Where Have All The China Hawks Gone?
November 23, 2011
Shortly before President Obama left two weeks ago for a major trip cementing the U.S. military as a bulwark against China in the western Pacific, the New York Times published an op-ed that would have been nearly unthinkable a decade or two before. “Ditch Taiwan,” it argued, to remove a stumbling block between the U.S. and its nearest great-power competitor. Its author wasn’t a hippie or a well-known Beijing buddy, but a Marine veteran of Iraq, Paul V. Kane.
Kane’s piece didn’t convince Obama to hug China harder. But it’s hard not to notice that the debate over China in the U.S. is embracing more outright dovishness, even as China engages in what U.S. spies call an “onslaught” of online economic espionage and Beijing builds up its military. The magazine of the foreign-policy mainstream, Foreign Affairs, recently entertained drastic measures for cozying up to China.
It wasn’t long ago — the 1990s, in fact — that there was a broad political consensus on the perfidies of China. It held China in contempt, over everything from human rights and labor abuses to its presumed military ambitions. “The right and left were unified over China,” remembers Ed Timperlake, a former congressional and Pentagon staffer who co-wrote harsh anti-China books like Year of the Rat: How Bill Clinton Compromised U.S. Security for Chinese Cash. The House intelligence committee has a new inquiry into trojan horses packed in Chinese telecom tech. But for the most part, Timperlake dismisses the occasional congressional concern with China as “pretty shallow.”
“Right now, the discussion of China’s rising military power is much more filled with questions than it is with accusations,” observes Abe Denmark, an advisor and Asia expert at the Center for Naval Analysis. “That’s where the debate is right now, and it allows us to be very rational.”
Bellicose rhetoric still occurs, on op-ed pages, in Congress and, importantly, on the campaign trail. Mitt Romney, the probable Republican candidate for president, has pledged to “get tough on China.” But that rhetoric is the outlier of the debate — and Romney, significantly, is talking pressing China on its currency manipulation, not ordering another aircraft carrier to the Taiwan Strait.
What happened? For one thing, 9/11 gave the U.S. a much different enemy. While it did, the Chinese and American economies drew together in a way that complicates bashing China. That led to a new consensus, one embodied by Obama’s approach: publicly declaring that the U.S. wants to be China’s best friend while aggressively moving to check it, in its own backyard. Or, as Timperlake puts it, the hawks “got rolled by the squishy middle, both Republicans and Democrats.”
In a sense, this should be the China hawks’ moment. A recent, extraordinary report by U.S. counterintelligence officials called out China for hosting the “world’s most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage.” The majority of online attacks on U.S. economic secrets originate in China, weakening U.S. online commerce in the process. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, who chaired a classified task force on the subject, called it “the biggest transfer of wealth through theft and piracy in the history of mankind.” Meanwhile, in addition to the trojan-horse inquiry, Congress growls over China’s perceived undervaluing of its currency, which drives up the prices of U.S. exports. It’s as if China is overcoming its relative military inferiority by hitting the U.S. in both the leather wallet and the GoogleWallet.
It’s not just economic secrets: the counterintelligence report accused China of trying to steal U.S. military secrets too. Next on China’s agenda will be “military technologies, particularly marine systems, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and other aerospace/aeronautic technologies,” it warns. And last month, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said China was trying to hack U.S. satellites as well.
China is also acting out in more traditional ways. In 2009 and 2010, the Chinese navy began getting aggressive around Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. That aggro China coincided with a wave of eye-catching developments in military technology, from the “initial” stages of a ship-destroying missile to a new stealth jet and the first voyage of its (Ukranian-purchased) aircraft carrier. China’s media was tickled over the ensuing Washington freakout.
To be clear: some of these military developments were less than meets the eye. The Varyag is a decrepit, floating scrapheap. Even if it wasn’t, U.S. Naval officers often note that the Chinese military still doesn’t have any experience fighting as a single air, sea and land team. And the Chinese have been relatively sanguine this year, as if acknowledging it messed up by acting bellicose in 2010. The Pentagon’s most recent report on China’s military is calm and sober, noting that China’s vastly accelerated defense spending doesn’t amount to 20 percent of the Pentagon’s budget.
