THE ‘CHINA THREAT’ PARADIGM AND ITS SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF CONTAINMENT
The previous chapter examined how the knowledge of the China threat is linked to power. But its implications in power relations are not confined to the domestic sphere; they permeate also through the realms of international relations and foreign policy. In fact, the ‘China threat’ paradigm is instrumental to the making of the ‘containment’ policy towards China. Here, I use ‘containment’ as shorthand for a range of US policy measures directed at China in military, economic, political and moral realms. Their common aim is, with various degrees of pressure and coercion, to deter or ‘dissuade’ China from expanding its power beyond certain limits. Of course, this China containment strategy cannot be likened to the American Cold War containment policy towards the Soviet Union; much has changed between then and now.9 Indeed, given its obvious Cold War connotation, ‘containment’ has lost its potency as a policy label among scholars or policy-makers alike; instead, people prefer to call American China policy ‘hedging’, ‘principled engagement’, ‘congagement’, ‘balancing’, ‘management’ or ‘deterrence’. Whether or not ‘containment’ is the right word should not detain us here. The point is that so long as it is more or less the same ‘threat’ perception and institutions that continue to be behind the making of US China policy, it would be erroneous to believe that US policy has made a clear break with the past.
If containment continues to be part and parcel of US China policy, what does it have to do with the ‘China threat’ paradigm? It is one thing to say that there is a link between theory and ideas on the one hand and practice and foreign policy on the other, but it is quite a challenge to empirically demonstrate such a link. Gordon Craig once observed that ‘To establish the relationship between ideas and foreign policy is always a difficult task, and it is no accident that it has attracted so few historians’.10 The result, of course, has been a vicious cycle—with little scholarly interest in this matter, we end up knowing still less about the connection. Furthermore, for various reasons, both scholars and practitioners tend to play down the existence of such a connection. In the case of scholars, they often lament that their ideas are underappreciated by practitioners, whereas the latter tend to brush aside ideas coming from the ivory tower as nothing more than arm-chair commentaries. Either way, the common perception is that there has been a yawning gap between the ivory tower and the corridor of power.11 While such a gap may well exist in certain individual circumstances or in relation to particular policy or theoretical issues, overall this does not overturn the proposition that policy necessarily operates through ideas or theories. As will be demonstrated below, without the knowledge support of the ‘China threat’ paradigm, containment will not be able to function as an effective policy.
First, the threat paradigm helps define (or at least renew) the purpose of containment as a policy. Bernard Schaffer tells us that policy has three dimensions of meaning: purposes; the review of information and the determination of appropriate action; and the securing and commitment of resources in its implementation.12 We are familiar with the second and third dimensions of policy, but no policy can exist without the first, namely, a certain purpose (or purposes). In fact, functioning like a fulcrum, the articulation of a relevant purpose is often the very first—sometimes also the most difficult—step in a policy-making process. For instance, as far as US strategic planners are concerned, the main challenge lies not in implementing a policy of military build-up, but in justifying or identifying a legitimate public purpose for that policy. Likewise, for weapons manufacturers, promoting arms sales is not an overly complicated task; but in order to translate it into official policy, they require a rationale, or more specifically, a legitimate target against which their arms should be deployed. In both cases, identifying a purpose or target is crucial to policy-making.
Thanks to a China threat ‘out there’, a new purpose can be injected into US foreign policy. It provides a rationale for a policy that would otherwise struggle to justify its contemporary relevance. This constitutive effect on US China policy can be likened to the way in which the discourse of terrorism justified and legitimised the US-led ‘War on Terror’. For a start, the terrorist threat immediately gave George W. Bush a hitherto elusive sense of certainty about his mission and policy direction. As reported in the New York Times, not until the ‘September 11’ tragedy did the President begin to feel ‘sure about what he should be doing’.13 While the rise of terrorism has enabled the US to preoccupy itself with the ‘War on Terror’ for more than a decade, at least for a particular section of the US foreign policy establishment, a more lasting purpose for US foreign and security policy requires the China threat.
