It has become a cottage industry in Washington and in parts of Europe these days to highlight all the many ways in which China threatens U.S., Western, and Asian interests. Politicians, military officers, and pundits take turns describing the dangers posed by Beijing’s “expansionist” and “aggressive” military, “implacably hostile” ideology, “predatory” economic and tech policies, and “insidious” overseas influence operations.
Despite shunning the Trump administration’s habitual use of most of these inflammatory adjectives, U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken nonetheless depict Beijing as challenging the entire “rules-based order that maintains global stability” and as the major focal point of a global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, which is now, according to Biden, at an “inflection point.”
Such language echoes the premise of various strategy documents of the Trump administration and the speeches of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: that the United States is now locked in a strategic, great-power rivalry with China that overshadows any other foreign (or even domestic) threats or concerns facing the country.
There is no doubt that Beijing’s behavior in many areas challenges existing U.S. and allied interests and democratic values. Particularly under Xi Jinping, China has used its greater economic and military power to intimidate rival claimants in territorial disputes and punish nations that make statements or take what Beijing views as threatening or insulting actions. It has engaged in extensive commercial hacking and theft of technologies and favors military intimidation over dialogue in dealing with Taiwan. And it has employed draconian, repressive policies in Tibet and Xinjiang and suppressed democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.
This deeply troubling behavior certainly requires a strong, concerted response from the United States and other nations. But to be effective, such a response also requires an accurate assessment of China’s future impact on the United States and the world.
And in this regard, it is extremely counterproductive to U.S. interests to assert or even imply, as many now do, that the above Chinese actions constitute an all-of-society, existential threat to the United States, the West, and ultimately the entire world, thereby justifying a Cold War-style, zero-sum containment stance toward Beijing. Such an extreme stance stifles debate and the search for more positive-sum policy outcomes while leading to the usual calls for major increases in defense spending.
In fact, there isn’t much actual evidence to support the notion of China as an existential threat. That does not mean that China is not a threat in some areas, but Washington needs to approach this issue based on the facts, not dangerous rhetoric. Unfortunately, right-sizing the challenges that China poses seems to be an impossible task for Washington.
In the most basic, literal sense, an existential threat means a threat to the physical existence of the nation through the possession of an ability and intent to exterminate the U.S. population, presumably via the use of highly lethal nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. A less conventional understanding of the term posits the radical erosion or ending of U.S. prosperity and freedoms through economic, political, ideational, and military pressure, thereby in essence destroying the basis for the American way of life. Any threats that fall below these two definitions do not convey what is meant by the word “existential.”
As a military power, China has no ability to destroy the United States without destroying itself. China’s nuclear capabilities are far below those of the United States, and its conventional military, while regionally potentially powerful, has a fraction of the budget of that of the United States.
Some argue that China could militarily push the United States out of Asia and dominate that region, denying the country air and naval access and hence support for critical allies. This would presumably have an existential impact by virtue of the supposedly critical importance of that region to the stability and prosperity of the United States. Yet there are no signs that Washington is losing either the will or the capacity to remain a major military actor in the region and one closely connected to major Asian allies, which are themselves opposed to China dominating the region. In reality, the greater danger in Asia is that Washington could so militarize its response to China that its actions and policies become repugnant even to U.S. allies.
This leaves the unconventional threats. Here they are presumably twofold: economic and technological, and in the realm of ideas and influence operations within the United States and other Western countries, including the export of China’s so-called “model” of authoritarian rule to the rest of the world.
The former threats would presumably consist of China attaining a level of total superiority over both economic and technological levers of influence globally and with regard to the United States (perhaps combined with a successful military blocking of U.S. sea lines of communication) that would so impoverish the country as to threaten its existence as a stable and prosperous democracy and bring it under Chinese control. Presumably, the specific basis of such leverage would consist of near-absolute global Chinese dominance over both trade and investment relations and supply chains with the United States and other countries and over all the key technologies driving future growth and military capabilities.
It is virtually inconceivable that China could achieve such a level of dominance over the United States. The United States possesses abundant energy, human, technological, and other resources; a huge and dynamic domestic market; enormous levels of accumulated wealth and capital stocks; and the globe’s financial reserve currency.
In contrast, while China boasts a highly entrepreneurial and dynamic workforce, it labors under major structural and political constraints such as insufficient arable land, a rapidly aging society, a heavy reliance on energy imports, and stifling ideological and state-centered controls across society.
Beijing has certainly used its economic leverage (such as market access) to pressure foreign companies and governments to support Chinese policies or stop what it regards as unacceptable behavior, e.g., regarding Taiwan. While such economic coercion is by no means unique to China, it certainly can erode freedom of speech, thus threatening one of democracy’s core principles. But this hardly rises to the level of an existential threat to American values, given both the limited reach of Chinese economic power and the countervailing global economic power and political influence of democratic states.
