Is China Really a ‘Threat’ to the U.S.?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In a move presaging tougher policies towards China, the Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy announced that the “revisionist powers” China and Russia are the “central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security.” And on January 22, Donald Trump imposed steep tariffs on solar products and washing machines—a move seen as mostly targeting China. Will 2018 be a year of increased competition between China and the United States? Does the rise of China challenge U.S. prosperity and security? And does the Strategy represent a shift in views on China, or the crystallization of existing conventional wisdom in policy circles? —The Editors


While the National Defense Strategy indeed uses the term “threat” to describe the challenges emanating from China and Russia, the document is more subtle than that. The more telling phrase it deploys is “long-term strategic competition,” a phrase coined—or at least popularized—by Andy Marshall during the late Cold War. Marshall referred to the idea that we should threaten the Soviet Union in domains or geographic regions where we could compete at low cost to ourselves and high cost to the Soviets. We should compete on the cheap, and we expected they would try to do the same. For instance, the 600-ship U.S. Navy of the 1980s fit into Marshall’s notion of “competitive strategies” for long-term peacetime strategic competition. The Reagan naval buildup was far from cheap in absolute terms, but we could afford it far more easily relative to our means than the Soviets could afford countermeasures relative to their means. We would threaten them all around their maritime periphery, compelling them to guard all around their shorelines—and spend more at a time when their economy was under increasing duress. (See Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century, Stanford University Press, 2012.)

Now, do these countries pose immediate threats to American prosperity and security? I would say not. They certainly constitute incremental threats to our big-picture economic and security interests as we define them—and, I would add, as we have defined them under presidents from both parties for many years. For example, we regard ourselves as the guardian of freedom of the sea—of the liberal system of seagoing trade and commerce—and have at least since the overthrow of Imperial Japan in 1945. We see ourselves as a Eurasian power, keeping forces forward-stationed in Europe and East Asia. And we depend on alliances in these regions to anchor our strategic position in Eurasia. Well, Beijing and Moscow more or less openly want to amend freedom of the sea in their interests in waters they care about, such as the Black Sea and South China Sea. (And by “amend” I mean abolish—China is especially outspoken about the U.S. Navy’s foreswearing prerogatives in the China seas that are codified in the law of the sea.) They both hope to loosen our alliances over time. If they succeed, America will have no strategic position in Asia. And if our strategic position falters, that will leave the system of maritime trade and commerce in the hands of those who want to replace the United States in the international pecking order. Our prosperity could suffer as well, and probably would.

The very point of Chinese and Russian strategy is to bring all of this about gradually, without goading the United States and its allies into war—or at least make them look like the bad guys if they do take up arms. So yes: I see a slow-moving threat to our prosperity and security.

It is in many ways inevitable for the Trump team to name China a threat, front and center. There is certainly an elevation of anguish.

Ever since the name Donald Trump entered conversations between American and Chinese observers of international affairs and bilateral relationship, those of us in Beijing have been fed a rather consistent line: Trump can be unpredictable. In the beginning, we were puzzled. After all, it is America’s business to elect a leader of its own choosing and China’s task to relate according to protocols. What more is there to it than that?

Too slowly, in hindsight, we came to realize that in actuality there is no dissent among the visitors—regardless of their career backgrounds—with Trump’s articulation of the notion that the Greatness of America is under assault. The subliminal but shared message is that China has been eating America’s lunch, for free, and for too long. Wasn’t there even occasional glee about, say, the arrival of Trump-Navarro duo in handling trade with China?

Now, is China a threat to America, in an object sense? My answer is “NO.”

Indeed, officially sanctioned Chinese rhetoric—beamed for consumption domestic and external—does insist that China takes pride in pursuing its own path to greatness. In the context of nation-building, which country in the whole world would not project a similar line? Does a country’s political system (and practice) have to be either like that of America or be deemed intolerable by America?

Although many in China find it hard to admit, arguably, China is the most outstanding beneficiary of the post-WWII Western economic thinking known as the Washington Consensus. At the very least, it is by far the best-performing client of the Bretton Woods systems created to run the world economy, if one takes timely repayment of loans by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund as indicators. A bank needs high-performing clients to prosper but feels threatened when its role is supplanted. That’s a natural sentiment. The China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Development Bank is just another instrument of competition. Has anyone counted how many regional development banks were established after the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund?

Then, there is the maritime dimension. During the entire eight years of Obama’s presidency, conversations about the bilateral relationship rarely ended without expressions of earnest differences between the two sides over the principles and specifics of military use of the maritime space. Are those differences somehow crossing a new threshold line for security planners in Washington, D.C.?

