Instead of futile confrontation against an inevitably dominant rival, the U.S. should take its focus off of China and work on itself. We are better off investing in infrastructure, leading in technology, and finally fulfilling our sentiment of a just and equitable society.
By Farah Böhm
Whoever is elected this November, one thing is for sure: The overarching narrative of the next several presidencies will be managing the decline of U.S. dominance in the face of an ascendant China. This is unavoidable. 350-ish million Americans simply can’t compete with 1.4-ish billion Chinese. They have overtaken us economically and will soon have, at least, enough deterrent power for the U.S. military to engage them militarily. We are left with a classic example of Thucydides Trap – the tendency of a dominant power to confront an emerging power when threatened with its displacement as international hegemon. The world’s power centers are closely watching this evolving confrontation between the U.S. and China and hedging its bets on who comes out on top. Yet there is another option: The U.S must disengage from a futile competition with an inevitably ascendant adversary and invest in its own people and infrastructure. Moreover, the materialization of the U.S. becoming the human rights leader it has always claimed to be in the face of a China ambivalent on freedoms and abuses will allow the U.S. to circumvent becoming a Chinese vassal state.
It is an inescapable fact that China will be the world’s largest economy by 2030 if not sooner. By 2050, it is likely the U.S. will fall to rank as the world’s third largest economy behind an ever growing India. The fact is that the days of U.S. economic dominance via soft and hard power simply can not contain the enormous populations of China and India. Despite the myriad true and false allegations characterizing China’s rapid economic rise as spurious, their ascendance is nonetheless imminent.
To many U.S. observers, China brisk ascendance is attributed to the fact that it doesn’t play by the rules and militarily threatens the important Pacific trade routes which have been dominated by Washington in the Post-War era. The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has basically called for a change in the regime of the Communist Chinese Party.
Former China director on the National Security Council Ryan Hass, has proclaimed the Trump administration is attempting to “reorient the U.S.-China relationship toward an all-encompassing systemic rivalry that cannot be reversed” by subsequent U.S. Presidents. Besides the global catastrophe that a U.S.-China war would be, extended confrontation between the two powers would likely leave the U.S. as the vanquished. Unlike symmetric yet separate Cold War rivalries of the past, the U.S. and China share an inextricable enmeshment unlike the largely disconnected rivalry between Soviet Russia and the United States.
From the Chinese perspective, the last two centuries have been an embarrassing aberration in their long, heralded civilization. The collective Chinese consciousness is thousands of years unlike the brief shared memory of Americans. China was for much of recorded history the most prosperous nation on the Earth credited with countless inventions critical to human progress. However, once China became subject to European colonialism and a country to disperse British opium in the 1800’s, it lost the capacity to maintain its primacy. ( Never mind the convenient comparisons of how the Chinese have flooded U.S. markets with cheap opiates — that is for another article. ) What is a brief period in collective Chinese history amounts to a few years of humiliation preceding the resurgence to the top of the global power geometry. The thing is, they are right.
In the interim, the only card the U.S. has to play is it’s overwhelming military power. Sure, the U.S. spends more than China and next several large militaries combined — but the Chinese have spent the last several decades honing their asymmetrical warfare capabilities and developing the notion of ‘Hybrid War.’. Also, many analysts have concluded that despite China spending less on their military they are actually getting more bang for their buck. Or Yuan.
Either way, Chinese military planners have come to the obvious conclusion that they can not, currently, face the U.S. military head to head and should rather deny American assets access to the theaters of war. This military doctrine is known as ‘Anti-Access/Area Denial, or A2/AD. Both U.S. and Chinese analysts have concluded this tactic does not bode well for the U.S. Pacific forces. The Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance describes China’s access denial as such:
“A2/AD is an attempt to deny an adversary’s freedom of movement on the battlefield. Anti-access –of enemy military movement into an area of operations – utilizes attack aircraft, warships, and specialized ballistic and cruise missiles designed to strike key targets. Area denial – denial of enemy freedom of action in areas under friendly control – employs more defensive means such as air and sea defense systems. Because modern military technology is required to uphold A2/AD, it is almost exclusively practiced by advanced regional powers such as Russia and China. Recently, these powers have employed A2/AD in disputed regions like Crimea and the South China Sea to disrupt freedom of navigation for the United States and the international community. Russia and China’s use of A2/AD directly opposes the local and regional interests of the U.S. and its allies, leaving us vulnerable when operating in these disputed regions.”
