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Why Isn’t There More Alarmism About China?

Peter Beinart wonders why alarmist hawks aren’t indulging in that much alarmism about China:

When historians look back at this era in American history, they’ll find the lack of political debate about China astounding. Then again, given the tenor of the GOP debate about “radical Islam,” maybe American foreign policy will be better off if the Republicans running for president leave well enough alone.

I suppose it is a bit odd that people that pretend to see existential threats around every corner seem to pay so little attention to the potential threat posed by a major authoritarian power with large military and a nuclear arsenal, but Beinart may be underestimating how much attention Republican hawks actually pay to real or imagined Chinese threats. When he was a candidate in 2012, Romney made it sound as if he would pursue a very confrontational policy towards China, and he caused some concern that he was prepared to start a trade war. That was entirely in keeping with the views of the people advising him, such as Aaron Friedberg, who is the author of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia. There certainly are many China hawks, and they would like the U.S. to pursue a more confrontational China policy, but they don’t have nearly as much influence over the debate as hawks have on other issues.

Beinart is right to note that U.S.-Chinese economic ties are a very important reason for our politicians’ relatively less bombastic and hostile rhetoric towards China. There is relatively little direct cost to the U.S. and little political risk for the politicians that come from pushing confrontational policies toward Iran and Russia, but a similar anti-Chinese line would run into much more concerted and significant opposition from businesses that have strong incentives to keep the bilateral relationship from deteriorating. Beinart could have also mentioned that most foreign policy elites across party lines are generally in agreement that the U.S. should be seeking to engage China rather than seek to limit its power. Dan Drezner summarizes the findings of a Chicago Council survey on this question:

On China, when asked to choose between “undertake friendly cooperation and engagement” or “actively work to limit the growth of China’s power,” strong majorities in all groups favored the former. This was particularly true among the opinion leaders surveyed. Independent opinion leaders were the most skeptical toward China, and they supported engagement 66 percent to 31 percent. So maybe China won’t be that much of a sleeper issue for the 2016 campaign.

78% of Republican leaders prefer cooperation and engagement, 87% of Democratic leaders say the same, and so do 86% of independent leaders. There is some support for the other option, but it is clearly a minority position. This is likely related to the fact that most Americans don’t perceive China’s growing power to be such a great threat. According to the report, this is a minority view regardless of party:

Only minorities consider the development of China as a world power to be a critical threat to the United States (41% overall public, 40% Republican leaders, 27% Democratic leaders, 29% Independent leaders).

There is likewise not that much concern about Chinese territorial disputes with its neighbors. Some see these disputes as a “critical threat” to the U.S., but even among Republican leaders only one third holds this view of the disputes. On a related note, there is similarly little desire to confront China militarily in the event of a conflict with Taiwan. Only among Republican leaders is there majority support for sending U.S. troops to fight China over Taiwan. This option receives much less support from every other group, and public support is very low (25 or 26%). No doubt this has to do with the much greater risks and much higher costs that a war with China would entail. Alarmists get away with stoking tensions and agitating for aggressive policies when the consequences for the U.S. don’t appear to be that great, but that doesn’t work nearly as well in the case of China where the risks of conflict are very great and impossible to ignore.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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