It is hard not to see the ongoing round of American-Greatness-under-Duress as a repetition of the time Ronald Reagan won the presidency. Back then, Japan was identified as having taken advantage of America, with Japan’s trade surplus as the target to eliminate. In response, some in Japan tried to convince the rest of the world that it was just a bit different and nothing else. The rest is history.

China should assiduously take the episode of Japan-U.S. relations in the 1980s as a mirror. American sentiments—not just official sentiments in Washington, and certainly not just those coming from the White House—about the United States’ place in the world are real and need to be taken into consideration and NOT taken advantage of. China will have absolutely nothing to gain from getting into a rhetorical race with America. Instead, it needs to demonstrate through deeds that at the end of the day, competition in good faith is the rule of game for the two civilizations, each equipped with an unfathomable sense of pride in itself.

I think James Holmes and I agree on the big picture here. To properly assess this question, we must go back to basics.

Military theory teaches us that “threat” is the function of capabilities coupled with intentions. From this perspective, which country or countries can be said to pose the greatest existential threat to the United States? Based on the first variable, the answer is, without a doubt, China and Russia. Both not only have the capability to prevail in a regional military conflict with the United States, they also in many cases have the political will to fight within most plausible scenarios that might pit their armed forces against ours. For China, such scenarios include Taiwan, North Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, over disputed territory in the East and South China Seas.

Since the U.S. first opened up to China in the early 1970s, however, there was debate over whether Chinese intentions towards the U.S. could be managed. China was relatively weak economically and militarily, and the consensus in the U.S. national security establishment at that time was that engagement was preferable to another zero-sum, Cold War-style battle for influence. China might even, over time, become embedded into a system of rules and norms that would incentivize responsible stakeholder behavior, seeing the benefit of cooperation over competition.

The contours of Chinese intentions towards the U.S. and in Asia came into stark relief, it seems, with the recent publication of the National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS). Taken together, these documents represent a fundamental reconceptualization of the global threat environment, casting China and Russia—not terrorism—as the central threats to U.S. national security. The grand bargain of downplaying China’s intentions in the region in favor of socializing it into a rules-based system has failed, according to the authors. China seeks hegemony in the region through coercion, not cooperation, and Chinese interests in Asia are increasingly antithetical to those of the United States.

Many observers expressed surprise at this seemingly “hawkish” turn towards China. But this shift in perception is the result of the slow erosion of trust over China’s goals in Asia. Chinese actions over the past decade, I believe, not U.S. eagerness to brand China as the adversary, have set the stage for documents like the NDS and NSS.

China increasingly has chosen a path of confrontation and coercion in its behavior toward the U.S. and its allies and partners. China has flouted international legal rulings, like the July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration case with the Philippines, which ruled against China’s expansionist claims to almost all the waters in the South China Sea. China nonetheless continues to consolidate control over the South China Sea through militarization of disputed islands and routine threats against U.S. freedom of navigation operations and against other regional claimants who seek legitimate use of their living and non-living resources in their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Chinese state-led industrial espionage and intellectual property theft continues unabated, along with increasing use of economic coercion as a tool to punish behavior Beijing does not agree with, including against key U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia. The list of transgressions is long and beyond the scope of this conversation.

Does the NDS presage a new era of strategic enmity between the United States and China, both viewing the other as enemies rather than strategic competitors? I don’t believe so. The NDS, simply put, is a manifestation of a Department of Defense whose responsibility it is to cast a keen eye on the nature of long-term threats to U.S. national security and fashion strategy to deter and, if necessary, prevail in military conflict. The NDS is not in the business of making friends or finding common ground with potential adversaries. The latter is the job of the State Department and White House, both of which will continue to work on areas of mutual interest with China where appropriate and feasible.

To add to the excellent comments of James Holmes and Lyle J. Morris: The “threat”—if, as these analysts prefer, the “strategic enmity”—between the U.S. and China has to do with other matters than naval strength and the militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea or even of intellectual property theft and mercantilist trade practices. It also has to do with China’s campaign of bluster and intimidation when it comes to expressions of opinion about China and its “core interests.” Put it this way: With a good deal of unwitting collusion (I choose the word carefully) by the Trump Administration, China has effectively swept the question of human rights and China’s blatant violations of them from the American agenda. This is not a threat of the sort that the DNS and DSS are talking about, but it is certainly an obstacle to the American goal of fostering democracy around the world as the best long term assurance of our own security.

