It's a good time to be a China hawk. Beijing's new national security law for Hong Kong, the latest effort to neuter the region's promised autonomy, has rung alarm bells across the political spectrum about China's intentions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already declared that the move would justify revoking the various special trade and financial agreements the United States has with the territory, and Biden advisers have announced that the presumptive Democratic nominee would impose even greater sanctions on China. While America's options for helping the people of Hong Kong are distinctly limited, that's unlikely to stop us from trying, even if an ineffectual move could backfire. The logic of confrontation appears to be taking over.
It's important, though, to understand why.
The "great unwinding" of America's economic entanglement with China has deep causes, and, more proximately, the novel coronavirus has revealed in stark terms how important it is from a national security perspective for the United States to reduce its outright dependence on the People's Republic. But that process need not lead to confrontation — indeed, it would be perfectly compatible with a policy of global retreat that would probably make China feel more secure.
On the other side, the nature of China's regime has indeed been changing dramatically under Xi Jinping, becoming more nationalistic and repressive as well as less institutional, with power increasingly concentrated in a single leader's hands. But that process also need not lead to conflict — indeed, at the time of Nixon's opening to China, when Mao was in his final years, the communist country was far more insular and repressive, and its political system far more personalized, than it is today.
What's truly different, and the necessary additional element that explains the "new cold war" that may be aborning, is the sheer scope of Chinese power. China has now grown sufficiently potent for it to reasonably expect to be able to shape the international order to its liking, and not merely thrive within it as it exists. That expectation would be alarming to the United States even if China were not increasingly repressive, and even if America had not allowed itself to be vulnerable to supply chain disruption.
Consider the situation in Hong Kong. Imagine that China, instead of using a hammer on all visible nails, used softer tactics to woo Hong Kong's citizens over to a more complaisant stance, as it had been doing for years prior. Suppose, similarly, that rather than bullying Taiwan, Beijing put the bulk of its efforts into corrupting the island's political system — as, again, it has to some extent done. Suppose these efforts began to bear fruit, to the point that Taipei began to distance itself from Washington in an effort to avoid angering Beijing, and the prospect of reunification was in the air. Suppose that South Korea followed suit. Would the United States view these events with equanimity?
Of course not. They would be obvious signs of dramatically weakened American clout in Asia. Moreover, they would materially weaken our military position in the case of a future confrontation with China. And that possibility could never be ruled out, even if China's regime at that moment were less-confrontational.
Or consider the ongoing conflict with Europe over Huawei, China's 5G powerhouse. The United States is legitimately concerned for national security reasons about the prospect of a Chinese company becoming dominant in this area, because of the opportunities for espionage. But those concerns — along with the concerns about future Western dependence on Chinese technology in this area, as well as other areas like artificial intelligence — would obtain even if China were less-overtly truculent and bullying. After all, alarm bells were rung in the 1980s over increasing Japanese dominance in high technology, and Japan was an American ally with a pacifistic constitution. How could we not be more alarmed by the rise of a much larger China to something approaching peer-competitor status?
In international affairs, intentions are important, but capabilities matter more. That's a tragic reality that Thucydides identified as a key cause of the ruinous Peloponnesian War, and that in modern times paved the way for World War I. The rise of China makes the United States more vulnerable — economically and militarily. We'd need to worry about those vulnerabilities even if China were more benevolent than it now appears, because there could be no guarantee that they would remain benevolent. Indeed, we're observing that transformation in China right now, and ruing the degree to which we have already allowed ourselves to give ground.
China's turn to authoritarianism may well make it easier for us to pursue a policy of confrontation — easier to accumulate allies abroad as well as easier to justify ideologically at home — just as the Trump administration's full-spectrum obnoxious incompetence makes it harder. It may also make it seem necessary, since Beijing has closed off many other possible avenues to coexistence. But perceived lack of choice is precisely what leads to tragedy.
Because however much we say that we have no quarrel with the Chinese people, all our efforts to respond to our vulnerability will be aimed at constraining their power. We're not trying to preserve a balance of power, after all, however much we may tell ourselves that we are. We're trying to preserve an American preponderance of power. If we choose that path, we should expect China to respond the way we would to efforts to impose such constraints on us, and prepare accordingly.
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