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Opinion: Why China is not the threat we think it is

China is powerful, nobody can dispute that, but the U.S. is not defenseless or alone. We have the strength, allies and economic power to rival China.

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President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021.

President Joe Biden, left, speaks as he meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping, on screen, from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

In late January 1992, former President George H.W. Bush stood before Congress and delivered his final State of the Union address. “A world once divided into two armed camps,” he declared, “now recognizes one sole and preeminent power, the United States of America.” The Cold War was over. The Soviet Union had collapsed. And for years, the United States indeed stood “alone at the pinnacle of power.” 

No more.

China’s rise has brought an end to the era of unrivaled American power and influence. In its place is the return of a great power rivalry and forecasts of a multigenerational competition between Washington and Beijing. 

Few would dispute that China is the United States’ most important long-term strategic challenge.  

That is generally where the consensus stops. Policymakers, academics and other professionals debate in perpetuity the appropriate American response. 

In his recent opinion piece, BYU professor Evan Ward argued that “innovative ideas” and “new solutions” are necessary to navigate the evolving U.S.-China relationship. As one such solution, he proposed we start by “giving greater attention to alliances in the Atlantic World, where we have so much familiarity economically and ideologically.”  

I am sympathetic to the idea that we need new thinking regarding China, despite the difficultly of infusing new ideas into the American foreign policy establishment. But, with all due respect to Ward, I have deep misgivings about his argument and proposal. This is not, however, the appropriate forum to detail my criticisms.

Instead, I propose an alternative, more fundamental starting point for dealing with China: Rather than begin with new thinking, we should strive to begin with clear thinking about the nature of China’s military and economic challenge

Clear thinking in U.S. foreign policy ought to meet two criteria: First, it should identify vital and important interests; and second, it should assess the threats to those interests. 

In international relations theory, we consider security to be a country’s primary goal, or protecting the homeland from external attack. The United States is a remarkably secure country. It is protected by two large oceans, a nuclear deterrent, a formidable military, and a network of alliances and security partnerships that deter and defend against threats before they reach the homeland. The United States may be vulnerable to China in other ways, but it faces little risk of a direct Chinese military threat.  

Where the pressure of China’s growing military power is most felt is in its immediate neighborhood, particularly by those with whom Beijing has ongoing territorial disputes. The potential for China to wield its military to coerce allies and partners or disrupt access to the global commons threatens important U.S. interests. And these need to be protected within the region.

So far, the United States has responded appropriately with security initiatives, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the AUKUS pact, and efforts to strengthen existing alliances and secure military access in key countries. For the time being, then, China’s military threat seems to be regionally bound. 

Beijing’s greatest threat and source of influence has been and continues to be its economy. Chinese officials consider the draw of their market and investments, and their ability to coerce others economically, as the keys to competition with the United States. Economic integration with China has rendered many countries reluctant to pick sides in the U.S.-China competition, opting instead for strategic autonomy. 

Countering China’s economic appeal is a daunting policy challenge.

Yet, China’s economy now shows signs of slowing down, and many analysts predict it will face constraints in the future. It is also becoming clearer that the harder Beijing pushes others economically, the more backlash it faces. American-led economic initiatives, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, will also serve to counter Chinese influence in the region. It is possible, then, that China’s economy may not be what it once was, and the implications for the U.S.-China competition are unclear. 

Sure, the United States no longer stands alone at the pinnacle of power, and it faces serious foreign policy challenges. But if we are to navigate the unfolding geopolitical landscape, we must first think clearly about China.

Only then will new thinking emerge. Only then will we devise the appropriate policy response.  

Jordan Ernstsen is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Utah, where he specializes in International Relations. He is also a New Voices in National Security Research Fellow with The Bridging the Gap Project. His research includes work on international security, U.S. grand strategy, alliance politics, and American military basing abroad.