Over the past few years the pattern has become clear: American corporations, schools, and individuals gain a practical stake in having access to China, doing business with it, getting financial support, allowing Confucius Institutes to cover the cost of Chinese language instruction, and getting tuition fees from Chinese students. Once that practical interest has been established, China then threatens to withdraw the benefits deriving therefrom if the American entity or individual involved violates China’s prohibitions on the expression of certain kinds of opinion—or even on the defense of standard liberal-democratic practices.

A university professor has to think thrice before speaking out on, say, Tibet, or risk being banned from travel to China—and a university search committee has to take into account whether to hire an academic whose published views on, say, Taiwan might offend Beijing. A news organization has to weigh whether to publish an article on official corruption in China, or have its website blocked in China. Apple has removed its VPN software from iPhones in China, thereby making itself complicit in China’s censorship of the Internet. Marriott hotels, whose economic stake in China is the 300 hotels it has in the country, found itself abjectly apologizing to China when it included Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet on its list of “countries” on its website. An Australian publisher imposed a kind of prior restraint on a book on China’s growing illiberal influence in Australia—a gesture that all by itself seemed to confirm the banned book’s hypothesis. An Op-Ed in The New York Times reports that Germany recently agreed to remove Tibet flags brought into a stadium by fans as a price for allowing a friendly soccer match to take place.

The rationale often given, especially by big tech companies like Apple for agreeing to China’s restrictive practices, is that they have to abide by China’s laws when operating in China. In fact, that’s exactly what makes China’s behavior threatening. From the standpoint of these companies’ business interests, they do have to obey what China calls its laws. But we all know that law in China is a euphemism for authoritarian practices, and obeying those laws by American businesses, universities, and individuals is to collude in those practices. That’s not a traditional geo-strategic threat, but it weakens us nonetheless.

James Holmes, Zhao Daojiong, and Lyle Morris all have given solid arguments on whether or not geopolitical conflicts and nation building have made China a major threat to the national security of the United States. I want also to discuss the trade deficit and intellectual property disputes often characterized as tools of economic coercion that China uses to take advantage of the U.S. and its allies.

Let’s first ask ourselves:

Is China’s fundamental goal, as it continues to assert itself, to become a central threat to the U.S.? No.

Is China’s nation-building undermining areas that are dominated by the U.S., making it into more of a strategic competitor? Yes.

In the context of economic coercion, does China have the capacity and intention to be a central threat to the U.S.? It’s complicated.

Trump has promised to reduce the trade deficit and has taken actions to do so. But a larger trade deficit is not entirely a bad thing. As many prominent economists have argued, a larger trade deficit results from a stronger economy whose people consume and import more. Since the U.S. offers higher interest rates and the dollar is a safe haven currency, China tends to invest the money it makes from its trade surplus with the U.S. back into the United States, which makes both parties better off. In the most basic calculation of a trade deficit, the ratio of exports to imports, it seems like the U.S. blocking Chinese imports would reduce the trade deficit. However, without an accompanying change in the level of American savings and investment, the U.S. simply thwarting Chinese imports will raise the value of the dollar and cause exports to China to drop, thus leaving the deficit mostly unchanged. It would seem that international trade is the primary culprit of any trade deficit, but there are also other factors that can have a significant impact on a deficit’s size, namely, government spending, the savings rate, the exchange rate and a country’s economic growth. Blaming it all on one country will not solve America’s problem.

What makes China stand out in the NDS report from other threats is Intellectual property theft. When China first opened its market, Western companies flooded in to sell their products. Chinese companies required co-production so that they could learn from their new Western partners and strengthen their own manufacturing know-how. Since those early days, China has implemented a variety of policies in a continuous effort to build “national champion” companies and upgrade strategic industries, including non-tariff barriers, subsidies to domestic firms, and security regulations requiring foreign partners to house their data inside China’s borders.

Is China the first country to do so? No. Why, then, does the 2018 NDS present a different attitude towards China compared with that put forward by previous U.S. administrations? For a long time, no matter which party is in power, the U.S. has hoped to shrink the distance between U.S. practices and the way China operates in the global economy. China’s recent tightening of security around its Internet have caused a new degree of isolation. As a richer China strengthens its ability to innovate, even in relative isolation, its scientists and entrepreneurs need worry less about the ethical reviews that sometimes slow progress in, say, biotechnology, in the West. Because China is becoming less dependent on the West for technology innovation—now leading the world in fields such as cloning and gene-editing, for example—it is unlikely Beijing will abide the enforcement of Western standards. Nor will Beijing open up China’s Internet. Today, the most important question is: will China’s advancement in technology development coupled with a growing East-West gap in the practice of the same rules lead to a technology Cold War?

