There was a time in the mainstream discourse of US foreign policy thinking that China was simply regarded as a cash machine, and certainly nothing to be feared.
Capitalism, that transformational engine of inevitable human progress that would one day induce Beijing to embrace free markets, and eventually, even if far into the future, democracy.
But in the meantime, while we waited for China’s “come to Jesus” moment, there was money to be made: a billion plus ready and willing Chinese consumers to sell anything and everything to.
As one former Fortune 500 senior executive told me roughly a decade ago: “China is filled with billions of people hungry for what America can sell them. They want to be us. Why not get rich off it?” And therein lies the rub, the mirage we all bought into willingly.
The sad but true fact is the state we hoped for those riches to come from is governed by a totalitarian-government, a Communist Party that dominates the political, economic and social fabric of society — armed with the idea that China suffered a century of shame and humiliation, and it must reclaim its rightful place in the pecking order of Asian affairs, no matter the cost.
But no matter. Eventually, old “Red China” would see it our way — meaning America’s way, and transform itself in our image. Change was just around the corner. The best type of regime change was certain, and this time, not at the barrel of a gun. History, you know, had ended.
Beijing, according to the so-called experts, had no other choice.
She would have a stake in the global economic system, a system that was making this ancient civilization rich, helping lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and creating an economic superpower that could one day even surpass mighty America. She would never want to overturn such a system — a system that was also intimately tied to borders and alliance networks built by the United States at the end of World War II.
Why would China want to destroy paradise? Or that was the thinking, at least.
But others saw it differently — very differently. One such person, Dr Peter Navarro, a professor of economics at the University of California at Irvine, saw China not as an ATM with unlimited cash reserves but as a threat — a threat not only to Asia but to America and the foundations of its ability to wield and project power throughout the larger Indo-Pacific region.
Economically, Navarro saw Beijing as a mercantilist state that kept its markets deceptively closed while it exported its way to greater and greater levels of national power. Where some saw a US$600 billion bilateral trade relationship that must be preserved at all costs, Navarro saw Washington being suckered by Beijing, with the proof being a massive trade deficit that destroyed millions of good paying jobs along the way.
Indeed, it is that imbalanced economic relationship that Navarro would argue is the source of China’s rising military might. As Beijing’s economy gets stronger, powered by billions of dollars in profits by so-called “free trade” with America, it would have the resources and technological base to challenge Washington in the near-seas and skies of Asia.
Combined with stealing America’s best weapons designs, like the F-22, F-35, THAAD and more, China would have all it needed to ensure America would think twice in a crisis.
Death by China
Navarro’s thinking — laid out in books like Death by China and Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World — is quite clear: China has no intention of ever becoming a “responsible stakeholder” of the present international order, as has been repeated time and time again, but wants to tear the system to pieces.*
He was ridiculed for his thinking — I saw it first hand as his editor at The National Interest magazine and by other Asia hands who felt Navarro was too hawkish, too itching for a fight with a nation that had so much to offer the world, that some would say is just misunderstood. Some were much meaner, calling him a warmonger.
But as the years went on, Navarro’s ideas were embraced more and more, especially by those in the US military who watched China’s rise with great concern. An awakening has now come full circle when it comes to understanding the motives and aspirations of China.
While certainly not an “Evil Empire” based on Soviet-style domination, a more realist perspective is coming into vogue — one, it would seem, President-elect Donald Trump shares.
Navarro is no longer the outsider when it comes to China policy, but a White House insider, as of January 20, a voice that will now be whispering into the ear of the President of the United States. And I could not be more pleased.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former US President Richard M. Nixon, as well as executive editor of The National Interest. In the past, Kazianis has managed the foreign policy communications of The Heritage Foundation and served as editor of The Diplomat.
(In the interests of full-disclosure, I was a reviewer and wrote the lead blurb of Crouching Tiger.)