As the immediate impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic recede, progressives will seek to address a wide range of pressing issues: income inequality, racial injustice, immigration reform, and climate change, to mention a few. Many will also plan to work on local and state elections and, crucially, the 2020 presidential election. But progress on all these fronts could be thwarted if we do not also counter the right’s drive to make China—or rather, the China Threat—the overarching concern of the post-coronavirus era.
The right’s campaign to demonize China and use it as a cudgel against Joe Biden and the Democrats is already in full swing. Starting on April 17, a leading pro-Trump super PAC, America First Action, began running TV ads in key battleground states deriding the Democratic candidate as “Beijing Biden” and painting him as soft on China. In Congress, exaggerated claims of Chinese superiority in hypersonic missiles and other exotic weaponry are being used to garner Democratic support for a vast increase in spending on both nuclear and conventional weapons, despite the obvious need to channel government funds toward economic reconstruction. With China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, expected to adopt harsh new security laws aimed at Hong Kong, Democrats are joining Republicans in calls for fresh sanctions on Chinese leaders. Meanwhile, hopes to mount a unified international effort to fight the pandemic and revitalize the global economy have been undermined by the Trump administration’s attacks on China at the World Health Organization—and on the WHO itself—along with its drive to “decouple” the US and Chinese economies.
But this is only the beginning. If the Republican drive continues gaining momentum, we will soon be in a near-war situation with China, with heavily armed forces from both sides facing each other in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the waters off Taiwan. In such an environment, with war possible at a moment’s notice, consideration of domestic concerns such as poverty and inequality will be branded as irrelevant or unpatriotic—just as was the case during the Cold War.
Under these conditions, it will not be sufficient to say, “Oh, that’s foreign policy; we’re focused on domestic issues.” Or, “Yes, China has done some bad things, but Trump is far worse. Let’s talk about his bad deeds.” Or, even worse, to try to claim—as former Obama security adviser Susan Rice attempted in The New York Times on May 19—that it’s Trump who’s soft on China, and that Biden and the Democrats will be tougher. None of those responses will protect Democrats from being pulverized by the China Threat Syndrome.
If progressives are to achieve progress on any of their goals in the post-coronavirus era, they must address the China Threat argument head-on, and show that Americans can embrace progressive objectives without fear of being subjugated by Beijing.
Giant Powers Behave Badly—They All Do
The first step in addressing the China Threat Syndrome must be to acknowledge that yes, as China has risen to great-power status, it has begun to act badly in many areas. This begins at home, with the Chinese government’s silencing of popular dissent and its severe repression of the Tibetans and Uighurs; it extends from there to its increasingly heavy-handed interference in the nominally self-governing territory of Hong Kong and its illegal militarization of islands in the South China Sea. Many activists in the developing world have also complained of China’s large infrastructure and resource-extraction projects, saying they saddle poor countries with debt, create few local jobs, and perpetuate a status of dependency. More recently, of course, Beijing has been chided—both within the country and abroad—for keeping silent about the novel coronavirus when it first emerged in Wuhan.
It might be tempting to say, “Yes, but.” Yes, China has behaved badly, but not nearly as badly at the Trump administration. “Look at how badly Trump is doing on immigration,” you might say, “separating children from their parents at the border.” On foreign policy, we could point to the administration’s shameful supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in its brutal war in Yemen, which has killed many civilians. And, of course, there’s Trump utterly disgraceful mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
All this may be true, but it does not erase the fact that China under the leadership of Xi Jinping is behaving badly in many areas that should matter to us, and that, by trying to downplay these abuses, we provide the right with more ammunition to attack us—both as apologists for China and as hypocrites.
The proper response, I believe, is to draw upon history and political theory to point out that rising powers, in their quest for great-power status, inevitably behave badly, using their newly gained strength to overpower smaller powers in their path and to secure economic advantages. One need look no further than America’s behavior in the late 19th century, when a newly empowered Washington fought Spain to acquire an empire of its own in the Caribbean and Western Pacific. Germany, in its rise to power, initiated two world wars, while the former Soviet Union, seeking global sway, smothered Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II and acquired client states far and wide.
We also know, from history and theory, that the reigning powers in such times of transition tend to demonize their new rivals as “bad actors” for threatening the global status quo (the language being used by the Trump administration to describe China’s behavior) and to forge coalitions to resist the challenger. This is the message being delivered on an almost daily basis by senior US officials in Washington and friendly capitals abroad.
The most common outcome of this dynamic, since ancient times, has been war. (Think, for example, of the Peloponnesian Wars, between dominant Athens and a rising Sparta, or the Punic Wars, between dominant Carthage and a rising Rome.) On our present course, with US and Chinese warships confronting each other on an almost daily basis in the South China Sea, that could prove the outcome in this instance. If we are to avoid such a catastrophe, it is essential to devise a blueprint for US-Chinese coexistence on our increasingly beleaguered planet, however much we may dislike certain characteristics of our rival. This would entail, for example, devising rules of the road for mutual involvement in such contested realms as space, cyberspace, and the South China Sea.
