It would be a huge mistake for America to adopt a cold-war posture toward China. Such a policy could ultimately raise the specter of the “Thucydides Trap” of war with a rising China
NEW YORK – Over the past two years, American foreign-policy elites have increasingly cast China not only as a competitor to the United States, but as an enemy on a par with the Soviet Union. Although anti-Chinese rhetoric in the US is not new, President Donald Trump’s administration has greatly sharpened and amplified it. This is despite the deep economic ties between the two countries, a multitude of scientific and educational collaborations, and China’s consistent policy of non-intervention in US affairs.
Prominent anti-China figures in Washington include FBI Director Christopher Wray, Peter Navarro, the director of the White House’s Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, Senator Marco Rubio, and Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute. Echoing Cold-War language, they demonize China as a totalitarian state that threatens to overturn the US-led world order. Furthermore, the Trump administration is trying to contain China’s economic and geopolitical rise by using high-pressure tactics, such as urging allies not to buy Chinese tech products or sell advanced technology to China.
These critics remain hostile to China regardless of what China does, which recalls the 1980s and 1990s, when the US treated an economically powerful Japan as a major national-security threat—even though Japan was a democracy that had not been accused of widespread human-rights violations. Similarly, as long as the US labels China a “peer competitor,” it will treat the country as a threat, even if China’s leaders accommodate America.
The current US-China trade negotiations are a case in point. If America doesn’t get what it wants, it simply imposes tariffs and sanctions. Arguably, the US has essentially abandoned diplomacy in favor of issuing non-negotiable demands.
Such an approach reflects the underlying assumption—shared by Republicans and Democrats alike—that America must maintain its global primacy at all costs. When the Cold War ended, much of the US foreign-policy establishment concluded that hostility to the Soviet Union had won the day. America therefore doubled down on its willingness to use military force, and appointed itself as the “indispensable nation” with the authority to act when, where, and how it deems fit.
These American elites advocate a grand strategy of “liberal hegemony.” But although it purports to promote liberal values, this strategy is highly revisionist because it seeks to remake domestic politics everywhere. As a result, America has prosecuted a long series of senseless wars that have led to failed states (as in the case of Libya) and long occupations (as in Afghanistan).
As Janine R. Wedel argues in her book Shadow Elite, America’s foreign-policy elites are addicted to this agenda because it flatters their self-worth, inflates their status, and can even make them rich. So-called experts who have appeared on US television promoting regime change often have undisclosed conflicts of interest, such as shareholdings in private companies that profit from US military contracts.
Today, America is the world’s leading arms exporter and spends close to $1 trillion per year on its military, more than the next nine countries combined. And this figure does not include the actual cost of wars, which have run into many more trillions of dollars.
Interventionism is sold to the American public and US allies through threat inflation. Its advocates know that by creating fear, insecurity, and vulnerability—typically with the help of a pliant the media—they will receive a mandate to fight these foreign “enemies.” And they have perfected this technique by pressuring dissenting members of the US foreign-policy community to conform to their pro-war narrative.
Those who dissent, such as the American economist Paul Craig Roberts, are often denied access to mainstream mediaand excluded from important meetings. Critics can also become victims of character assassination. US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, for example, has been called an anti-Semite for pointing out that Israel’s supporters succeed in influencing American foreign policy.
It would be a huge mistake for America to adopt a cold-war posture toward China. Such a policy would damage the global economy by curtailing trade and fueling intense military competition, which in turn would raise the specter of the “Thucydides Trap” of war with a rising China. And hostility between the two powers would imperil the global cooperation needed to address shared problems such as climate change.
A new paradigm for international relations is needed to avoid this outcome. Today, US policy operates on the principle that America has no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Fair enough. But unless US policymakers decide that helping the world to achieve common goals such as sustainable development is a permanent American interest, their outlook will court disaster.
America faces a critical choice about how to handle the rise of China. With realism, creativity, and willpower, its leaders can usher in a new era of international relations in which the imperative of peace trumps the masters of war. But don’t bet on it.
Ann Lee, a professor at New York University, is the author of “What the US Can Learn from China” and “Will China’s Economy Collapse?”