Overall, I’m not surprised that China is a priority on the list of threats to U.S. national security. But I think it is dangerous to promote protectionism through misleading rhetoric about the trade deficit. Nor is it constructive to paint China and Russia with the same brush as they are visibly distinct and pursue different strategies. Moreover, the NDS understating the threat posed by a third-party such as North Korea, is likely to cause significant setbacks as Washington and Beijing strive toward strategic competition in peacetime.

The reason that people are not bothered to even touch on the reverse question—Is the United States a threat to China?—is that the answer is to me a resounding yes.

To those who think China is a threat to the U.S., it is because a rising China increasingly has made it impossible for the U.S. to threaten China, whether economically, militarily, or diplomatically. That will be more true in the coming decades if China continues its ascent, albeit not in a straight line. That is a challenge and threat to a U.S. that is so used to living in and policing its unipolar world.

I have heard the threats posed to the U.S. or the world by China described lately as anything from China’s growing economic and military might to the development of manmade islands in the South China Sea, from Chinese investment in Africa, Latin America and the U.S., to the Confucius Institutes, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Belt & Road Initiative, and even Chinese news media operating in the U.S. and globally, and the 300,000 Chinese students studying in U.S. colleges and universities.

But if China poses a threat in these areas, then the U.S. would pose a threat ten times, if not 100 times greater, given the hundreds of U.S. military bases around the world and its dominance in many global institutions.

No matter how much people like to exaggerate the China threat, China has never done anything as threatening to world peace and stability as the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the regime change in Libya, not to mention reckless U.S. drone attacks in a dozen sovereign nations that have caused countless civilian casualties, and the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles last April into the sovereign nation of Syria without U.N. endorsement.

Some like to describe China as a disruptor to global rules and norms. But China has never been nearly as disruptive as the U.S. has in just this past year when President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate accord and from UNESCO, and also cut funding to the U.N. and threatened to terminate the Iran nuclear deal and end NAFTA and KORUS if Canada, Mexico, and South Korea do not make unilateral concessions.

It’s not China, or just China, that labels the Trump administration as protectionist and isolationist. Many Americans and U.S. allies and partners, from Europe to Asia share this view. Just listen to the speeches at Davos this week by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

On the key issue of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula—on which Trump has focused a lot in the past year, repeatedly contradicting himself and members of his administration—people who blame China should make sure that the U.S. government is consistent in word and deed.

Two recent polls are telling. One from Gallup shows the 30 percent approval rating of the U.S. to lead the globe is now lower than China's approval rating. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer released this week showed that trust in the U.S. has suffered the largest-ever recorded drop and ranks the lowest among the 28 nations surveyed.

Richard Hass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently sighed that the U.S. has turned from being a preserver of global order to a disruptor of global order. He was mostly pointing the finger at the Trump administration.

On the AIIB and the BRI, the criticism China has received is undeserved. Yes, China is still learning how to play a larger role on the global stage, and there is much room for improvement. But the rationale of the AIIB and the BRI are benign. If the U.S. is genuine, it should join the AIIB and the BRI to help China improve and fill the loopholes instead of whining and nitpicking without doing anything itself.

China has plenty of hard work to do at home—to continue to lift people out of poverty, tackle its serious environmental pollution, grow the economy, improve the livelihood of its people, and fight corruption. The list is long. And it doesn’t have such a strong desire to poke its nose into other’s business as the U.S. has. The Chinese words for that is: chi bao cheng de (吃饱撑的).

Let’s put a stop to this American paranoia about the China 'threat.’


Is China really a ‘threat’ to the U.S.? The text of the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Defense Strategy (NDS) certainly say so. Both call China (and Russia) “revisionist powers.”

The NSS states China and Russia “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” It continues: “China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” (emphasis added)

The NDS kicks the threat up a notch, bigly: China continues to pursue “a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.” (emphasis added)

The NSS speaks of China as a regional threat, while the NDS describes China’s intentions as global. Neither directly calls China an enemy.

As policy documents, the two strategies are not compelled to provide specific evidence to support their claims. Neither document is obliged to address the discrepancies between what they assert are Chinese objectives and what the Chinese officially declare their objectives to be, nor describe in detail whether the Chinese military is capable of achieving the goals laid out, particularly achieving regional hegemony in the next two to five years.

