Washington's China Debate Is About Caricature, Not Reality

Experts disagree over China's intentions amid growing influence.

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Recent posts on the National Interest's website offer divergent yet refreshingly sober-minded assessments of China's growing assertiveness in Asia. Bruce Gilley, an assistant professor of political science at Portland State University, argues that a red tide of nationalism within the increasingly modern Chinese military, to say nothing of the country's netroots, makes some kind of conflict with the West likely. Gilley expects Xi Jinping, the senior apparatchik who is expected to become China's president within the next few years, will side with the military in response to challenges at home and abroad and is not prone to conciliation with the U.S. or Asia.

Michael D. Swaine offers a dissenting view. While conceding the fact of Beijing's military buildup and its implicit challenge to U.S. dominance in Asia, he contests the notion that China seeks global hegemony. He also dismisses outright the suggestion, projected most vigorously by militarists like Aaron Friedberg, that Washington should match Chinese military modernization bullet for bullet. The solution to Beijing's increasingly menacing claims on disputed Asian sea lanes, he argues, lies not through confrontation but multilateral engagement between China, its neighbors, and the U.S.

[Read about the danger of China myopia.]

Both Gilley and Swaine were at least partially vindicated by an article in the September 8 edition of the Financial Times that delivered much-needed insight and nuance to the cosmology of Chinese militarism. It answered the question, heard with growing frequency both in Asia and the West, whether Beijing's generals are now making foreign policy with a qualified "no." While allowing how the People's Liberation Army has broadened its core mission from defending the coastline to guarding economic interests beyond its shores, the article also revealed the fault lines that divides the military from rival agencies such as China's coast guard, its maritime surveillance units, and the ministries of agriculture and transport--all of which have competing stakes in the business of defining and defending Beijing's red lines. While the hawkish coast guard has the most to gain from its demands for a broad interpretation of maritime sovereignty, for example, the country's foreign policy agencies favor engagement "because it could strengthen China's credentials as a responsible stakeholder in the international system and eventually facilitate dispute resolutions through negotiation."

Compare such leavened reportage with a China policy debate in Washington that is freighted with partisan and reactionary prattle. Just this week, the Senate passed a bill that would punish Beijing for undervaluing its currency to preserve its export competitiveness allegedly at the expense of American jobs. The link between an undervalued renminbi and U.S. unemployment is dubious, though this mattered little to legislators from both sides of the aisle who wanted to generate some populist currency of their own as national elections loom. Also this week, the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, issued a report defending the Pentagon against prospective budget cuts lest they compromise readiness "as the military [becomes] increasingly focused on the Asia-Pacific region"—in other words, China. A week earlier, Buck McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and one of the Pentagon's most loyal advocates in Congress, declared in a speech that the Chinese are "drunk with economic power" and seek to press their advantage over a financially stricken United States.

"For the first time in their history," fulminated McKeon, "Beijing believes they [sic] can achieve military parity with the United States. They are building stealth fighters and submarines. Their navy has grown larger than our own. They are sending warships into the territorial waters of our allies."

[Read why a U.S. war with China might be inevitable.]

To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, McKeon's rant at least had the great good fortune of being unintelligible. China, as Washington's largest creditor, has more to lose from America's economic crisis than any other single government, and its 9,000-mile long coastline is surveilled in the air and at sea by elements of the U.S. Navy, still the largest maritime force ever. In Washington, however, caricature too often prevails over reality as a foundation for policymaking, which is why so many of the nation's wars over the last six decades have ended either inconclusively or in disaster.

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