with Beijing.
We have seen another example of this dead-end hawkishness on the issue of arms control. The Trump administration keeps pretending to want China to join arms control talks. China has no interest in doing this, and the huge disparity between their nuclear arsenal and ours makes it a strange exercise at the best of times. Of course, the administration isn’t really interested in bringing more states into the arms control architecture, but prefers instead to dismantle that architecture and engage in arms races with both Russia and China. The president’s special envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, recently declared that the U.S. would spend both governments into “oblivion.” This makes no sense given the much smaller size of China’s arsenal, and it would represent a huge waste of resources on nuclear weapons in any case. This is a case of wanting to throw huge sums down the drain on weapons that the U.S. doesn’t need. The administration seems determined to focus myopically on hard power as the only measure of great power strength, and meanwhile it is happy to let every other kind of power diminish and disappear.
China hawks are currently ascendant because they can tap into public anger over the pandemic and the Chinese government’s serious abuses, but as ever the remedies they propose are the foreign policy equivalent of snake oil. We see this with Cotton’s anti-China raving and Billingslea’s arms race rhetoric, and we can expect much more of it in the years to come. Like any demagogue, Cotton can both stoke fear and exploit frustration, but he cannot offer a solution that won’t make things worse.
Bonnie Kristian recently made the case for a smarter, more restrained response that focuses on securing American interests rather than carrying out a vendetta against China:
We need not deny or downplay that reality to avoid making a colossal mistake of our own. Recklessly reacting to Beijing’s failure will backfire for our prosperity and peace.
There is understandable anger at the Chinese government for its delayed response to COVID-19 and its suppression of important information at the beginning of the outbreak, but anger distorts judgment and warps perceptions to the detriment of those that succumb to it. Hard-liners thrive on anger and suspicion because these feelings short-circuit careful deliberation and encourage us to indulge our worst instincts. Giving in to that anger has led to some of our most disastrous foreign policy blunders, and it blinds us to the alternatives to confrontation and conflict that are always available to us. Post-9/11 anger led to a colossal error and massive crime in the Iraq war, and we can only guess at how ruinous a similar fit of anger would be when it involves a major power.
A calm assessment of Chinese power would remind us that they are surrounded by many wary neighbors that will not easily yield to them. The Chinese government is an ugly authoritarian regime, but it has shown no sign of being the kind of expansionist power that would warrant the response that China hawks want. Their ability to project power outside of their immediate neighborhood is quite limited, and they have not gone to war against any of their neighbors in more than forty years. When they did invade Vietnam in 1979, they were unsuccessful and quickly withdrew.
A rational assessment of Chinese ambitions would distinguish between their government’s evident desire to establish regional hegemony and the hawkish fantasy that they wish to dominate the globe. A smart strategy would seek to lure other states away from China’s orbit through investment and incentives, but it would also recognize that there are some regions where the U.S. isn’t going to be able to compete effectively with China. There is a wiser course available that would strengthen the U.S. without committing it to another decades-long period of antagonism towards a nuclear-armed rival. That will have very little in common with what conventional China hawks are offering.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned last week against taking the U.S. and China to the “brink of a new Cold War,” and it is a warning that we should take seriously. The world was sundered and bloodied for forty-five years by the last Cold War, and tens of millions of people died in the wars that the two superpowers sponsored and fought. A Cold War-style U.S.-Chinese rivalry would in all likelihood produce at least as much bloodshed in the twenty-first century as our rivalry with the Soviets produced in the second half of the twentieth. That would be a horrifying development, and all the more so when we realize that it is still avoidable.
A Cold War with China would be like our many other wars for the last seventy-five years: a war of choice that we could and should decline to fight. To the extent that it resembled the rivalry with the USSR, it would be an extraordinarily costly and long-running conflict. It would fuel proxy wars and atrocities in the countries where this contest would be carried out, and it would lock us into another series of draining commitments that have little or nothing to do with U.S. security. We should also bear in mind that it is not a given that the outcome would be as favorable for America this time as it was before. Previous great power contests have not always worked out for the old hegemon, and the U.S. could very easily become another bankrupt, overstretched Spain. It would be much wiser and more prudent to steer clear of another prolonged conflict when there are no vital U.S. interests that demand it.