We are at the wagging the dog stage, as the Trump administration pulls all stops to find some way to divert attention from its mismanagement of the pandemic and economy, which has produced some stinking public opinion polls. China provides an easy target as it is extended its authoritarian regime to Hong Kong, mismanaged the first phase of the fight against Covid-19, and put more than a million Uyghurs into re-education camps. However, it does not follow that the best way to deal with such a regime is to drift into a Cold War and engage in an arm race that can slip into a shooting war.
The U.S. has good reason to criticize Chinese violations of human rights. However, these criticisms would be much more compelling if it did not for decades – and currently – strongly ally itself with Saudi Arabia. And if it did not seek closer relations with Vietnam. And was rather mum when the Burmese military burned down the villages, raped thousands of Rohingya women, and forced more than 600,000 Rohingya out of their country.
Commentators close to the Trump administration claim that China is out to dominate the world, replace the U.S. as the superpower, and pose a threat to the U.S. itself. Rebeccah Heinrichs claims that “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to supplant the United States as the global preeminent power… This poses an unacceptable risk to U.S. critical allies in the region and threatens American sovereignty and our ability to engage freely and safely with sovereign democratic nations in a massively important region of the world.” Actually, China is one of those authoritarian powers that, at least so far, has shown no such ambitions. Thus, when the U.S. in effect abandoned Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan, it is Russia that is stepping in, not China. Despite all the talk about China being out to dominate other nations, China’s borders have been more peaceful than many in the Middle East and those of Ukraine. Over the last four and half decades, the only bloodshed China was involved in outside its borders was the killing of twenty India soldiers. China has been seeking to increase its influence over other nations using economic and diplomatic means, however these are often rather clumsy and often elicit push back. And the same means are often used by other nations, especially the U.S.
Meanwhile the U.S. is engaged in what might be called an evidence collection phase, which is reminiscent of a husband who decided to ask his wife for a divorce, and hence interprets everything she does in the worst possible light. Some Americans have claimed that the pandemic, which is devastating the U.S. and large parts of the world, started when China developed Covid for a biological weapon. Senator Tom Cotton pushed this conspiracy theory saying, “I would note that Wuhan also has China’s only bio-safety level four ‘superlaboratory’ that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus.” Others have claimed that the virus originated from a Chinese lab (rather than a wet market), a term that evokes similar notions. U.S. President Donald J. Trump repeatedly referred to the virus as Chinese, or Wuhan, Kung virus. Above all, he claims that China could have stopped the spread of the virus but neglected to do so.
Another telling example is referring to the re-education camps as concentration camps. Recently I served as a moderator of a panel on “Is China the new enemy? Confront or Cooperate?”, which included Elbridge Colby, one of the brightest and most articulate American strategists, who is credited with having formed the Trump Administration China policy during his service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. I asked him why he chose this term to refer to the re-education camps. He responded, “I’m using them in a sense that say the British used them in the turn of the century and in which they were used, I think there is a consistent usage. I would not presume to get into a debate with you but that to me it is an elimination camp. That they are concentration camps where people are interned and some of them are killed as far as we know, so I don’t think we should underestimate what’s going on there.” However, the term clearly evokes the Nazi systematic killing of millions of people. Trying to force people to give up their faith is bad enough, but they will live, many will actually keep their beliefs, and continue to support the resistance to the authoritarian regime.
Lyle J. Goldstein, normally one of the more moderate and sensible China specialists, is also caught up in the “collecting evidence” wave. He sees “a new threat to the dominance of the U.S. submarine force in the Western Pacific lies over the horizon. A series of recent articles published in China implies that the PLA Navy is hard at work on developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that will take up the ASW mission.” I am not sure how much one should make out of such “implications” and wonder what are Chinese observers to make, say, out of a RAND report, War with China, that compared four different ways to attack China with nuclear weapons and ask which is the more effective way to proceed.
In short, China’s domestic policies call for robust criticisms. However, we may well have to wait until after the election before we can have a reasoned debate whether the U.S. is better off to move ever closer to viewing China as akin to the USSR, or as an increasingly authoritarian nation, preoccupied with domestic problems, keen to be respected, and wielding increased influence in its sphere, but not out to dominate the world or threaten the U.S.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. He is the author of Avoiding War with China. His latest book, Reclaiming Patriotism, was published by the University of Virginia Press in 2019 and is available for download without charge.