Second, the threat paradigm contributes to policy-making by spelling out some specific policy options. From the beginning, the representation of China as a danger is not merely an intellectual question about ‘what is China?’; it is always concerned with the practical question of ‘what to do about it?’ For example, in their book The Coming Conflict with China, Bernstein and Munro devote a whole chapter to the issue of how to manage China’s rise. Among their policy recommendations are maintaining a strong US military presence in Asia, strengthening Japan, continuing arms sales to Taiwan, and restricting China’s nuclear weapons arsenal.14 Similarly, in the last pages of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer believes that an appropriate China policy is not what he calls the ‘misguided’ engagement strategy, but containment to ‘slow the rise of China’.15 Charles Krauthammer, a prominent neoconservative proponent of the China threat argument, not only advocated explicitly for containing China in his 1996 Time magazine article, but also detailed how this can best be done. Taking ‘a rising and threatening China’ as a pregiven fact, he insisted that ‘any rational policy’ towards the country should be predicated on various containment strategies such as strengthening regional alliances (with Japan, Vietnam, India, and Russia) to box in China, standing by Chinese dissidents, denying Beijing the right to host the Olympics, and keeping China from joining the WTO on its own terms. Speaking with a sense of urgency, he urged that this containment policy ‘begin early in its career’.16
Feeling the same sense of urgency, Peter Navarro, in his book The Coming China Wars, warns consumers, corporate executives, and policy-makers of gathering storm clouds on the horizon. He then offers a range of policy prescriptions on ‘How to fight—and win!—the coming China wars’ (the title of his book’s final chapter).17 These require, for example, that the US ‘adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy toward intellectual property theft’, ‘condemn China’s actions in the strongest of terms, and if China’s abuses of power continue, seek to strip China of its permanent veto’ in the United Nations. What those policy prescriptions have in common, he adds, is that ‘they require the economic and political will to stand up to China, along with the military might to back up the prescriptions’.18
If the military and economic threat of China entails military and economic containment, the image of China as a brutal, authoritarian state helps lay the foundation for moral and ideological sanction. Advising on how to deal with ‘hostile regimes’ in general, Kagan and Kristol offer a rich recipe of regime change:
Tactics for pursuing a strategy of regime change would vary according to circumstances. In some cases, the best policy might be support for rebel groups, along the lines of the Reagan Doctrine as it was applied in Nicaragua and elsewhere. In other
cases, it might mean support for dissidents by either overt and covert means,
and/or economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.... But the purpose of American foreign policy ought to be clear. When it comes to dealing with tyrannical regimes, especially those with the power to do us or our allies harm, the United States should seek not coexistence but transformation.19
Counting China as one of those ‘tyrannical regimes’, they urge that the US and the West make it harder for the Chinese regime to resolve its contradictions, thereby hastening its collapse.20
Of course, policy prescriptions from the China threat literature are not necessarily actual official policies, but through the influence of mainstream media and policy consultancy, the line between them is often easily crossed.
To start with, many China threat advocates, some of them prominent neocons, are high-profile media-savvy commentators. As Bacevich observes, apart from the neocon-dominated op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, each of the three leading general-interest daily newspapers in the US—the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post—has at least one regular neoconservative commentator: Max Boot and David Brooks respectively for the first two newspapers, and Charles Krauthammer and Robert Kagan for the third.21 The Weekly Standard, a key neoconservative publication and one of the most reliable sources of the China threat analysis, boasts that its writers ‘are in great demand on nationally broadcast political programs for their ideas and opinions. Frequent appearances on television testify not only to our influence in Washington but to our relevance on the national political scene’.22 That probably is no overstatement. In July 2008, at the first sign that the Bush administration might fail to follow through a previously announced lucrative arms sales deal to Taiwan, no fewer than four China experts—Dan Blumenthal from the AEI, Aaron Friedberg from Princeton University, Randall Schriver from Armitage International, and Ashley Tellis from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—joined forces to persuade the administration to go ahead with that deal. In their co-authored article published in the Wall Street Journal, they demanded that ‘Bush should keep his word on Taiwan’.23 Less than three months later, Washington announced that more than $6 billion worth of sales in advanced weapons to Taiwan would go ahead. Although it is hard to measure and quantify the extent of their policy influence, it would be inconceivable that the opinion of those analysts, all of whom had served in Asia policy positions in the Bush administration, had made no policy impact.
