Constructing the Western Self in the ‘China Threat’ Paradigm

The ‘China threat’ paradigm is a discursive construct closely linked with Western/American colonial desire and historical experience. It reflects the inability or at least unwillingness of the Western/American self to make sense of China beyond their own fear and realpolitik trajectories. In doing so, its ethnocentric representation of China provides the West with a measure of strategic familiarity and moral certainty, thus reaffirming the self-imagination of the West.

The imagination of an external ‘threat’ or Other has long been instrumental to the formation and maintenance of self-identity.31 In the logic of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call ‘colonialist representations’, the difference of the Other, first having been pushed to the extreme, ‘can be inverted in a second moment as the foundation of the Self. In other words, the evil, barbarity, and licentiousness of the colonized Other are what make possible the goodness, civility, and propriety of the European Self’. They go on to say that ‘Only through opposition to the colonized does the metropolitan subject really become itself’.32 The threatening imagery of ‘wilderness’ in the early periods of American nation-building served a similar purpose in that it helped maintain America’s ‘New World mythology’. As James Robertson notes, ‘there is no New World without wilderness. If we are to be true Americans (and thus part of that New World and its destiny), there must be wilderness. The symbol is an imperative for our real world’.33

The construction of self-identity through the discourses of threat, Otherness and wilderness perhaps culminated in the poetics and politics of the Cold War, ‘an important moment in the (re)production of American identity’.34 In this process, discourses of international relations and foreign policy played a central role. They helped create and police boundaries and Otherness so that a unified self could be identified and protected. As Campbell notes, ‘The constant articulation of danger through foreign policy is thus not a threat to a state’s identity or existence: it is its condition of possibility. While the objects of concern change over time, the techniques and exclusions by which those objects are constituted as dangers persist’.35 In this sense, although the Cold War was a pivotal moment in the Western/American construction of threat, such a discursive practice is not confined to the Cold War.36 It is, as noted before, embedded in the modern quest for certainty, and the Cold War mentality is only a historically specific manifestation of that ongoing modern colonial desire.

Not surprisingly then, the Cold War’s end did little to disrupt the discursive ritual of constructing Otherness. If anything, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the ‘Evil Empire’ demanded more threats, simply because their very absence would become a threat to the coherence and unity of the West/the US. Without clearly identifiable enemies, ‘there can be no overarching ontology of security, no shared identity differentiating the national self from threatening others, no consensus on what—if anything— should be done’.37 For this reason, Mearsheimer quite accurately predicted that ‘we will soon miss the Cold War’.38

Mearsheimer’s prediction certainly rang true within a number of US government agencies and institutions, most notably the Pentagon and the

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), whose very identity and institutional certainty had hinged on fighting the Cold War Communist ‘Other’. If the ‘Communist threat’ no longer existed, the Pentagon would find it a lot harder to justify its massive military spending, if not its very raison d’etre. More importantly, if history had indeed been won and there was little left to fight for, would the moral leadership of the US ‘as a force for good in the world’ still be in demand?39 In the words of Huntington: ‘if there is no evil empire out there threatening those principles, what indeed does it mean to be an American, and what becomes of American national interests?’40 Would the West, a ‘highly artificial’ construct, be able to survive?41 Worse still, might the rest of the world, now no longer in need of the ‘indispensable nation’, break loose or even turn around and resent the latter’s hegemony?

In this context, it became imperative for the West to continue invoking threat, which would also help counter the internal danger of ‘declining strength, flagging will and confusion about our role in the world’.42 Hence the persistent colonial desire for a threatening Other, which by now is not only a source of paranoia, but also one of secret fascination. Clearly mindful of this Western paradoxical affection for enemy, Georgi Arbatov, Director of a Moscow think tank, told a US audience the year before the collapse of the Berlin Wall: ‘We are going to do something terrible to you—we are going to deprive you of an enemy’.43 Arbatov was no doubt correct to imply that for the US living without an identity-defining enemy would be terrible indeed, but he only got half right. For the ‘enemy’ qua enemy to the US is often not determined by that ‘enemy’ itself. Rather, as noted before, it is primarily a category in the colonial desire built into the modern American selfimagination. Consequently, ‘To prove that we are menaced is of course unnecessary... it is enough that we feel menaced’.44 That is, it is not up to the ‘enemy’ to decide whether or not it can cease to be an enemy. While the USSR as a specific threat might have gone, the ‘emotional substitute’ of fear in the Western/American self-imagination lived on, always eager and able to find its next monster to destroy.

As a consequence, the post-Cold War period witnessed a proliferation of freshly minted threats, ranging from Robert Kaplan’s famous ‘Coming Anarchy’ thesis through Mearsheimer’s ‘Back to the Future’ scenario to Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ prediction.45 Meanwhile the emergence of the Iraq threat in the waning days of the Cold War temporarily allowed George Bush Snr. to regain ‘a whole plateful of clarity’ about ‘good and evil, right and wrong’. 46 Yet, for many anxious strategic planners, to best demonstrate why the US should remain an indispensable nation, the most indispensable enemy had to be China. The ‘beauty’ of this mega threat lies in its apparent ability to satisfy the colonial desire of Western/American self on both strategic and moral grounds.

Strategically, China’s vast size would be the most obvious and convenient justification for the often expensive strategic programmes pursued by Washington. This was true even in the midst of the Cold War when America’s main obsession was with the Soviet Union. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to build an antiballistic-missile (ABM) system. McNamara was personally opposed to such a system, believing that it could be easily countered by a slight increase in the number of Soviet offensive missiles. But unable to challenge the President’s order, McNamara gave a speech, which, after stating all the reasons why an ABM was a bad idea, concluded that the US still needed one to defend against an attack by China. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Warnke walked into McNamara’s office later that day and asked, ‘China bomb, Bob?’ McNamara simply replied: ‘What else am I going to blame it on?’47

The end of the Cold War has only further cemented China’s role as the indispensable threat. Representing a most suitable strategic target for the tools at hand, China, as Bruce Cumings explains, has basically become ‘a metaphor for an enormously expensive Pentagon that has lost its bearings [since the end of the Cold War] and that requires a formidable “renegade state” to define its mission (Islam is rather vague, and Iran lacks necessary weight)’.48 Only in the aftermath of ‘September 11’ was China temporarily let off the hook, when terrorism in general, and the more tangible ‘Axis of Evil’ in particular, served an essentially similar function of reassuring American self-identity and certainty. 49

As well as helping sustain the military-industrial complex, the China threat also has moral and political utility for the vitality of Western self-image. Beijing’s continued existence as an authoritarian regime contributes both to the self-congratulatory image of ‘democratic peace’ in the West in general, and to the need for American leadership and moral authority in particular. Insofar as China reminds us that ‘history is not close to an end’,50 the US-led West can continue to be called upon by the oppressed for moral leadership. Facing a China-led coalition of the world’s despotic regimes, the enlargement of the Western self to form a league of democracies can be relatively easily justified, perhaps even with a measure of urgency.51 In short, the moral challenge posed by China serves as a valuable discursive site where the Western/American self can continue to be coherently imagined, constructed and enacted.

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