Distributive policy

What a Realistic Foreign Policy Requires to Tackle China

The following is adapted from remarks delivered on September 13, 2022 at the National Conference on Conservatism.

China is the greatest challenge the United States has faced in its entire history. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of challenge we’re used to.

For starters, China’s gross domestic product, measured as a great power rival’s GDP to the United States, is at a whopping 77%, up from 13% in 2001 compared to any systemic rival to which America has faced before, including Imperial Germany (35%), Nazi Germany (26%), Imperial Japan (13%) and the Soviet Union (about 40%).

America was not dependent on its former great power rivals for trade or manufacturing. If tomorrow the dollar is no longer the reserve currency of the world, China will suffocate us by aligning itself with the European Union, just as we suffocate Russia with sanctions. Wars do not need to be fought.

According to Statista, in 2017, China had 4.7 million new science, math and engineering graduates, while India had 2.6 million. The United States had 568,000 and Russia 561,000. There are now three new Chinese universities in the top 20, compared to one European, the others being Anglo-American.

China, the world’s second-largest military spender, allocated around $300 billion to its military in 2021, a 4.7% increase from 2020, with spending rising for 27 consecutive years. Chinese shipbuilding currently overtakes the Anglo-German naval race.

Chinese carrier groups are concentrated in Asia, and American warships are placed in places like Bahrain and the Baltics, where there are no hegemonic threats present in the near future, and where local powers are capable of balancing out any opponent on their own if they wish. Choose. But they don’t, because they know America is there to break the glass in a fire.

China is quickly stockpiling food. By the end of this year, China, with 20% of the world’s population, will have 65% of the world’s corn and 53% of the world’s wheat.

A study revealed about 160 incidents of Chinese espionage, with almost a quarter between 2000 and 2009 and three quarters between 2010 and 2021. The study reports that “42% of the actors were Chinese military or government employees . 32% private Chinese citizens. 26% were non-Chinese actors (Americans recruited by Chinese), 34% of incidents sought to acquire military technologies, 51% of incidents sought to acquire commercial technologies, 16% of incidents sought to acquire information on civilian agencies or US politicians, 41% of incidents involved cyber espionage.

A recent report by the National Association of Scholars said that of the 104 Confucius Institutes that have closed or are in the process of closing, at least 28 have replaced it with a similar program, and at least 58 have maintained close relations with their former partners. .

Socially, China does the exact opposite of what it preaches abroad, often on social media. The Chinese government has banned feminine men on television and told broadcasters to “resolutely end sissy men and other abnormal aesthetics.” China’s Ministry of Education released plans to “cultivate masculinity” in boys from kindergarten to high school with more efforts on physical education. A crackdown has been ordered against any feminist activism or movement like “Me Too”. China has also cracked down on “immoral activities” and “misinformation from overseas.”

Meanwhile, a new TikTok press release said they were opening a new Election Integrity Center in the US that will influence US elections by countering “misinformation”.

The reason for realism

Thus, the Chinese challenge to the United States is little more than a seaborne invasion of Taiwan. But how does realism help design an effective response to China? Foreign policy realism is an evidence-based framework of threat and power distribution, based on certain fundamental assumptions.

First, the world is anarchic, in the sense that there is no fixed hierarchy and global policemen. The rise and fall of great powers is due to conflict, insecurity or ideological crusades abroad, and nothing is more important than the survival and avoidance of catastrophic wars between great powers, unless the homeland is directly threatened. This is the reason why the great intelligent powers should always prefer internal security to utopian misadventures abroad. You may hate the game, and the actors may change, but the game will remain the same.

Second, covenants are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Consider that the United States joined both world wars, not because of lofty ideals of human rights used as rhetoric of war, but as Hans Morgenthau wrote, to prevent a hegemon from dominating the entire continent. , whether in Asia or Europe. The main motivation was strategic and not ideological.

Finally, and most crucially of all, buck-passing is a smart strategy. One might not like this in our post-modern world of “promoting liberal rights”, but the smartest way to fight an absolutely inevitable great power war is to rely on foot soldiers of allies instead of an advanced presence everywhere. Being the last “offshore balancer” is the smartest solution.