Deconstructing the “China Threat”
Those of us who are old enough can remember the “missile gap” of the early Cold War era, when the Soviet Union was said to possess more intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) than the United States—a claim, loudly made by John F. Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, that was later proved to be hollow. Later, there was the “Team B” affair of 1976, in which anti-Soviet hard-liners like Paul Nitze, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz claimed that the USSR had again soared ahead of the United States in missile strength; this, too, was later proved to be inaccurate. Now, we are again hearing of a “missile gap”—this time involving China’s supposed lead in hypersonic missiles (weapons that fly at more than five times the speed of sound)—and of other supposed Chinese advantages in military power.
To refute all of the outlandish claims being made about Chinese military-technological superiority would take far more space than this article would allow. The main point, however, is that China’s armed forces are far inferior to those of the United States and its allies, and we should not be hesitant in proclaiming this reality.
Just to provide a few critical examples: According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a leading authority on the subject, China is believed to possess approximately 290 nuclear warheads, as compared to 6,185 for the United States. Similarly, China is thought to deploy approximately 130 ICBMs and 48 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) for a total of about 180 nuclear launch vehicles, whereas, in accordance with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the United States now deploys 400 ICBMs and slightly over 200 SLBMs, for a total exceeding 600. A comparison of advanced, “fifth generation” jet aircraft would show a similar imbalance in favor of the United States, as would tallies of aircraft carriers, modern submarines, and other key war-fighting capabilities. On top of this, China has no real allies to speak of, whereas the United States can call on the added military capabilities of Australia, Japan, and South Korea, among others.
Those who seek to magnify the China Threat are likely to pick out a few areas where China appears, on paper, to hold an advantage of some sorts. This is true, for example, of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs)—types with a range of between 1,000 and 3,000, and 3,000 and 5,500 kilometers, respectively—of which China owns an estimated 200 or so, some said to be equipped with hypersonic warheads. Under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987, the United States agreed not to deploy any land-based missiles with these ranges; however, since Trump abandoned the INF treaty last year, the Defense Department has begun development of several missiles of this type, most designed to carry hypersonic warheads. More to the point, US ships and planes in the Pacific are capable to delivering Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles and a wide array of other potent weapons, negating any hypothetical advantage in Chinese IRBMs/MRBMs.
Progressive activists and Democratic candidates need not be afraid to spar with Republican propagandists about the supposed severity of the China Threat. There are many respected, nonpartisan organizations like SIPRI, the Arms Control Association, and the Federation of American Scientists that can be called upon to help in deconstructing the right’s inflated claims. Failing to do so will put us at a perennial disadvantage.
An Artificially Elevated “China Threat” Is Itself Dangerous
Finally, it is essential to argue that hyping an exaggerated China Threat at a time when everyone on the planet faces shared dangers from the coronavirus, a sinking world economy, and pending climate catastrophe is an immense threat all its own, as it is preventing the world’s two wealthiest and most powerful nations from working together to overcome those mighty perils. President Trump’s insistence that we can go it alone, that “we could cut off the whole relationship [with China],” is sheer lunacy: You cannot fight a global pandemic, revive the global economy, or stave off global incineration without close collaboration at the highest level.
Indeed, igniting a new Cold War with China at this time of economic turmoil is bound to cause increased harm to most Americans, as it will sever critical supply links and deter increased spending by both investors and consumers on both sides of the Pacific. With US tech firms being forced to abandon ties with their Chinese partners and seek collaborators elsewhere, innovation is stalling and prices are rising; the Chinese, having been battered by Covid-19 and punitive US tariffs, are buying fewer American crops and other products. Scientific and medical cooperation between the two countries—essential for the development of vaccines and treatments for this and future pandemics—is being put at risk by the administration’s scapegoating of China for the pandemic’s early spread and denial of funding for collaborative work on virus transmission.
The greatest danger, however, is that artificially inflamed antagonisms between the United States and China will increase the likelihood of war. American and Chinese ships pass within shooting range of each other on an almost daily basis in the South China Sea, and often behave in an intentionally provocative way—sailing dangerously close to each other or to the islands illegally militarized by the Chinese. As tensions and name-calling between Washington and China increase, the risk of a minor incident escalating into something far greater is bound to grow. And, once the shooting starts, what assurances do we have that the leaders on either side—Donald Trump here, Xi Jinping there—will respond in a level-headed fashion and halt the fighting before it results in (a possibly nuclear) World War III?
To overcome these immense challenges and make further progress on the issues that matter the most to us, we must call out the China Threat hucksters as posing a clear and present danger to the safety and well-being of all Americans. China may be acting badly in certain ways—so are we—but we have to learn to work with them in areas of mutual risk in order to avoid mutual catastrophe.