U.S. needs a more rational approach to China threat

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Chinese President Xi Jinping takes his oath during the Third Plenary Session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing on Friday. Pool Photo by Mark, R. Cristino/EPA-EFE
1 of 4 | Chinese President Xi Jinping takes his oath during the Third Plenary Session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing on Friday. Pool Photo by Mark, R. Cristino/EPA-EFE

As the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party begins its work, addressing the threat posed by China has garnered strong bipartisan support in Congress.

Many members of both Houses are critical of President Joe Biden's forthcoming defense budget for not spending enough money to counter what is seen as Beijing's growing nuclear and conventional military power. And, to many Americans, China does indeed seem to be on a collision course, challenging the United States in virtually every sector, including setting new rules for international relations favoring Beijing and not Washington.


Last week's announcement that China had brokered a deal in which Saudi Arabia and Iran will restore diplomatic ties reinforced the perception of China's growing influence. Given Washington's bipartisan focus on out-competing China, the misperception has been created that a rise in Chinese clout automatically is balanced by a decline in American influence.


The White House, while reacting positively to what was clearly a surprise -- and that should raise questions as to the reach of American intelligence agencies --unsurprisingly downplayed the rapprochement. In fairness, the Chinese agreement would end Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia from Yemen, a conflict that the United States has played an important role in ending.

The question that Americans and indeed the Select Committee need to address and answer is what precisely are the threats posed by China and to whom? The basic threats posed by China have been assumed or accepted without being rigorously challenged or tested. One is Graham Allison's "Thucydides Trap" that foretells war when an emerging power, China, threatens to displace the existing great power, the United States.

Statistics and history can be tortured to produce almost any conclusion. Today is not Athens versus Sparta. Yet, given the profound historical, cultural, social and political differences between the United States and China, by no means can friction, tension or worse be discounted in the relationships between the two superpowers.

The "century of humiliation" looms large in China's national psyche when it was helpless and occupied by foreign "devils." Before Jan. 6, 2021, America's Capitol was last attacked in the War of 1812. But does America understand the depth of China's humiliation? Or is that a casuistry used by Beijing to advance its interests and as the basis for its claims of international legitimacy?


Taiwan is the obvious flashpoint. While the "One China" policy has held since the visit by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972 and the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been explicit and more aggressive in calling for reunification by decade's end. Across U.S. administrations since Barack Obama's, Taiwan has become an increasingly militarized issue centered on preventing an armed cross-strait massive Chinese amphibious invasion partially explained by the size of the PLA Navy and enhanced Chinese expeditionary capabilities. However, that conclusion is misplaced for several reasons.

First, other, more effective options China could pursue in assimilating Taiwan, such as a blockade, are ignored or downplayed. Second, China's military capability to conduct an amphibious operation of that scale is exaggerated. Third, a porcupine or asymmetrical defense that would defeat any amphibious attempt has not been employed. And last, the United States cannot be more worried about a Chinese invasion than the Taiwanese are.

But are clashes inevitable over Taiwan, technology, trade, theft of intellectual property and the other points of friction and possible conflict? Former Australian Prime Minister and soon to be ambassador to the United States Kevin Rudd argues for "managed competition." I have two additional recommendations.


The first is to undertake a rigorous examination of what exactly is or are the Chinese threats. The second is to shift from the focus of a strategic competition with China to one of defining our interests, recognizing those of China's we can accept and deciding how to deal with the others. The first can be done. The second is more doubtful.

Many regard China not just as an adversary but as an enemy. Calling for a more rational approach will be attacked as appeasement or weakness. When Nixon acceded to the presidency, Red China was the enemy. The Soviet threat gave him leverage to make a complete strategic reversal.

What could replace the USSR as today's strategic leverage? The answer is the need for global stability and thus preventing disruptive attacks that impose massive damage on the international system, particularly war. The question is who will carry that message? Therein rests the crux of perhaps the most serious American problem with China. Who will lead?

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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