In addition to media activism, many China threat analysts exert their influence through consultancy work. Michael Pillsbury, a well-known China hawk, falls into this category. Having worked at RAND and taught at several American universities, Pillsbury is regarded by the Wall Street Journal as ‘a persistent force in shaping official American perceptions’ of China, even though he appears on no public Defense Department roster.24 Supported by his long-time mentor Andrew Marshall, head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, Pillsbury authored two books: Chinese Views of Future Warfare (1997) and China Debates the Future Security Environment (2000), which earn him a great deal of fame in China policy-making circles. As a Washington Monthly article notes, it was in part based on Pillsbury’s work that the Pentagon’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review famously identified China as the nation with ‘the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States’.25 Moreover, some passages of the Pentagon’s 2006 annual report on China’s military power ‘appear to be lifted directly out of Pillsbury’s writings, including warnings of “asymmetric programs” in the works’.26
In fact, not just passages but entire policy packages are finding their way into Washington. Take, for example, China experts’ frequent call for strengthening an alliance system surrounding China. On the ground, this is precisely what has been unfolding. At the centre of this alliance build-up and realignment is the beefed-up defence cooperation between the US and Japan. After Obama came to office, Japan’s prime minister was his first Oval Office visitor from abroad and Japan was the destination of Mrs Clinton’s first overseas trip as the Secretary of State.27 More substantial cooperation includes their joint development of a missile defence system, the relocation of US First Army Corps command headquarters from America’s west coast to Camp Zama, south of Tokyo, as well as the shift of the command operations of the Thirteenth Air Force, now in Guam, to Yokota airbase near Tokyo.28 In this way, Japan has emerged as Washington’s closest global strategic partner and its most robust partner against China.29 In the words of Chalmers Johnson, a long-time China and Japan watcher, Japan has been turned into the ‘control tower’ of US-enforced security in Asia.30
US military relations with the Philippines have been the closest since the end of the Cold War. Military cooperation with the Indonesian military has intensified, with the ‘unstated reason’ being, in the words of Indonesia’s Defense Minister, ‘to balance the rising power of China’.31 In Singapore, which already plays host to visiting US aircraft carriers, Fallon revealed in his March 2005 testimony that the US was actively seeking opportunities for expanded access to Singaporean facilities. And with India, Fallon noted growing US ties with the Indian Integrated Defence Staff and the Indian Armed Services.32 In March 2006, George W. Bush made a historic visit to India, during which the two countries struck a nuclear deal, despite the fact that India was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Obama’s 2010 visit to India and his call for India’s permanent membership on the UN Security Council, according to commentators, both carry implications for China.33 In late 2011, a centre-piece of Obama’s visit to Australia was his announcement that Australia’s northern city Darwin will host the rotational deployments of 2 500 US marines, a move drawing Australia ever deeper into what defence expert Hugh White calls ‘a more unified military coalition to confront China’s growing maritime power’.34
As well as strengthening bilateral ties with Japan and Australia, the US has upgraded the trilateral strategic dialogues among Washington, Tokyo and Canberra from a bureaucratic to a ministerial level. An Australian scholar describes this new triple alliance as a ‘little NATO’ against China.35 When America’s steps to strengthen military ties with Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and several central Asian countries are taken into account, the ‘strategic net’ woven by the US to ‘persuade China to keep its ambitions within reason’ becomes even more palpable. 36 Containing China is certainly not the only motive behind such bilateral military cooperation, but many commentators have no doubt that it is ‘a central element’, a view confirmed by US diplomats.37 Commenting on those US efforts to create and strengthen alliances in the region, Samuel Berger concedes that ‘continued rapprochement with India and effervescent US-Japan relations, both fully justified, now are pursued with more than a whiff of Chinese encirclement’.38