The Chinese have underpinned this doctrine with the deployment of hypersonic missiles into the Pacific theater. The cornerstone of U.S. dominance of the Pacific has always been the ability to project power and assets with its unmatchable number and sophistication of aircraft carriers. Aircraft carriers create the ability to deploy aircraft and fire munitions — the only likely deployments in a confrontation with China. For perspective, China has a total of 2 deployable aircraft carriers for the United States 67 in service or decommissioned carriers. Yet advances in technology have made this vestige of 20th century war tech an easy target. Hypersonic missiles can travel at 5 times the speed of sound and the U.S. navy currently has no defense against this technology. Both Russia and China have beat the U.S. to the punch on these fearsome weapons. Ultimately, this means that any military conflict with China could be potentially disastrous for the U.S. Once the United States loses in a military conflagration with China, it will have finally lost all of its leverage against China and standing in the world. The point is, this is not a fight we can win.
So with an inevitable Chinese surpassing of the U.S. economy and no positive outcomes in direct military confrontation, what does a former superpower do?
Considering the sheer futility of confrontation with China, the only logical course of action for the United States is to invert its focus inward. The U.S. must reclaim the helm of world leadership through the example of a renewed commitment for human rights for its own citizenry. It must pull back from 2 decades of endless war and invest in its domestic infrastructure. The U.S. must regain the lead in technological innovation. Our alliances that Donald Trump has seemingly worked overtime to dissolve must be reinvigorated. Adequately confronting China means disengaging from the fight and reimagining U.S. dynamism. As so eloquently stated in a recent article by Foreign Policy:
“ If there are fears of China stealing the intellectual property of U.S. companies or the data of U.S. citizens, then the U.S. government and relevant companies should invest heavily in innovation, cybersecurity, and data security. If the United States is concerned about a particular entity such as Huawei, then it needs to develop companies and technologies that can supplant what Huawei or other Chinese companies now supply. None of that can happen with an executive order or a dramatic speech. It will take time, money, patience, and strategy. Stinging accusations and predictions of cold war catch attention, but they are like paper arrows. The U.S.-Chinese relationship is unlike any other between two grand nations in history in the degree of economic intimacy juxtaposed with genuine rivalry and distrust. Navigating tensions is hard work, and the history of other great powers in the past is of little help. In fact, it could do a great deal of harm if used simplistically. Best to let the Cold War be, and learn new tactics to manage a new rivalry for a different century.”
Now, it must be said that despite a ‘less than favorable’ record of U.S. human rights, the Chinese government is far more ambivalent about human rights. China has one million Muslim Uighurs in concentration camps, has proven a penchant for imperialism with its treatment of Tibet, operates a ruthless police state, has violated virtually all of its autonmous Hong Kong agreements, and has been steadily gearing up to retake Taiwan. There are no freedoms enshrined in Chinese law for its citizenry. One does not publicly criticize the ruling party in China for fear of imprisonment. For all of the United States abuses and shortcomings, we make sport of criticizing our leadership. For now, we freely protest in the streets and our ruling party is voted in and out in regular intervals. Individual freedoms are not as valued in the current Chinese system. Just ask top Chinese Communist Party official Cai Xia who was recently expelled from the party and is now residing in the U.S. Xia had intimate access to the halls of power in Beijing and has been exiled since recent public comments in favor of liberalism and against the authoritarian Communist state. She characterizes the U.S.-China confrontation as a competition not only between countries but between worldviews. “The relationship between China and the United States is not a conflict between the two peoples, but a contest and confrontation between two systems and two ideologies,” Cai told CNN. She added that the Communist Party aims “to replace the free and democratic system of modern mankind represented by the United States, and the values and order of peace, democracy, freedom and justice with its own model of governance.” In the absence of a stable, technologically superior U.S. that treats all of its citizens with justice and equality, we very well may eventually adopt the Chinese system whether we like it or not.
Confrontation seems more and more inevitable with each passing day as the U.S. and China continue their geo-strategic pissing contest in the South China Sea. The last several days have seen live fire drills, U.S. intrusions in to alleged Chinese airpsace, and testing of Chinese missiles as a response. According to ZeroHedge, “The Pentagon revealed Thursday that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “warning” to the US on Wednesday involved the firing of “four medium-range missiles into [an] area between Hainan and the Paracel Islands,” a defense official was quoted in FT. Among them included nuclear-capable DF-26 missile and the anti-ship DF-21D ballistic missile. Beijing said they demonstrated the PLA’s ability to deny outside military access to the South China Sea. The missiles were fired in response to the major incident from Tuesday, wherein China’s PLA military angrily charged that a US U-2 spy plane entered a ‘no-fly zone’ off China’s coast while the PLA conducted live-fire military drills. The PLA has since ratcheted up its drills, with FT reporting Thursday the military “announced it was conducting another live fire exercise in waters off the eastern city of Taizhou, bringing the number of drills off its coast this week to five.”