There is no doubt that U.S.-China relations are entering a new period of tensions given reports that the United States is considering the possibility of sending naval ships and planes to challenge China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea. This U.S. move, if realized, is certainly provocative and has the potential to lead to a clash with Chinese ships and planes.
So far a lot of analysis has focused on the possible motivations behind the U.S. move and the possible consequences thereof for China-U.S. relations and Asian security. Almost all would agree that this move, whether right or wrong, is a risky one and worrying indeed.
To better understand this particular military move, one has to understand the larger background for all of the current developments in China-U.S. relations. This larger background is the new, rising anti-China discourse in various circles of the United States, including the government, academic, policy, and certainly military spheres. Three types of anti-China discourses stand out.
First, there is the new ‘China collapse’ theory. This theory is not totally new and largely came to the fore after Gordon Chang popularized it in his 2001 book. This new round of ‘China collapse’ discourse, however, is led by an influential China expert, David Shambaugh of George Washington University. In his March article published in the Wall Street Journal, Shambaugh predicted that the end game of the Chinese Communist Party has already begun. What is most interesting about Shambaugh’s new prediction is his past praise of the CCP and China as a resilient power. Later, Shambaugh argued that he was disappointed by a series of CCP moves, particularly under Xi Jinping’s leadership. He was expecting a more liberal and democratic China, but he obviously does not think that is possible anymore. Of course, there are other types of ‘China collapse’ theory, focusing on different aspects of China’s pressing problems such as social grievances, environmental pollution, inequality, corruption, and so on.
Second, there is lots of talk about China as a regional bully and how China is trying to push the United States out of East Asia. As a big country, it is natural for China to be viewed as a big bully in Asia in the eyes of smaller nations. And China’s territorial disputes with some of them certainly do not help. All these concerns on the part of smaller nations are understandable. Although the U.S. has repeatedly emphasized that it maintains a neutral position with regard to the territorial disputes, China does not buy it. And despite China’s repeated pledge that it is not trying to push the U.S. out of Asia, the U.S. simply remains unconvinced. This is truly unfortunate — the lack of trust between the two has prevented them from assuming the best of each other. From the U.S. perspective, a growing China and a stable authoritarian regime cannot be a good thing for U.S. leadership in Asia. Many U.S. policymakers simply do not believe that an authoritarian regime can maintain peace and stability; worse, an authoritarian China might be an expansionist power after all.
The third and most disturbing new discourse is the ‘punishing China’ discourse. It comes in various forms. One recent report from the Council of Foreign Relations argues that China needs to be balanced. Perhaps the message is that China, after all, is just another Soviet Union and it is now time for the U.S. to face the reality by firmly balancing China. Otherwise, China will dominate Asia one day. Another more radical report by two right-wing leaning scholars calls for a new ‘peaceful evolution’ approach to China. These scholars Dan Blumenthal and William Inboden,argue that the U.S. should actively assist those Chinese people who fight for democracy and freedom and in so doing the CCP would be brought down — hence, peace and stability for Asia.
One can debate how much real policy influence such radical discourses have on U.S. government policy toward China. Judging by recent tough comments by U.S. military officials, things do not look good. Maybe this is indeed a ‘tipping point’ for China-U.S. relations, after more than 30 years of engagement. Is the U.S. adopting a containment strategy toward China now? One cannot say that with confidence. But if this radical anti-China discourse is allowed to grow, we might enter a new era of containment politics in China-U.S. relations. That, as John Mearsheimer famously put it, is indeed a tragedy in great power politics.