Amid increased tensions with Beijing, Washington would be wise to take note: Criticism of China is warranted, but militarization will backfire.
In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization. This move was initially lauded as an unprecedented step forward for the integrated global economy and an unequivocal sign of Beijing’s commitment to liberalization. Many democratic officials around the world were bullish that China’s economic reform would lead to increased political freedoms. Over the last 20 years, Beijing has not lived up to its commitments. Among the economic abuses are China’s undisclosed subsidies to massive state-owned enterprises in key global industries (e.g., energy, finance, and telecoms) that puts foreign competitors at a distinct disadvantage. China also steals American intellectual property, reportedly worth as much as US$600 billion annually.
China also routinely violates basic human rights. The Communist Party of China (CCP) has locked up untold numbers of Uyghur Muslims in the northwestern territory of Xinjiang in what many have labeled as genocide. China has also placed as many as 1 million Tibetans in internment camps as part of an effort to erase Tibetan culture and form a national identity around the Han Chinese majority. In Hong Kong, Beijing has quashed the efforts of pro-democracy demonstrators and curtailed residents’ basic freedoms by passing laws criminalizing dissent against the CCP.
Criticism of China is warranted. In fact, it would be concerning if President Joe Biden stayed silent. But the Biden administration’s growing calls for outsized military spending as a way to better defend against China are misguided — and feel eerily familiar.
LESSONS FROM AMERICA’S MILITARIZED MIDDLE EAST POLICY
In the early 2000s, bipartisan fervor to respond decisively to the 9/11 attacks led to the poorly prepared Iraq invasion. The ill-conceived move — and war — reflects the American tendency toward hawkish groupthink on matters of national security. The decision to rely on military might has defined US engagement in the Middle East ever since. From the assassination of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani in Baghdad to the provision of munitions used by Saudi-led airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians in Yemen, recent US policy in the region has proven the old adage: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” As Win Without War, a progressive advocacy organization, puts it, “For too long, [the US has] applied the use of military force to a variety of security challenges that do not have military solutions, with disastrous results.” Washington is gearing up to take a similar path with China.
“China poses the greatest long-term challenge to the United States,” asserts the Pentagon’s 2022 Defense Budget Overview. The budget requested $715 billion in military expenditures, a significant portion of which will be spent on ships and planes for a potential war with China. Another lump sum will be used to build new US military bases in the Pacific, a move mirroring how the United States has approached its security concerns in the Arab world.
The Biden administration’s growing calls for outsized military spending as a way to better defend against China are misguided — and feel eerily familiar.
Congress’ view of China has also shifted toward alarmism, driving a bipartisan push for new China legislation. Look no further than the Senate’s Strategic Competition Act (SCA). The legislation began as an effort to enhance US economic competitiveness with China, but representatives amended the bills to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in funding to aid US military exercises with the Taiwanese armed forces. The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank dedicated to diplomatic engagement and military restraint, lambasted Congress’ trajectory as undermining the ability to manage US–China competition without military intervention.
Over time, many American policymakers have acknowledged that the narrow-sighted pursuit of “security” in the Arab world has been a source of global insecurity. Last month, the House passed legislation to repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq. The long overdue bill, as Majority Leader Chuck Schumer put it, ends the United States’ ability to indulge its “military adventurism.”
The United States has spent $6.4 trillion dollars on the post–9/11 wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Even more, the human costs of protracted military intervention in the Arab world have been steep, for local communities and American troops alike. Taking a different route to confront China is a crucial — and productive — first step in acknowledging the negative impacts of a militarized US foreign policy on both the world and US interests.
BREAKING THE MILITARIZATION CYCLE
Avoiding militarization won’t be easy. There are vested interests — whether it be the defense industry, traditionalist foreign policy thinkers, or those that profit from conflict economies — that are calling for military buildup. These demands for an over-securitized response should be questioned and refined with ideas for economic and diplomatic alternatives.
Domestic policy is an important yet overlooked tool for holding the CCP to task. Put another way, the United States can counter China by investing in its domestic capabilities. This means bolstering US research and development funding in emerging technology to better compete with China. Future policies should continue to focus on nurturing the United States’ competitive advantages — its domestic efficacy, international stature, and global network of allies. Additionally, the United States should invest in safeguarding its critical infrastructure against threats. This week the White House formally accused the Chinese Ministry of State Security of a massive cyberattack on Microsoft Exchange. As cyberwarfare becomes increasingly common, to avoid looming escalation, the United States must protect its most vital sectors, allowing space for a proactive diplomatic response.
The trend toward unmitigated conflict with China is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Condemnation of Beijing’s economic and human rights abuses should be used to inform effective, non-reactionary policy. Otherwise, the United States is damned to fall into the same doom loop it created in the Arab world.
Cat Haseman is a student, writer, and soon-to-be US diplomat. She is interested in political culture, local governance, and how foreign policy affects real people. Cat is a Pickering Fellow, an MA Arab Studies student at Georgetown, and a copy editor for Jadaliyya.
Luke Walker is a foreign policy professional in Washington, DC. He is interested in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, Chinese political economy, and American history. Luke is a graduate of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. He is proficient in Mandarin.