China Distrusts the U.S.: Another Good Reason to Boost Military Spending

April 4, 2012

A Brookings paper by Ken Lieberthal and Wang Jisi on U.S.-China bilateral relations has been talked up a lot this week. The main takeaway of the study that has garnered the most attention is that, in the words of Professor Wang: “China’s strategic distrust of the United States is deeply rooted, and in recent years it seems to have deepened.”

That doesn’t sound very good at all, does it? The picture painted by Professor Wang is that Beijing sees the U.S. as a declining power that wishes to contain China’s rise to a superpower status that it enjoyed in the past. American meddling in China’s internal affairs, criticism across a wide range of issues, and U.S. strengthening of its Asian alliances have solidified China’s “zero-sum” thinking.

The question is what to do about it? Lieberthal and Wang recommend the following:

The two scholars together recommended a “sustained, deep dialogue” on military affairs so China can defend its core interests but let the United States meet obligations to its Asian allies.

The experts also called for the United States to encourage Chinese investment and for three-way dialogues involving India and Japan, which could prevent a “strategic cleavage” that pits Beijing and Washington against each other in the region.

In other words, the problem lies in distrust, so the solution should come from increased dialogue. I don’t know about you, but that actually sounds quite intelligent, not to mention downright obvious. Unfortunately, the “shoot first, ask questions later crowd” has different ideas. To some, a confirmation that China distrusts U.S. containment policies and is accordingly building up its military in the Pacific has but one response: increase military spending.

Here’s what the Weekly Standard had to say:

[T]he United States ought to be unashamedly wary of China’s rise. Certainly the rest of East Asia and an increasing number of other nations across the world are wary. Nor should “strategic wariness” necessarily lead to hair-trigger confrontation or conflict.  But it does suggest the need for a serious deterrent military posture (beginning, alas, with a nuclear deterrent), primarily in East Asia but elsewhere as well. It requires more than a token “pivot,” that’s for sure.

Nothing there about distrust and its roots. No mention of how the two nations could work on that problem in a peaceful way. And certainly the No Apologies! folks at the Weekly Standard wouldn’t dream of examining U.S. foreign policy to see whether that “pivot” might have exacerbated that distrust. That would be a sign of weakness. You did catch the use of “unashamedly,” didn’t you?

No. If someone distrusts you, the proper response is to arm yourself, even if you already have a hell of a solid deterrent force on call. If that means making the underlying problem worse, well, so be it. The secret here is that there’s never a good time to actually decrease military spending, since there is always a threat out there that can be found.

This is how arms races get going. Wang’s statements about Beijing’s view of the U.S. are alarming, and if neither of the countries is willing to drill down into that distrust and try to fix the problem, then the default policy will be more containment, more arms, and more wariness.

Depressing.