Note: This essay was originally published on Medium in July 2018
No, I haven’t lost my mind and no, Beijing hasn’t finally gotten to me. Apparently a significant number of Americans believe that China is more friend than foe. According to a Pew Research poll, about 25% of the American public thinks China is one of our top two security partners. This poll is a couple months old, but I’ve been on hiatus so I’m playing catch up and I wanted to talk about my new experiences regarding US threat perception anyway. As I tweeted about, there are a few possible reasons for why China could be seen by so many people as a security partner rather than our chief long-term security threat. A lot of it has to do with poor communication by the American government, lack of public education on China and Sino-American relations, and Beijing’s own twisted soft power efforts. Collective American ignorance regarding China is our chief obstacle to both engaging with and protecting against a rising China across the Pacific and around the world. In this essay I’d like to first explore why the American people see China the way they do as well as why China is not even remotely an American security partner. As for the latter, I have discussed in previous essays why Sino-American conflict is inevitable, but frankly it’s already here and large swaths of America and the policy-making community have not caught up with that reality. Despite punditry to the contrary, we still live in a democracy, and therefore if we want to develop and establish effective China policy in the same manner as US anti-Soviet policy during the first Cold War, then we must paint the picture of our violent reality to the American public.
First, let’s begin with President Trump’s rhetoric regarding China and Dear Leader Xi. As with most things, Trumps’ rhetoric over the years regarding China has been largely negative, except for when he’s addressing President Xi. Now, there are plenty of psychological theories for why Trump would have such an apparent change of heart, but I’ll leave that for others to discuss. Trump often warmly embraces and compliments Comrade Xi, and that kind of star power and coverage can influence the public, especially over the course of the last year. When addressing trade or North Korea, POTUS is far more bipolar regarding his position of China, criticizing them but also appealing to them for help. And that doesn’t even include our recent foray into a cross-Pacific trade war that literally no one asked for, but we got anyway. Now, what the American people could be confusing are the terms “security” and “trading” partner, in that they are assuming that those we trade with must be our partners in everything. To a degree this makes sense, because I’ve even heard from IR academics and pre-1914 reenactors that integrated and globalized markets help foster peace. I am sure that on the surface, this logic appeals to many Americans as well, but I’d like to think it’s a stretch to jump from “we won’t go to war” to “we’re the best of well-armed friends”.
Some 18% of surveyed Republicans think China is one of our most important security partners. Now, the days of the “party of national security” are long gone, but that doesn’t make these numbers any less horrifying to me as a national security professional and former Republican operative. Yes, these numbers are lower than the public and the Democrats, but they may have more to do with the GOP obsession with Israel than anything else. Of course the American people can’t articulate even the most basic aspects of our foreign policy when our leaders can neither maintain a united front nor articulate the policies they advocate for by themselves. We forget how thick the DC Bubble is and, particularly during the social media age, how the speed of a soundbite does not necessarily determine how deep it impacts in the minds of the American people. In my new job, I’ve taken note of how many different enemies and threats different leaders and cadre have listed as our next “big bad.” Russia, North Korea, and the Middle East come up a lot, as did Democrats on occasion, but China was hardly ever mentioned. If we cannot clearly establish who we are going to fight and why, then we sure as hell won’t know who our friends are and if they’ll be there for us.
So, we’ve covered why a quarter of Americans think China is one of our top two security partners, now it’s time to do the job that our policymakers should be doing: explaining why China is our main enemy, not our main partner.
In the past week, the much anticipated and loathed Sino-American trade war began. Now, the US hasn’t been known to do so hot in trade wars, so I’m just bracing for impact at this point. And while I think this is bad policy, I do agree that China has taken advantage of us for years. We’ve allowed them to abuse the economic systems that we run and have let them steal all the intellectual property they can get their hands on through state-backed industrial espionage. And while I think theft-through-espionage is fair game (if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’), US incompetence regarding Chinese theft is abhorrent. Hell, those bastards have my and a few million other patriots’ personal information and our fingerprints because the US didn’t take information security seriously. If we continue to ignore the China threat, imagine what they’ll take from us next, or in 10 years when they have multiple carrier groups and the US continues to let itself rot away.
In the South China Sea (SCS), our allies and China play bumper boats while American and Chinese ships dance a dangerous dance around each other as they traverse some of the most valuable pieces of ocean in the world. China is regularly running military drills that focus on wiping out an American fleet in the region. Through their artificial island-building program, the Chinese have fortified their SCS outposts into sandy aircraft carriers armed with area denial weapons and advanced electronic warfare kit. US run-ins with Russian military forces get all the press but the unseen flash points across the Indo-Pacific region are what should terrify the American people and its leaders. A few hot-headed admirals or a quick economic downturn in China is all it takes, and that’s assuming the Chinese aren’t planning for der tag (the first day of war) as the Germans did leading up to 1914. The next war may not happen by accident, and that will make it even more catastrophic if we’re caught with our pants down.
The truth is, it’s not that hard to reach out to the American people. As polarized as we are, we’re not so thick headed that we couldn’t grasp that China is not our friend and they want to hurt us. It just takes the right words coupled with a strong, but rational, media spotlight. We did this during the 1950s with the Soviets, NSC-68 mentions that the US government had to talk to the public if it wanted to properly undertake such a gargantuan task as containing the Soviet Union. Well now we must contain China, and it will demand just as much of us as it did 60 years ago. We may have differing opinions on our national security strategies and priorities, but before we reach that debate, we should be able to settle on some absolute truths of American foreign policy. One of those truths should be that an aggressively rising totalitarian state like China is not our friend and we should make clear to the American people who our friends and enemies are because at the end of the day, its their sons and daughters who will be dying for those friends at the hands of those enemies.