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'Because, China': How Beijing is being used to justify any new policy under the sun

It's a craze sweeping the nation's capital and beyond: We need to do x, y, or z or succumb to the threat.

Analysis | Reporting | Asia-Pacific

“Everything is China. China is everything.” Alex Ward, a national security reporter at Vox, summed up Washington’s hottest trend in two sentences.

Winning a Cold War-like competition with Beijing has become the principal justification for the U.S. government’s actions, whether close to China’s shores or on the opposite side of the world. From the COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy to infrastructure investment, China looms large in virtually every major decision being taken or debated on Capitol Hill.

Last month, international relations scholar Francis Fukuyama — who was once a prominent figure in the neoconservative movement — suggested that the United States offer a “relatively small investment to win back” from the Chinese the “strategically important country” of Montenegro.

Indeed, hawks have seized the opportunity to add China’s name to their chorus for keeping business as usual in Washington. 

A recent unclassified report published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned that China is a “near-peer competitor” and the biggest national threat facing America. It warns that China wants to double its nuclear warhead stockpile — 320 warheads to the United States’ 5,800 warheads — and actively pursue Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland in this decade. 

Naturally, this had led to calls for boosting the Pentagon’s capabilities — by throwing more money at it. Responding to Biden’s defense budget, American Enterprise Institute’s Mackenzie Eaglen quipped that the “only federal entity on a fiscal diet is the U.S. military.”  

But the U.S. defense budget is already massive. "Welcome to the new age of bloated Pentagon budgets, all to be justified by the great Chinese threat," said CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who pointed out that the Pentagon spends more money on defense than the next ten biggest spenders combined. 

Investments that have nothing to do with the military are also increasingly being justified in the name of China.

Biden’s April 1 speech on infrastructure mentioned China six times, and the climate crisis only once, as The New Republic reporter Kate Aronoff has pointed out.

Even the distribution of COVID-19 vaccine is being framed as a way to counter Chinese influence, rather than a common good in itself.

Many outside of government have found that they, too, can use the threat of China to squeeze money from American taxpayers.

The CEO of Lockheed Martin recently used great power competition as a reason why his company — maker of the $80 million apiece F-35 fighter — should be allowed to skirt antitrust concerns and acquire the enginemaker Aerojet Dynamics.

The National Commission on Artificial Intelligence, filled with familiar faces from Silicon Valley and headed by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, warned that artificial intelligence will “transform all aspects of military affairs” and that China and Russia are unlikely to conform to treaties aimed at controlling AI weapons.

Naturally, the commission recommended tax credits for U.S. companies that want to build new chip manufacturing plants on U.S. soil. President Joe Biden has already ordered a review of the US semiconductor industry, and pledged support for a $37 billion plan by Congress to boost local output.

Former defense officials have also joined the party. The United States is “moving toward a cyberwar ‘Pearl Harbor’ with insufficient military and civilian resources devoted to the problem,” retired Admiral James Stavridis warned in a recent article, and needs to build up “a new strategic triad of offensive cyber, elite forces and unmanned vehicles.”

National mobilization to counter another great power unmistakably resembles the Cold War. Pundits and politicians, from Bret Stephens to Tom Cotton, have started calling it one.

A new Cold War, of course, means global competition. The New York Times has suggested that China is trying to build a worldwide “alliance of autocracies.” In a similar vein, The Wall Street Journal writes that China now thinks it is equal to the U.S. and thus is able to create a new world order.   

Such rhetoric has afforded U.S. military commanders around the world a chance to push for more resources in their areas of responsibility — far from China’s shores. The top U.S. commanders in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa have all made China-based arguments for their own importance in recent testimony to Congress.

“We also see the rise in the [People’s Republic of China’s] leverage and influence is not just a South China Sea problem, it is a global problem, and it requires a solution that includes our partners and allies,” SOUTHCOM commander Admiral Craig Faller, who oversees U.S. forces in Latin America and the Caribbean, told Congress in March. “When our neighborhood is strong, so is our national security.”

Faller’s colleague Stephen Townsend, head of the U.S. Africa Command, told Congress on last Tuesday that “China has invested heavily in their second continent, or as some think tanks call it, their fourth or fifth island chain.” 

Any withdrawal from long standing conflicts is no longer just a potential gift to terrorists, but also a potential gift to Beijing. As Rep. Adam Kinzinger recently argued, withdrawing from Afghanistan would be a mistake because China wants Afghan minerals “to strengthen their grip on the world.”

And some hawks are even arguing to intensify older conflicts — because China.

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued that a harder line on Iran would help signal U.S. resolve against China in a discussion hosted on the Clubhouse audio chat app last month.

“The Russians and the Chinese are pivoting into the Middle East,” he said, warning that U.S. partners may look for protection from those great powers if the United States wavers. “We can’t be everywhere at once, but we also can’t be sending a message that we’re going to be abandoning our allies by putting the Islamic Republic on the back burner.”

But, at the same time, Dubowitz encouraged U.S. partners to do more business with China, as “the Saudis and others played a critical role in providing alternatives to Islamic Republic oil” that allowed Beijing to obey U.S. sanctions and trade less with Iran.

China is everything, indeed.

Photo: Frederic Legrand - COMEO via shutterstock.com
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