Why is the United States — its president, its politicians, its pundits — hellbent on creating a cold war environment and arms race with China?
CIA director William Burns has created a new center with the sole function of collecting intelligence on China and countering that country’s espionage against the United States. And President Joe Biden, who has assembled a hard-line national security team on China, has continued the bombastic policies of Donald Trump, leaving tariffs in place over the opposition of American business leaders.
There are bipartisan majorities in the Congress supporting increased defense spending and modernization of nuclear weapons, even though the size of the U.S. military is already disproportionate to the Chinese threat. And in a further effort to counter China, the president also entered into a deal to provide nuclear submarine technology to Australia, even though the United States hasn’t provided such technology to any nation since the late 1950s and the Australian treaty violates the spirit of the Non-Proliferation Treaty of the late 1960s.
China’s response to the surprising submarine deal was quick and forceful. Last week, nearly 150 Chinese warplanes were flown into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, placing military tensions between China and Taiwan at their worst level in four decades. China’s President Xi Jinping didn’t mention the flights in his speech commemorating the 1911 revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty, but he did vow to achieve a peaceful “unification” with Taiwan.
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense prepares for confrontation with China, and issues worst-case assessments of Beijing. The recent war scare in China required several calls from former secretary of defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, as well as the postponing of a naval exercise in the South China Sea, to calm waters. An underwater collision involving a U.S. nuclear attack submarine in the South China Sea last week should serve as a wake-up call to the policy and political communities mired in group think on China. Chinese foreign policy experts have compared the dispute in the South China Sea to the Cuban missile crisis.
We hear nothing from the departments and agencies of government that could address the issue of China more realistically with measures to enhance bilateral relations and temper the public atmospherics. The Commerce Department should be focused on economic security and civilian technology to counter the Pentagon’s emphasis on military security and technology. According to a recent Politico article, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security — central to technology trade with China — suffers from a lack of strategic direction and insufficient resources. There is no discussion of returning to the Washington-inspired Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trading association best suited to competing with China in East Asia.
The Department of State remains understaffed, and there is no hint of arms control measures that could address tensions in U.S.-China relations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has surrendered his role in bilateral diplomacy to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, the administration’s public voice on relations with Beijing. There is ample basis for a significant strategic dialogue between the United States and China; they share many concerns in East Asia, particularly regarding North Korea’s missile program.
The key to establishing an effective dialogue with China could be arms control, but the Department of Defense recently removed its assistant secretary of defense for arms control and disarmament. The two powers need rules of the road for navigating the South China Sea. The United States could limit its aircraft carrier deployments; China could limit its anti-ship forces. And both sides need to stop the China-bashing/America-bashing syndromes that have worsened over the course of the pandemic. The agency of government that we sorely need is the one that President Bill Clinton eliminated 25 years ago: the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
The U.S. strategic position is still unassailable, even in East Asia, with military superiority in various domains. China lacks strategic allies. The United States has important relations with Australia, Japan, India, South Korea and various Southeast Asian states, a grouping that resembles an anti-China partnership. China is making no effort to project power into regions outside of its neighborhood; the United States has hundreds of facilities and bases the world over. President Biden needs to end the militarized approach to Asia, and institutionalize a serious bilateral dialogue.
Melvin A. Goodman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a former CIA intelligence analyst from 1966 to 1990.