As far as long-term foreign policy strategy is concerned, America’s biggest looming adversary is China.
From The Atlantic’s most recent issue, parsing the rise of a regressive China, to hang-wringing about Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea, there is an existential fear of the rise of another equally powerful nation in the international system.
Although it is true that Chinese political and economic might are on the upswing, the American foreign policy machine should be careful not to overstate the danger of a rising China for fear of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict. Instead, the incoming administration should step away from its belligerent tone and seek to foster ties with Beijing.
“But why?” you say. Why should we accommodate a rising China? Aren’t they a threat? Well, in short, no, for a few reasons.
Commentators, both here in the United States and in China, have pointed to the rapid growth of the Chinese economy as a sign of Beijing’s impending dominance. According to predictions by The Economist Intelligence Unit, China is predicted to surge past the U.S. in nominal GDP in about ten years’ time.
This analysis, however, ignores the fact that the United States still has a significantly higher standard of living and much higher GDP per capita, the amount of goods produced within the country per citizen. So while the massive Chinese economy may edge ahead of the United States’, any fear of loss of status is entirely unwarranted.
The next argument is that China’s growing military might is a problem. With the largest standing army in the world and an ever-increasing military budget, it is easy to fret about the armies and navies Beijing might be able to field. But again, this evaluation misses the larger point: Quantities do not necessarily mean capabilities. With carrier groups and bases around the globe, the United States military massively outstrips any competitor in terms of both expenditures and ability.
The final thing critics point to is China’s rising political power in Asia. Given the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the economic leg of the Obama Administration’s pivot to Asia has been dismantled.
While it does not constitute a full systems failure of American economic influence in Asia, the disappearance of the TPP gives an opening for Beijing to establish greater regional power through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation framework, a more Sino-centric trade area.
Again, though, this overvalues the ability of the Chinese to capitalize on the opportunity and underestimates the economic clout Washington still has with most Asian countries.
So what should the incoming administration do about China? Well, for a start, any talk of policies that might spark a trade war should be immediately be put off the table. Donald Trump talked of raising tariffs on Chinese goods on the campaign trail and has made labeling China a currency manipulator part of his plans for the first hundred days. These decisions would be colossal mistakes.
Instead of picking fights with Beijing, we should attempt to smooth relations with the Chinese. Given the billions of dollars’ worth of trade connections the United States has with China, raising tariffs or getting into spats over relatively minor issues would be damaging to both the American economy and our ability to work with China through the international community in the future.
Growing Chinese power does not necessarily foreshadow conflict; rather, it can open the doors toward increased cooperation and prosperity for both of us, but only if the incoming administration steps back from its bellicose language towards Beijing.
Ian Hutchinson is a Greenfield native pursuing his master’s degree in international affairs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.