By John Isaacs
Democrats and Republicans rarely agree on anything in Washington, whether it is coping with Covid, fighting inflation, electoral reform or health care, but when it comes to hostility to China and the need to confront the rising challenge from Beijing, it seems there is rare bipartisan agreement. Unfortunately, much of the agreement fails to balance opportunities for competition with opportunities for collaboration.
A key question, and a major difference between the parties, is whether the emphasis should be spending more on military preparations for a potential military confrontation with China and its growing military strength, focusing instead on a competition of ideas and economics, or both.
The Cold War was a period of constant military, political and economic confrontation that, fortunately, never developed into a hot war, and despite how close we came during the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago, avoided a nuclear holocaust. But both countries engaged in dramatic nuclear weapons buildups that made no sense militarily, economically or politically. At its peak, Russia had a stockpile of about 40,000 nuclear weapons; the United States some 30,000.
There was a strong tendency to exaggerate Russia’s strength. The same embellishments of the other country’s might are happening again. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, known for his hawkish views, spoke of China tripling or quadrupling its nuclear weapons stockpile over the next decade.
In fact, China has about 350 nuclear weapons today compared to about 5,800 for the United States. Even that kind of build-up would still leave China far behind both the United States and Russia.
There are similar overstatements about the size of the Chinese military budget.
While building up the threat, there is also a tendency to overlook the weaknesses of the other side. As the Soviets had severe challenges, particularly the feebleness of the Soviet economic system that led to its downfall, so, too, do the Chinese:
- The Chinese economy has slowed markedly in the last decade;
- The Chinese birth rate plummeted for the fifth straight year, which could lead to a demographic crisis that undermines its economy;
- Despite the Chinese nuclear weapons buildup, it is still far behind the U.S. and Russia;
- Chinese aggressive actions toward its Asian neighbors, its claims to wide swaths of the ocean, its creation of artificial islands and its confrontations with India and Australia are alienating;
- The determination of President Xi to be leader for life, with all modes of dissent squeezed out, may ultimately prove unhealthy to the country.
There is much to condemn about China: its creation of a blanket surveillance state mirroring the one portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984, genocide against Muslim Uyghurs; takeover of Hong Kong in violation of previous agreements; creation of artificial islands in the South China sea; threats to Taiwan, Tibet and India; and theft of intellectual rights.
But the Western and American confrontation with China should be a competition of ideas and economics, while cooperating on issues of mutual interest, rather than preparing for a military confrontation.
Building up in preparation for a war with China might be good for the military industrial complex, but it is an expensive policy that will divert funds from more pressing current and long-term threats facing our nation, like global health, climate change, economic recovery, cybersecurity and infrastructure.
Moreover, a military confrontation could have devastating economic consequences for both countries, to say nothing of the international economic order. U.S. goods and services trade with China totaled an estimated $615.2 billion in 2020. China was the United States’ 3rd largest goods export market in 2020. And the two countries have the largest Gross Domestic Production in the world.
As the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith (D-WA-09) warned in his typical blunt fashion, “I think building our defense policy around the idea that we have to be able to beat China in an all-out war is wrong…If we get into an all-out war with China, we’re all screwed anyway.”
Rather than preparing for war, the United States must be prepared to collaborate with China, where it is in our interest, even as we compete with Beijing.
There are important areas where the two countries can and should cooperate, including climate change, Covid-19 and future pandemics, economic issues, rules for operating in space, North Korea, and confidence and transparency building nuclear arms measures. The United States and the Soviet Union had important areas of collaboration, starting with the fight against Nazi Germany.
Certainly, a major portion of United States opinion, more prevalent in the Democratic Party, is focusing on legislation to improve U.S. competitiveness with China.
On February 4, the House of Representatives approved legislation to make the United States more competitive economically with China. As explained by House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the 2,900-page measure costing $350 billion “will strengthen our national security by shoring up our supply chains and ensuring that we can build in America the semiconductors and microchips that our industries need to lead the world in advanced manufacturing.”
The bill is also designed to provide training for American workers with the most in-demand skills in the 21st century economy and help researchers and innovators become entrepreneurs to create future jobs. It additionally highlights work on climate change and immigration policy to permit foreign students with advanced degrees in science and engineering to stay in the United States.
The Senate passed a comparable bill last year, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) by a bipartisan 68-32, although there are important differences between the two bills that need to be ironed out. Both bills call for tightening oversight of research collaborations with China and other “malign” countries on federally funded research. Republicans in the Senate are likely to object to the many provisions added in the House particularly on trade, labor, immigration and foreign policies.
While the United States is now racing forward on both the military and the economic sides, an important inhibition to a military confrontation is the economic interdependence of the two countries.
During the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, the world had to worry about a nuclear Armageddon. Should the U.S.-China relationship turn into a new Cold War, the world will also have to worry about an economic apocalypse as well as a nuclear Armageddon.