Some observers claim that Beijing could somehow set standards in critical technology areas and install tech hardware around the world, to the extent that China would be able to relegate the United States to a permanently inferior status in both the commercial and military realms, thus threatening the very existence of the country. This is also highly unlikely.
Chinese companies are certainly participating in standard-setting in key areas, including 5G. But this process is highly competitive globally, and U.S., Asian, and European companies all hold major portions of the standards and the standard-essential patents that undergird the global technology ecosystem. There is little if any chance that Chinese companies could come to dominate this process. Many tech experts state that the most likely worst-case outcome of Chinese gains regarding standards and hardware would be a fragmented technology ecosystem that would impoverish all countries, not give China a level of power that would enable it to vanquish the United States.
More realistically, Beijing might over time exclude high-tech companies in the United States and other countries from its market, which might make it difficult for them to continue to grow and innovate. And Chinese financing power and supply chains could conceivably create a kind of “turnkey” solution in some developing countries that lock them into a Chinese tech ecosystem. But such developments would come nowhere near to constituting an existential threat to the United States, given the global reach of non-Chinese high-tech companies and the overall limited reach of any Chinese high-tech ecosystem in the developing world in the face of such competition.
Finally, the latter set of supposedly existential normative or ideological threats consists of many elements, including Beijing’s possible overturning of the so-called global liberal international order, Chinese influence operations aimed at U.S. society, the export of China’s political values and state-directed economic approach, and its sale of surveillance technologies and other items that facilitate the rise or strengthening of authoritarian states. These threats all seem hair-raising at first glance. But while significant, they are greatly exaggerated and do not rise to the level of constituting an existential threat.
Beijing has little interest in exporting its governance system, and where it does, it is almost entirely directed at developing countries, not industrial democracies such as the United States. In addition, there is no evidence to indicate that the Chinese are actually engaged in compelling or actively persuading countries to follow their experience. Rather, they want developing nations to study from and copy China’s approach because doing so would help to legitimize the Chinese system both internationally and more importantly to Beijing’s domestic audience.
In addition, the notion that Beijing is deliberately attempting to control other countries and make them more authoritarian by entrapping them in debt and selling them “Big Brother” hardware such as surveillance systems is unsupported by the facts. Chinese banks show little desire to extend loans that will fail, and the failures that do occur are mostly due to poor feasibility studies and the incompetence and excessive zeal of lenders and/or borrowers. Moreover, in both loan-giving and surveillance equipment sales, China has shown no specific preference for nondemocratic over democratic states.
Even if Beijing were to attempt to export its development approach to other states, the actual attractiveness of that approach would prove to be highly limited. The features undergirding China’s developmental success are not replicable for most (if any) countries. These include a high savings rate; a highly acquisitive and entrepreneurial cultural environment; a state-owned banking system and nonconvertible currency; many massive state-owned industries that exist to provide employment, facilitate party control over key sectors, and drive huge infrastructure construction; and strong controls over virtually all information flows. Moreover, such a model (if you can call it that) is almost certainly not sustainable in its present form, given China’s aging population, extensive corruption, very large levels of income inequality, inadequate social safety net, and the fact that free information flows are required to drive global innovation.
Although China’s combination of economic reform policies and authoritarian political system has been around since the early 1980s, not a single nation has adopted that system either willingly or under Chinese compulsion. There are certainly many authoritarian states and fragile democracies on China’s periphery, but none of them were made that way by China.
China’s challenge to the so-called global liberal international order is also exaggerated. In the first place, it is highly debatable whether in fact a single coherent global order even exists. What observers usually refer to as the “liberal international order” (a relatively recent term) actually consists of an amalgam of disparate regimes with different origins, including international human rights pacts, multilateral economic arrangements, and an international court.
The United States certainly plays an important or leading role in many of these regimes. But it did not create and does not drive all global regimes—and in fact does not support some of them, such as the International Court of Justice, and has not ratified some critical pacts such as the United National Convention on the Law of the Sea. And many very important global regimes (e.g., regarding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, trade and investment, climate change, and pandemics) have no deep connection to liberal democratic values per se and are supported by Beijing, albeit sometimes more in letter than in spirit.
The challenge for the United States is not how to fend off the imagined existential threats posed by China. Rather, it lies in developing a much clearer and factually based overall understanding of the limited challenges, threats, and indeed opportunities China poses to the United States and the policies needed to address them. Rejecting the specious notion that China is threatening to destroy an entire way of life will make this task much easier.
The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft has issued an East Asia strategy report that takes up this task. It stresses the need for a U.S. policy toward China involving both cooperative and competitive efforts to deal with common overriding threats such as climate change; a more defensive, denial-based (not control- or primacy-based) U.S. and allied force posture in the Western Pacific; more clearly defined and agreed-on sets of international economic and technological norms, structures, and dispute resolution mechanisms; and agreements to limit arms racing and manage future crises. These activities, not an approach tied to a near-total focus on strategic competition with Beijing based on China as an existential threat, will better serve U.S. interests over the long term.