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The dangerous idealism of competing with China

It may be difficult to recall, but prior to the nationwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the international relations crisis of the day had been between the U.S. and China. The day after Minneapolis first declared a state of emergency, President Trump stood in the Rose Garden and gave what Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter, called his “China Carnage” speech, unveiling a series of punitive measures aimed at China, several in direct response to its new law potentially curbing whatever freedoms may remain in Hong Kong.

Parallel to the gradual unraveling of the relationship over recent months, a debate has raged about the exact nature and extent of China’s global ambitions. The dominant pole in this debate holds that those ambitions are grand, expansive, and often intrinsic to the very structure of China’s one-party system: China seeks nothing short of becoming the world’s preeminent power, and doing for the twenty-first century what the United States did for the twentieth.

Although this view has the appearance of a new, robust consensus, it is still amorphous, unbounded in the scope or purpose of its application and untethered to any particular ideology. Scooter Libby, senior vice president of the Hudson Institute and former aide to Dick Cheney, thinks China is so ruthless in pursuing its ambitions that it may have deliberately allowed the coronavirus to spread beyond its borders. Two leading voices in the Washington debate about China — Bishop, and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, of the Axios China newsletter — have both analogized Xi Jinping’s China to Nazi Germany. As has the neoconservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.

Jake Sullivan, former aide to Vice President Joe Biden, outlined his own assessment of China’s ambitions, “China Has Two Paths to Global Domination.” Sullivan’s co-author of choice was Hal Brands, a Republican-leaning hawk whose contributions to the debate include columns titled “What Does China Really Want? To Dominate the World” and “China Rivalry May Put the U.S. Back in the Coup Business.” That the two found so much common ground shows that a China cast in the mold of the new “Evil Empire” has that rare potential to return American foreign policy to the glorious era when politics stopped “at the water’s edge.”

That phrase was uttered by Senator Arthur Vandenberg, as he rallied Congress to support the Truman administration’s post-war foreign policy, remembered by history as the building blocks of America’s successful strategy in the Cold War. That the United States had defeated fascism alongside the Soviets only years earlier could not invite ambivalence or fantasies of a great power condominium today. The Soviet Union had to be dealt with as it was: not a state open to cooperation and coexistence, but a ruthless, nuclear-armed authoritarian superpower intent on seizing territory, exporting revolution, and overthrowing democratic capitalism.

Debates about the ambitions of Xi’s China are built, often explicitly, on the same pretext. Crafting the correct China policy must start from an empirical, indifferent, and clear-eyed assessment of what China is, rather than what we wish it were. This is the trap that ensnared proponents and practioners of engagement, the dominant policy framework from Nixon to Obama, blinded by an idealistic if not narcissistic faith that the Chinese dream equaled their own.

Paul Scharre, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, went so far as to draw an analogy between those who cling to engagement, and those who want to “stay the course” in the 19-year quagmire in Afghanistan: “In many instances, [the] U.S. failed to achieve its foreign policy objectives because it assumed another actor would change their preferences…And, lo and behold, it turns out that others have their own interests and don’t always align with America’s.”

This is one lesson to take away from the U.S. experience in Afghanistan. Another is that the failure to subjugate the Taliban to American power was born not of hardheadedness or willful inflexibility, but of the intractability of the mission itself. Bending others to one’s will, without going so far as to break them, is no easy task. And if the United States failed to do so with a relatively weak, stateless entity after 19 years of struggle, how will it fare, and how much blood and treasure will be spilled, when it sets its sights on China?

That this lesson was apparently lost on Scharre reveals the pretentions of realism baked into today’s debate about China’s ambitions to be a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Like the engagers, those who have made competition a creed have done so only by cutting away the fat, simplifying it into its clean, idealized, and marketable form. They have constructed the great power competition they may want, but only by ignoring the one we have.

As with Afghanistan, the dirty realities of competition will only become clear once we are stuck knee-deep in it. On most issues, it is inherently zero-sum: there can be a winner, and a loser, but no meaningful coexistence. China will either reunify with Taiwan and take back Hong Kong, or it won’t. It will either erode the U.S.-led security order in Asia, or it won’t. It will either dominate technologies of the future, and export its standards and practices globally, or it won’t.

These are basic national ambitions inherent to the self-conception of the People’s Republic, that it will only compromise at the barrel of a gun.

As long as the United States does not concede on these core disputes, the relationship will always be one of indefinite, debilitating struggle, that will make a mockery of the “balance of power” and tear apart any world order we may have left. This destructive dance will end in one of three ways.

The two countries, joined by their respective allies, could sit down at the negotiating table and hammer out a deal, a détente, new terms of coexistence inked through substantial concessions from whichever party is in the weaker negotiating position. (Indeed, in response to criticism that competition has no clear objective, at least one leading hawk has identified détente as the apparent end goal.) Or, these same concessions could be imposed by one following the collapse of the other’s regime, the fate that decided the Cold War, or their defeat in a military conflict.

The cost of these latter two paths are easy to intuit. But extracting concessions of the depth required for genuine coexistence through “peaceful” means, at the negotiating table, will require such an enormous amount of leverage, accumulated and exerted over such an extended period of time, as to erase any meaningful distinctions between the three.

A New Cold War, regardless of how or if it ends, will bring ruin to the global economy and environment, cost trillions of dollars that desperately needs to be invested at home, and carry with it the constant risk of sparking a worldwide conflict that would kill tens of millions. It will also irreparably poison the domestic politics of both countries by empowering chauvinistic forces while marginalizing reformers, creating the ugly spectacle of two aging, decrepit boxers swinging in wild desperation for one final knockout blow, as their wobbling knees threaten to buckle out from underneath them at any moment.

Any discussion of China’s ambitions is only relevant when placed within the context of the unavoidable costs, consequences, and constraints of competition. The American public is being primed for a great and existential clash with China, in its dreamy and idealized form. Once reality rears its ugly head, the United States will find itself staring down into the abyss, left without a framework to grapple with the difficult moral choice between stepping back from the edge, or finishing its journey to completion and diving in head first, dragging the rest of the world down along with it.

The true test of America’s mettle as both a great power and a democracy is not whether it can save the world from China. It is whether it can find it in itself to recognize coexistence as the only moral and sustainable end goal, and have the humility to understand that this can never come on terms written or imposed by the United States. The United States has the intellectual firepower to craft a strategy that realizes this end consistent with its own values and security; whether it will rise to the occasion is moreso a political question, about what kind of country the United States is and wants to be.

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