Certainly, ‘China threat’ experts cannot be given all the credit for these policy moves. For their part, many policy-makers themselves are concerned with a similar question of what to do about the China threat, an image which has now been internalised inside the Beltway. According to Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Robert Kaplan, this concern by practitioners often translates into the policy issue of ‘how we would fight China’. Richard Bush and Michael O’Hanlon argue that what is revealed in Kaplan’s 2005 Atlantic Monthly article is noteworthy. While dismissing the article as ‘a combination of false advertising and misplaced analogies’, they nonetheless point out that:
Kaplan’s article should have been taken seriously given the principal source of his information: the officers in the Pacific Command, an arm of the Department of Defense. It should be very significant that the individuals in command of America’s front lines in the Pacific apparently believe there is a cold war [with China] in our future. For like their bosses in the Pentagon, they have some power to act on their perceptions of the trajectory of Chinese military power.39
Bush’s and O’Hanlon’s concern is well founded. In response to a perceived Chinese military threat, a series of US policy reviews, military build-up, and strategic realignment have been under way for years. For example, acting upon the assumption of Beijing’s growing threat vis-a-vis Taiwan, by July 2004 Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had authorised the National Defense University, as a matter of urgency, to conduct nine war-game scenarios focusing on cross-strait relations, one of which was suggestively code-named ‘Dragon’s Thunder’.40 Importantly, war games are not just that, mere games; they are often unmistakable signs of war plans in the making. According to William Arkin, an NBC News military analyst and Washington Post online columnist, the US has already built ‘a new full fledged war plan for China’. Codenamed ‘Operations Plan (OPLAN) 5077’, it is the first new conventional war plan since the end of the Cold War and ‘one of only three completed and full-fledged war plans of the US military... with assigned forces and more detailed annexes and appendices’.41 The significance of such war plans, argues Arkin, is that once drafted, they will be tested through military exercises and refined through more intelligence to improve targeting and warning. 42 Such a process, initially growing out of a strategic concern, can soon take on a life of its own in the defence policy domain.43
The recent US military build-up in the western Pacific clearly testifies to this process. In the above-mentioned article ‘How We Would Fight China’, Kaplan reveals that the US has begun to triple its long-term deployment of nuclear submarines in Guam from three to ten, as well as to prepare the island to receive B-1 and B-2 long-range bombers. Indeed, at any given time, Guam’s Andersen Airbase is home to some 100 000 bombs and missiles as well as 66 million gallons of jet fuel, making it the biggest strategic ‘gas-and- go’ airbase in the world.44 There is little secret who the main target of this massive military build-up in Guam is. James Thomas, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Plans, told the conservative Washington Times that ‘the deployments of bomber elements to Guam on a more routine basis’ are essentially the China part of a broad hedging strategy.45 As reported in the Atlantic Monthly, both the bomber deployments and American nuclear upgrades have been linked to the China threat perception held by US military top brass. 46 Admiral William Fallon, formerly the US Pacific Command, once lamented that his bosses still seemed to be fighting the Cold War, as though China were the Soviet Union of old.47
Meanwhile, the image of China as an economic threat has led US policymakers to assemble an impressive arsenal of economic sticks. During the 1990s, one such stick was the ‘most-favoured-nation’ (MFN) status (later called ‘permanent normal trade relationship’ or PNTR), which the US regularly threatened to withhold unless Beijing met its demands on human rights. In 2000, when that stick lost its magic, Congress promptly mandated the establishment of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission to monitor the national security implications of China’s economic rise, the only such institution in the US that targets a particular country. In July 2005, senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham blamed an ‘artificially undervalued’ Chinese currency for the ballooning US trade deficits with China. To compel Beijing to appreciate its currency, they sponsored a bill threatening to impose an across-the-board punitive tariff of 27.5 per cent on Chinese imports. Some Congress members saw this measure as ‘part of a sea change in congressional thinking that will eventually force the administration to give up its engagement strategy and begin to challenge China’.48 In early 2006, under pressure from a US Senate legislation that urged the government to revoke its PNTR with China, Washington announced the establishment of a task force to ensure Beijing’s compliance with global trade rules. This task force, also focusing on a single country, was again unprecedented in US history.49 Indeed, Washington’s uneasiness with China’s economic challenge became so intense that on some days, as many as four congressional committees simultaneously had China on their agenda.50
