Several developments in recent days have served to highlight the growing two-pronged drive in Washington to portray China as a rising military threat that must be contained or thwarted.
The ostensible objective of these efforts is to enhance U.S. national security and assure our economic prosperity. Without major changes in our approach, however, we are more likely to undermine American interests, increasing the risk of a catastrophic war with China.
In February, President Biden went to the Pentagon to announce a new China Task Force that would help Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin “chart a strong path forward on China-related matters.” Last Wednesday, Mr. Austin directed the Pentagon to prioritize countering China, though many particulars of this order remain classified.
The day before, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, a bipartisan bill designed to contain a rising China. Following passage, Leslie Shedd, Republican spokesperson for the Foreign Affairs Committed, said the GOP senators appreciated “that the chairman is working closely with us to address … the generational threat of the [Chinese Communist Party].”
Bluntly stated, these efforts have little chance of success. China has developed into a major international entity, with what will soon be the world’s largest economy and an increasingly modern military that may already have reached regional peer-status with the United States in the South China Sea. They are beyond the point they can be coerced to submit to our pressure.
The frustrating reality is that such attempts at coercion are not necessary. Coexistence with a rising China is not only possible, it is desirable — because it offers the best path, at the lowest cost, to ensuring continued American prosperity and security well into the future.
China is not a behemoth that has the capacity to attack and conquer America. To the contrary, China has many problems, weaknesses, and shortfalls that plague it, both internally and internationally. In other words, America’s inherent economic and military power, along with China’s internal and external challenges, mean that we need not fear a rising China.
That’s not to suggest China is a paper tiger. To the contrary, in the waters of their region (out to the so-called “first island chain”), Chinese advances over the past two decades in naval and missile power have been substantial. Beijing’s defensive strategy, known as anti-access, area denial (A2/AD), poses a lethal danger to any attacking force. But that is the key for American policymakers: the primary military threat China poses to the United States only comes into play if we attack them, not from a Chinese attack against America.
The only offensive threat Beijing poses to the U.S. mainland is its strategic nuclear force. Though China has openly admitted it is advancing its nuclear capacity, this—like A2/AD—is expressly designed as a deterrent to an American attack against China.
Hu Xijiin, editor of the Communist Party-controlled Global Times, wrote this month that one of China’s most urgent tasks was to “rapidly increase the number of commissioned nuclear warheads, and the DF-41s, the strategic missiles that are capable to strike long-range.” China knows that to launch an unprovoked nuclear attack, of any size, against the United States would be a death warrant, as Beijing is estimated to have fewer than 300 serviceable nuclear warheads while the U.S. exceeds 3,800.
Far from creating a sense of growing fear, America’s strength should reassure our population that China can be deterred from attacking the U.S. unprovoked and give confidence to our leaders to form policies designed to leverage our strength while exploiting Beijing’s weaknesses. Engaging China militarily in Asia, given the strength of their local A2/AD, is to openly invite military defeat — but if China were to venture beyond the protections of their defenses and attack U.S. territory, all the advantages would accrue to us and their defeat would be all but certain.
Based on that reality, the wisest course of action for American policymakers would be to engage with Beijing everywhere it makes sense, work cooperatively with them where we have mutual interests, and continue bilateral trade that benefits American people and businesses (almost $560 billion last year; U.S. exports already up 43% over this point last year).
In short, we have everything to lose by seeking confrontation with China on their terms and everything to gain by engaging wisely on ours. Unless we foolishly abandon our tactical advantages and plunge into China’s A2/AD strength, they will never militarily defeat us. As the growing trade between the two countries this year proves, a sober and wise China policy can ensure our national security indefinitely and expand our economic opportunities well into the future.
• Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.