For more than a decade it’s become expected for books peddling the “China threat” to pop up as best sellers. From Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World (2009) to Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon (2015), the best response has been to just shrug and move on. Talk in serious policy circles and major media were still primarily focused on Beijing’s integration into the “liberal world order” as a “responsible stakeholder,” and of the gains in trade made (and still to be made) in exchange between the United States and China.
The transformation of China from global partner to enemy number one seemed to happen, in Hemingway’s words, gradually, then suddenly. Indeed, despite Donald Trump’s early bellicosity when it came to China, the corporate press didn’t immediately play along with the China threat narrative. Rather, they proclaimed the folly of his trade war and seemed to revel in reporting the losses it was inflicting on American farmers, whose exports to China had been interrupted as a result of retaliatory tariffs.
But in the background the slow, ominous drip of the China threat narrative continued with Graham Allison’s Destined For War (2017). Then, in quick succession, Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept (2019) by Robert Spalding, Deceiving the Sky: Inside Communist China’s Drive for Global Supremacy (2019) by Bill Gertz, Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America (2020) by Qiao Liang, Has China Won? (2020) by Kishore Mahbubani, The Long Game: China’s Strategy to Displace American Order (2021) by Rush Doshi, The World According to China (2021) by Elizabeth Economy, War Without Rules: China’s Playbook for Global Domination (2022) by Robert Spalding, No Limits; the Inside Story of China’s War with the West (2022) by Andrew Small, and Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy (2022) by Erich Schwartzel.
It was as though even before the COVID pandemic—which exacerbated already strained relations between the United States and China—the movement was underway to translate for the public the policies pursued through multiple U.S. administrations aimed at containing China. It suddenly became normal to pick up one of the so-called “papers of record,” corporate media giants like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, or Washinton Post and encounter a headline about China presented as ominous or threatening. Indeed, by the time Hal Brands and Michael Beckley’s Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China (2022) hit bookshelves last August, entire opinion pages of the major papers sounded like talking points from the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS), the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS), or the 2018 special report from the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) which all painted China as a direct threat to vital U.S. interests, and one that needed to be vigorously countered and contained militarily, geopolitically, economically, ideologically, and technologically.
While many of the books mentioned above are written in the breathless, alarmed manner of their earliest forerunner, the eponymous China Threat (2000) by Bill Gertz, there have been some notable exceptions which have sought and obtained some measure of balance even when they could not completely escape the China threat paradigm. Kevin Rudd’s The Avoidable War (2022) and James Fok’s Financial Cold War (2021) both do a reasonable job presenting the facts, perspectives of both Washington and Beijing on key issues, and have as their aim deescalating the growing crisis that is the present state and trajectory of U.S.-China relations.
Tellingly, outright dissenters, those that questioned any part of the ascendent China narrative, were few. Red Flags: Why Xi’s China Is In Jeopardy (2018) by George Magnus and Thomas Orlik’s China: The Bubble That Never Pops (2020) both deserve credit for seeing through to the true mess that is China’s economy. Though their critiques of the China threat narrative are incomplete, and scarcely touch on the demographic, environmental, and geostrategic mountains confronting Beijing, China’s economy is central to everything else (the one-party CCP dictatorship included) and an expansion of their critiques is all one needs to cast the prospect of a future “Chinese Century” into serious doubt.
And it is here that a point needs to be clearly parsed. There is a significant difference between China ruling the world in a manner like the United States has for the past three decades, and Beijing enjoying preponderance in its immediate environs and proportional heft for its relative weight where its interests are concerned around the globe. For while it is increasingly unlikely that China’s economy will ever surpass that of the United States—either in total or per capita output—or that it will ever have the military reach enjoyed by Washington, Beijing has grown powerful enough relatively that it can assert and more or less get what it wants in its immediate environs. Trivial, obvious, or realistic though that may seem to the objective observer, to Washington this fact constitutes the whole of the China threat. The existence of an independent China (or Russia, for that matter) is a threat to Washington’s accustomed ability to do more or less whatever it wants wherever it wants. However, the existence of an independent China is already a fact and continued refusal on the part of Washington to accept it will cause more than theoretical problems.
I did not imagine or intend, when I started graduate school several years ago, that any serious amount of my time would be spent reading Chinese history, learning Mandarin, or studying the specifics of the Maoist interpretation of the Marxist dialectic. As a political scientist, economist, and historian with an interest in the emergence of different political and economic structures in Europe from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, my initial diversion into Sino-American relations, both past and present, came as something of an annoyance.
Writing at the Mises Institute, I’ve done my best to push back against this fake China threat narrative. It’s become clear, however, that a more comprehensive case needs to be made against the ludicrous idea that China is on the cusp of taking over the world. Alas, public fear has been continually stoked and the China threat narrative is worse than ever—hence, The (fake) China Threat (and its very real danger) has taken on book-length form and will be published by the Libertarian Institute in 2023. In the meantime, I will do my bi-weekly best to pour cold water on whatever the latest hawkish nonsense from DC towards China happens to be, as well as inform and contextualize for readers what is going on in China and the wider Indo-Pacific. While I cannot promise readers will always like what I have to say, with no conflicts of interest to declare they can at least be rest assured that I have no reason whatsoever to lie to them—which is (tragically) more than can be said for practically anyone anywhere else.