Aided by the powerful perception of a rising China threat, what Robert Gates once called ‘a number of programs’ aimed at China now culminated in the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’, ‘an integrated diplomatic, military, and economic strategy that stretches from the Indian subcontinent through Northeast Asia’.51 As Walter Russell Mead summed up well after Obama’s trip to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia in November 2011:
The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership—ever. The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the [sic] US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group [Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP] that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit—rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers. 52
In isolation, each of these moves may not mean much, but the fact that they happened all at once must be more than pure coincidence. Why these coordinated moves then? Many argue that they are logical ‘responses’ to recent Chinese assertiveness, but this China factor alone does not provide the whole answer.53 In any case, the ‘China factor’ does not exist independently of the fore-meanings provided by the ‘China threat’ lens. In this sense, the discourse of ‘China threat’ again has played a role in the contemporary US policy on China. While most social discourses carry certain policy implications,54 what is special about the ‘China threat’ discourse is that its binary frameworks and unequivocal moral codes almost dictate the making of China policy. For instance, by framing US-China relations through the dichotomised lenses of security vs. threat, win vs. lose, survival vs. surrender, containment vs. appeasement, ‘act now’ vs. ‘accept defeat forever’, and so forth, this paradigm makes it not only obvious but imperative for policymakers to choose one set of options over the other. Confronting the China threat thus becomes not only a matter of military or economic security, but also a litmus test of Western/US credibility, ontological security and identity. For Ross Munro, should America fail to stand up to the China threat, it would be seen as no longer committed to security and stability in Asia. As a result, its credibility among Asian countries would suffer, which in turn could lead to a domino effect: ‘Led by Japan, our friends would scurry to make concessions to China, possibly including closing their ports and airfields to U.S. armed forces. Our days as a true Asian power would be numbered’.55
A similar scenario was conjured up in China’s Strategic Modernization, a draft report authored by the Defense Secretary’s ISAB Task Force in October
2008. This report fears that China’s growing clout could make America’s allies in Asia, such as Japan and South Korea, become increasingly doubtful of US military commitment and resolve.56 In this context, any conciliatory gesture towards China would amount to ‘appeasement’, showing ‘signs of weakness’, or even emboldening other dictators around the world. 57 Given the negative connotations of such epithets, taking a hardline stance on China becomes the only viable option.
Bill Clinton’s about-face over Lee Teng-hui’s US visa controversy in 1995 perfectly exemplifies the constitutive power of the ‘China threat’ paradigm. Initially the Clinton administration had reassured Beijing that Lee, given his official status as the president of Taiwan, would not be granted a visa to visit his alma mater Cornell University. However, looked through the ‘China threat’ paradigm, the whole issue soon came to be framed through the stark binaries of friend/foe and democracy/dictatorship. Consequently, not issuing Lee a visa was roundly condemned as a betrayal to a democratic friend as well as a kowtow to Beijing’s authoritarian regime. Conveying precisely this clear-cut message to Clinton, Chuck Robb, a US senator and close friend of the President, went a step further by arguing that a kowtow to Beijing on this issue would ‘permit China to determine the visa policy of the United States’. This line of argument immediately worked. In Robb’s words, ‘within minutes’ of their meeting, Clinton agreed to reverse his decision and to grant the
During the 2005 Unocal bid controversy, Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher passionately described the Chinese bid as evidence of China’s belligerence to ‘everything we stand for as a people’.59 With the American national identity believed to be at stake, Congress almost unanimously passed a resolution condemning that bid. These examples show that the particular discursive effect of the ‘China threat’ paradigm not only prescribes containment, it mandates it. It is indicative of the ‘tyranny of words’ whereby people are ‘at the mercy of labels, of expressions used as weapons’.60