Concern over China’s rise in economic, geopolitical and military spheres has prompted many in the US, particularly those in the neoconservative and liberal camps, to proliferate the “China threat” theory.
The 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and, in 1996, then-president Jiang Zemin’s ill-advised missile test to intimidate Taiwan culminated in the establishment of the “Blue Team” within the neoconservative movement in the 2000s solely to ratchet up US rhetoric against the Communist Party of China government.
Emergence of the neocons
The neoconservative movement, a group of politicians, pundits and journalists disillusioned with liberalism, emerged in the US during the 1960s, denouncing liberalism and communism. Its influence on US public policies reached its zenith during the George W Bush presidency, in which neocons like Paul Wolfowitz literally wrote foreign policies.
Wolfowitz and his cohorts Richard Perle, John Bolton and others founded the Project for the New American Century, whose aim was to pre-empt any foreign government’s attempts to threaten US interests. This posture was popularly known as the “Bush Doctrine”, culminating in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and mounting regime-change military actions against nations deemed to threaten US interests and values.
Within the neoconservative camp, a “Blue Team” (the name coined by William Triplett, former counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) was formed in the 1990s. This team, made up largely of minor politicians, journalists and pundits such as Christoper Cox, Bill Gertz, Peter Navarro, Robert Kagan and others, believed China posed a greater economic and security threat to the US than any other country, including Russia. They argued that China’s rapid economic rise provided the means to challenge US hegemony in the long run.
The group was very influential during the “Bush II” presidency, speculated to be behind the passage of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act by the House of Representatives in 2000. TSEA required the US to aid Taiwan militarily should mainland China mount an attack on the island and, second, to establish a communications channel between Washington and Taipei.
Though it was not passed by the Senate and has not been signed into law by any US president, anti-China politicians in Congress use it (along with the 1978 Taiwan Relations Act) to justify selling arms to Taiwan.
Since the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, many Blue Team members have re-emerged, becoming senior advisers to or officials in the administration. John Bolton has openly called on the Trump administration to form a close military relationship with Taiwan, instituting senior military official exchanges with and establishing a military base on the island.
They even attempted to have Trump renege on the “one-China policy”, such that before his inauguration the president-elect was wondering out loud whether the US should improve relations with Taiwan.
More recently, this group might have persuaded Trump to increase the frequency and size of “freedom of navigation and overflight operations” (FNOPs) in the South China Sea. Australia and the UK pledged to join the US in future FNOPs for no reason other than being “kith and kin”. However, allying themselves against China may in fact jeopardize Australia’s and the UK’s economic and security interests.
China is Australia’s largest trade partner, buying more than 30% of Australian products, is one of its major investors, and is one of its biggest sources of tourists, international students and immigrants. Indeed, conservative former prime minister Tony Abbott (no friend of Beijing) stated that it was China that had lifted the Australian economy. Its turning against China is a mystery among some scholars and members of the policy community.
Instead of improving Australia’s security position, joining the US on FNOPs may jeopardize it. In the event of a war between the US and China over the South China Sea, Australian cities and military bases would highly likely be targeted by Chinese missiles.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s announcement of deploying the newest aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, to the South China Sea when they become operational in 2020 makes even less sense. The UK is no longer a world power, and the sea is thousands of kilometers from its own shores. Besides, China is not blocking any country from mounting FNOPs in those waters, as long as they do not deliberately provoke it by sailing within the 12-mile exclusive economic zone.
What’s more, Britain needs and wants Chinese investment to spur economic growth after it leaves the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May has reiterated the UK’s desire to forge a “golden era” of relations with China. She approves of the previous David Cameron government’s decisions to allow China to build (along with France) a nuclear power plant and a high-speed railway.
Australia, the United States and Britain are getting their wish: The perceived “China threat” has become a reality.
It appears the “China threat” rhetoric is increasingly becoming a reality, in that it is forming closer economic and military relations with Russia, reforming the military to improve combat effectiveness, and increasing spending on the development and acquisition of advanced weaponry.
Russia, another country that the US liberal and neoconservative crowd have targeted as a threat, is inching toward an entente with China, albeit an informal one. Accusing Russia of destabilizing Ukraine, annexing Crimea, threatening other nations along its border, and meddling in its presidential election, the US House of Representatives and Senate recently passed new sanctions against Moscow.
In response to America’s ongoing anti-Russia stance, Moscow is holding more frequent military exercises and enhancing weapons research-and-development activities with China. Their combined weapons stockpile would pose a serious threat to the US and its allies.
Judging from the the quantities and varieties of military hardware displayed at the People’s Liberation Army parade this Tuesday, China’s huge spending on national defense, largely driven by the US bombing of its embassy in Serbia, president Bill Clinton sending two aircraft-carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait, and Desert Storm in the 1990s seems to have paid off. In addition to stealth jet fighters, tanks and missiles, new warships and cyber-warfare equipment are coming on stream at rapid rates.
The irony of the US, Britain and Australia making China the enemy is that it will neither deter China’s rise nor improve the three countries’ economic and security positions. The opposite may be true.
To counter increasing Chinese military prowess, the US and its allies will have to increase spending on national defense, culminating in inefficiently allocating if not wasting scarce resources. Less money will be available for economic-enhancement and social programs, which could result in a less healthy and more poorly educated labor force.
Lower labor productivity could erode competitiveness in the US and its allies’ economies. What’s more, their economies are already “drowning in a sea of debt” (perhaps with the exception of Australia). Increasing spending on national defense can only increase their debt burden, eroding fiscal effectiveness and economic recovery.
Thanks to missile technology, a war with China would not guarantee that it would not be fought on US, Australian and UK soil as well as China’s. Risking a nuclear holocaust just to “keep China in its place” or maintain Anglo-American dominance is beyond reason.
China’s major “crime” is that it is communist and succeeds beyond the West’s dreams (perhaps its own as well) in the economic and geopolitical spheres. It is not threatening the US, Australia, UK or any of their allies. But China is determined to “do it my way”, to quote Frank Sinatra.
Taking the argument to its logical conclusion, the US (and allies) may not want a war with China, but only to increase the financial position of its military-industrial complex. As has been noted in the past, it is more profitable to sell arms to allies than to send soldiers. Might that be the real driver behind the “China threat” theory?