In light of such an immediate threat, a more confrontational approach than implemented in the past would be expected. Yet the NSS says, “the United States seeks to continue to cooperate with China,” as it lists the many ways China threatens the U.S. and states in the region. The NDS states the “most far-reaching objective of this defense strategy is to set the military relationship between our two countries on a path of transparency and non-aggression” (emphasis added). Both sound like a continuation of the policy of engagement (which the NSS says the U.S. must “rethink”), while rebuilding our military and preserving “peace through strength” more than previous administrations have.

So what about President Trump? In his rollout speech for the NSS in December, the president used words much less confrontational and laid out a different vision of the relationship: “We also face rival powers, Russia and China, that seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth. We will attempt to build a great partnership with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interest” (emphasis added).

China is a rival that challenges America. We seek “a great partnership.” Does the president believe that China’s intentions are to displace the United States from the Indo-Pacific region or achieve world preeminence over us? Is “a great partnership” truly possible with a country that has either of those intentions?

We’ll see. Remember, in foreign policy, “I’m the only one that matters.”

As Chen Weihua indicates, let’s ask first: For how long has the United States been a threat to the world? Is the United States a threat to China, still? Let us remember, before 9/11/2001, the white papers being drawn up by the NSC and other agencies were all about China as the coming threat, even as, in the post-1991 world, the United States had proceeded to ring China with bases and military occupations/ actions. By 2001, China was surrounded. And China is the threat?

Then 9/11 changed Bush’s and other people’s calculations. On false evidence and with craven acceptance by many in the state apparatus and around the world, Bush sent the U.S. into war with a “coalition of the willing,” all of whom were duped or consciously decided to look a different way. Subsequently, under one president after the next, perpetual war became the norm, the militarized security state became the only game in all towns, across the board, in the U.S., China and elsewhere.

It seems particularly amnesiac to ask if China is a threat to the U.S. without considering what a threat the U.S. has been in the world and to China for many decades.

At this point, the United States government is a threat not only to the world and China, but to its own people. This is historically true and has accelerated in intensity over the post-9/11 decades. Human rights? Why would anyone listen to the U.S. on this issue, given the horrendous record of extra-judicial killings, recent renditions, indefinite imprisonments, gunning down of black citizens by police departments with impunity, support for violent regimes around the world, inhumane domestic deportations, and violations left, right, and center of basic decency by this and previous U.S. administrations. Militarization of the region? Why would anyone listen to the righteousness of the U.S., who have occupied Okinawa, Korea, and, until recently, Taiwan, the Philippines… while fighting very hot wars in Vietnam, Korea, and other places in the area. Who militarized whom? Really. Plunder of natural resources and monopolization of transportation routes? Why would anyone listen to the blandishments of the U.S., when these hegemonizing moves have been basic U.S. policies in Asia and the world for decades, to the detriment and environmental despoilation of many peoples and countries. Degradation of labor and labor protections? Why would anyone listen to the U.S., who diligently exported jobs to low-paid labor sites (NAFTA anyone?), assiduously undermined unions, systematically underpays women workers in every sector of the economy, engages in racist practices across the board. The list goes on. The U.S. as global exemplar. Really?

China is now competing in its own name, under its own flag, for its own purposes. China’s version of these hegemonizing practices is no prettier or easier to condone than those of the U.S. China is as threatening in its way as the U.S. was and still is in its way. China is only different because it is newly able to project power. That should not allow us to normalize the ways in which the U.S. has projected power for decades. Capitalism is capitalism, whether wielded by the Chinese Communist Party and its affiliates, or by the militarized state-protected American corporation and bourgeoisie. The Chinese version is not purer of motive nor cleaner of actual practice; it is as ugly, as devious, and as gluttonous as was and is the United States. There is no question of nationalistically approving of China in the same breath as righteously opposing the United States. The United States has been and still is a threat to the world; now, so is China.


If China is a threat to the U.S., then it is one to which the U.S. under Donald Trump has contributed in no small measure: by withdrawing from TPP, by threatening to ditch its FTA with South Korea unless Seoul agreed to renegotiate it, by casting doubt on the future of its international alliances, by seeking to undermine the WTO, by putting U.S. interests ahead of those of long-time allies and by adopting a volatile and unpredictable foreign policy that has shaken friendly east Asian countries' confidence in its reliability. All this has created a large geopolitical vacuum and an open invitation to China to fill it.