China’s meteoric rise from an impoverished country to a global superpower ranks as one of history’s most remarkable political and economic achievements. It would be a mistake to think U.S. and Chinese interests are the same, however. They have arrived with a strategy to contest the U.S. military on all levels — land, sea, air, space, and cyber. They sell us boatloads of inexpensive merchandise to finance their military buildup while viewing us as their principal foe. It is time for us to awaken to the rising China threat.
As the Chinese economy modernizes, we had hoped that political liberalization would follow. We had hoped economic integration would moderate their autocratic government into a democracy focused on internal development and peaceful economic competition. This has been an illusion. China is a major trading partner, but the country is not our friend, nor anyone else’s. With each day we pretend their intentions are benevolent, we lose what little advantage we may still have.
Both America and China assume they are special and inherently superior to other nations. Both expect other countries to follow their lead. Unlike Americans, whose time horizon rarely extends beyond the next election, China plays the long game. The Chinese are willing to wait out difficulties until they succeed. They will wait as long as trends are moving their way. They seek victory through incremental moves designed to gradually improve their strength, by both legal and illegal means, until it grows into an overwhelming advantage. They wish to avoid war by winning it without firing a shot.
We have been naïve to believe we can hasten democratic reform in China by opening our markets to the country. It may never happen. We may have thought we could divulge our industrial know-how to Beijing while the U.S. would focus on the development of information technology. Not only did the Chinese absorb the manufacturing that we willingly gave them, they are now pivoting to dominate cyberspace as well.
But industrial might cannot hide behind a façade while their 21st-century digital police state does its work. China is using metadata and “predictive policing” derived from DNA, artificial intelligence and deep-learning for face, body, voice, and behavioral recognition to control every citizen, and especially minorities. They even have a “social credit” system to score and penalize each person’s behavioral infractions. If Beijing were faced with another uprising like what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989 — where as many as 10,000 peaceful protesters were gunned down — they would do it again without remorse. Their strategy is now to pick off individuals one by one before resistance ever grows this large.
Beijing steals intellectual property from all off-shore companies seeking entry into their huge market. That is the price of entry. The absence of a protected patent process means that product innovation in China usually does not happen. Why spend the money to develop a new product when the factory down the street can easily steal the designs and reproduce it without consequence?
A MacAfee study estimated that the annual loss for the U.S. from cyber-crime and espionage amounted to as much as 1% of our national income and as many as 508,000 U.S. jobs. We know that China accounts for most of this theft. Chinese cyber-enabled theft is one of the main reasons behind their amazing economic growth. By mid-century, China will likely surpass the United States to become the world’s largest economy.
And since no one threatens China, why is Beijing growing its military so fast? For most of its history, China has been a land power. It has long had the largest standing army in the world, and now it is becoming a sea power as well. Its growing navy is starting to contest vast regions of the Pacific Ocean and will soon be moving on to the Indian Ocean. It has little opposition on the seas except for an overextended and under-resourced U.S. Navy.
While we struggle to find a way to get Mexico to pay for the border wall, China has found an easy way to get America to pay for its military buildup. Those who worry that tariffs will provoke a trade war are missing a larger point. American consumers are quite simply financing China’s war machine. By some estimates, Beijing can pay for its entire annual defense budget with just a few months of what American consumers contribute to their trade balance. And then they cyber-hack our submarine and fighter plane designs and reproduce them at a fraction of the cost to oppose the U.S.
When President Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012, he declared that he wanted to make China strong again. He wants “Asia for the Asians” and wants the U.S. to withdraw its military from the region. This has meant a more assertive China. For now, Beijing avoids high-risk confrontations with Washington while incrementally increasing its economic and military strength. But they may not remain quiet much longer.
Since 1945, the U.S. has fought in Korea and Vietnam and has protected Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and vital sea lanes in the region. There may soon come a time when the U.S. would lose a military confrontation in the Pacific. There is a growing concern in Asian countries that the U.S. may not come to their rescue should Beijing decide to grab more territory — like Taiwan or contested islands in the South China Sea. What would this mean for the Asian democracies in the Pacific Rim?
Doubting U.S. resolve makes Asian allies more vulnerable to Chinese intimidation. If we withdraw from the Western Pacific, it will raise fundamental questions about the role of the U.S. in this part of the world. The question looms large in the global balance of power.
It is frightening to contemplate. Historically, when a rising power (such as China) challenges a status quo power (such as the U.S.), the result is a rising tension that usually escalates toward war. In his book Destined for War, Harvard professor Graham Allison labels this historically repeating pattern the “Thucydides Trap.” The resolution of the Cold War was a notable exception that ended peaceably, and perhaps we should look to it for clues as to our way forward.
We must be prepared to enter into a new Cold War with China in the same ways as we did with the Soviet Union. Reversing the China threat will be a long and costly process that will take much determination. We need to recognize that China is not our friend and prepare accordingly. We need to stop being the chumps we have been and perhaps begin a process of disengagement. We must grow our military and improve our intelligence and counter-intelligence operations. We need to address the Sino-American trade deficit and minimize their use of our markets to finance their military. We must be more aggressive in media operations like Voice of America to reach the Chinese people directly with the message of freedom. And we need to strengthen our alliance with surrounding Asian nations and together demand that China begin democratic reform.
China’s ruthless rise to dominance is a clear danger to America and free people around the globe. It is time to take steps to prevent China’s rise to world hegemony.