All of these lessons have been internalized by our wise senior statesmen. All those lessons we have forgotten over the last 30 years of unipolarity.

What Realism Requires

Realism therefore dictates the following course of action.

First, arm Taiwan to the teeth, but avoid the Thucydides trap of a civilization-ending great power war. Asia in 2022 is not like Europe in 1949, with the balancing powers broken and no one to stop the march of the Soviets.

China is surrounded by Japan, Vietnam, Australia and India – all powers that are either treaty allies or in tactical alignment with the United States against China. It is a structural advantage. It is hard to imagine a scenario where China would be in the midst of war with simultaneous wars in the Himalayas and the South and East China Seas. Having a sense of proportion is crucial.

The “area denial” strategy which is an advantage for China is also an advantage against Chinese maritime invasions with appropriate weapons and platforms. Taiwan is a heavily armed, wealthy, capable, advanced island and a large island of 24 million people. If properly armed, it could turn out to be China’s 20-year-old misadventure and its imperial graveyard.

Second, the husband’s resources. The main cause of the collapse of a great power is not war, but atrophy, internal decay and overexploitation. Funding utopian crusades abroad, whether promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan or LGBT rights in Ukraine, into insolvency is a fundamental danger for a spent republic. A smarter strategy is to force allies to take a bigger cut. We have to remember that allies will always freeride as long as they box free ride.

Third, and crucially, understand the ideological roots of our current grand strategy. Consider that Soviet state universities were extremely diverse and included the best students from China, Kazakhstan, Syria, Poland and East Germany, but they were all diehard communists. We tend to project a certain rationality in people when this is rarely the case.

Surely corporations are smart enough to see that the revival is hurting capital and the country? Certainly, the militant professors are rational and can be persuaded with reason? Can anyone see that spending an unlimited amount on foreign aid can lead to crippling inflation?

Soviet history suggests otherwise. Some of the smartest people can be extreme ideologues, and the detached majority is often led by a handful of extremely irrational individuals.

The bias in favor of supposed mass rationality is almost always wrong. The policy is top-down. A common mistake in America is to confuse “meritocracy” – a system where merit and quality are favored, which could occur under any system of governance, be it imperialism, aristocracy, or democracy – with credentialism, a rule by ideologues and pundits, that we have now.

It is our universities that are the main drivers of the militant mentality of “promoting liberal rights”, whether abroad or at home. The root causes of crusading interventionism abroad to the point of bankruptcy are the same behind a crusading revival at home. It is a universalist desire to “ensure social justice” everywhere. Our rivals understand this and are ready to exploit it.

In sum, the realistic option is to avoid direct escalation or indefensible red lines, and instead support local actors to be the first line of deterrence, while building up force and focusing on the inside. The Cold War playbook can be applied here, and the post-Cold War playbook should be avoided.

China’s challenge is far more complex than a simple Churchillian binary, and America’s internal problems coupled with post-Cold War crusading momentum are greater threats to the republic’s future than China. invading and occupying Taiwan and trying to pacify a brutal insurgency with their blood and treasure. Crusade abroad, insolvency and internal decadence at home, on the other hand, will rot America from within.

You know George Washington’s farewell speech warning of foreign entanglements and foreign influence at home. The second part is often forgotten but just as important: “since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most fatal enemies of republican government”. Washington said, and we have forgotten it, “the great rule of conduct for us with regard to foreign nations is to extend our commercial relations, to have with them as few political ties as possible…our situation detached and distant invites us and allows us to pursue a different course.

I would end up with one of my other favorite Georges. George Canning’s guiding principle for post-Napoleonic British grand strategy argued for “non-intervention; no European police system; each nation for itself, and God for us all; balance of power; respect for facts, not abstract theories; respect for the rights resulting from the treaties, but caution in their extension…”

We should relearn the ancient wisdom of the two Georges, as we face an old kind of global rivalry taking shape again.


Dr. Sumantra Maitra is a National Security Fellow at the Center for the National Interest; a nonresident fellow at the James G Martin Center; and an elected early career historian at the Royal Historical Society. He is a major contributor to The Federalist and can be reached on Twitter @MrMaitra.