But even if the military is outwardly calm about China, tensions run below the surface. The Air Force and the Navy are working on a giant plan for U.S. power in China’s backyard, called AirSea Battle. While its architects tie themselves in knots saying AirSea Battle isn’t strictly about China, China is the most likely adversary envisioned by the ambitious aerial-naval strategy. (Or, to be cynical, China is an expedient justification for a strategy much desired by both services.) A host of U.S. officers have made clear to China that the U.S. has no intention of leaving the western Pacific, and have sought closer ties to traditional Chinese allies like Vietnam that are discomforted by China’s recent aggressive moves in the region. All that was underscored last week when Obama announced a new basing agreement for Marines in northern Australia.
If that’s the administration’s harder edge against China, Obama aides definitely don’t like to cast it in those terms. A typical clear-as-mud formulation came last week from top Obama adviser Ben Rhodes. “We’re focused on increasing military-to-military cooperation with the Chinese, precisely because it can facilitate greater dialogue and understanding and ability to resolve issues,” Rhodes told reporters on Obama’s Asia trip. “At the same time, again, we want to make sure that the United States is positioned to play its critical role as really the anchor of security and stability in the region in general.”
Obama’s main political opponent isn’t much tougher on China — though his rhetoric can be deceiving. Romney has taken a firm line on China’s intellectual property theft and economic espionage. He says he’ll declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. But if that’s hawkishness, it’s the kind that leads to dispute-resolution hearings at the World Trade Organization, not missile exchanges. Romney wants a Navy surge, and he’s criticized Obama for not selling Taiwan F-16s. But he’s conspicuously not talking about sending ships near China’s coast or penetrating China’s own data networks.
Why? Most importantly, the extensive economic ties between the U.S. and China that have developed in the nearly two decades since Clinton granted China privileged trade status. China, the world’s second largest economy, owns a massive amount of the U.S. national debt, essentially financing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But China needs the U.S. economy, too: it’s the number-one destination for Chinese exports, worth nearly a quarter trillion dollars annually. My boss, Noah Shachtman, recently pointed out that as much as China’s contributing to a lawless Internet, it has a huge stake in cooperating with the U.S. to reign in cybercrime. One of Romney’s rivals, the former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, warned that Romney’s anti-Chinese rhetoric could lead to a “trade war” that could mean “killing small business and exporters in this country.”
It also helped that 9/11 refocused Washington’s attention away from hypothetical threats posed by China and onto actual threats posed by al-Qaida. Surreal as it may be to remember, in the spring of 2001, there was a mini-crisis over a U.S. spy plane landing in China, and when the Bush administration resolved it peacefully, the Weekly Standard blasted the small-beer contretemps as a “national humiliation.”
But the China hawks haven’t adapted. Timperlake rejects out of hand the idea that U.S. economic ties with China ought to temper a confrontational posture. “I don’t want to get in that argument, because if you do, they win,” he says. “If we lose sight of deterring China in combat, we lose. It’s not abstract.”
To Denmark at the Center for Naval Analysis, there’s no avoiding the reality of U.S.-China economic ties. “Our intertwined economies focus the question: where does China go into the future, with its political power and with its military power,” he says, which tends to take cheap bellicosity off the table. “In the Pentagon, in the Asia community, you don’t have anyone talking about the ‘Communist Chinese’ and that sort of thing. We’ve moved beyond Cold War rhetoric and toward seeing China as a more normal foreign power.”
None of that is set in amber. If China returns to the saber-rattling that marked 2010, the debate could shift in a more aggressive direction. But the substantive policy might lag behind, since there’s so much bilateral trade at stake.
In fact, when asked where the China hawks are these days, Denmark answers, “the hawks, right now, are for the most part are in power.” If that’s the case, then the doves have won this round.