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.

9 thoughts on “China Distrusts the U.S.: Another Good Reason to Boost Military Spending

  1. Tee

    This report has been making the rounds on various op-eds, but I don’t know why people are treating it like it’s some sort of great revelation. The US carries out regular military exercises around China’s territory and insists on maintaining its ability to apply unrivaled military force against China and any other potential competitor in the region, and people wonder why China might be distrustful of the US? If there was ever any lingering doubt in China as to what the US’s intentions are, the “Pacific Pivot” would surely have cleared things up.

    I don’t think this report changes anything because it seems to me that both the US and China had already made up their mind about each other. I just hope the rivalry doesn’t get out of hand.

    1. Handler

      Right. While North Korea’s brand new nuclear facility and Zhu Chenghu’s appointment as representative of China at a regional security summit covering nuclear security surely have cleared up the PLA’s attitude toward the US. See how easy that is?

      Certainly seems like you’ve made up your mind, ignoring the nations who’ve invited the US into the region. What I find extraordinary is that the “roots” of this distrust on the PLA’s side are curiously exactly as “deep” as its generals’ brute megalomania, as in “We’s gets whats we’s wants or we’s not talking”.

      The US has been encouraging dialogue with the PLA for a decade now. Several times it has been rebuffed. Often for completely short-sighted reasons:

      http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2007/12/01/2003390613

      1. Tee

        Yes, I notice your emphasis on the PLA, as opposed to the CCP-led government and the wider political leadership, in an attempt to present China as a country governed by extremist hawks. The Pacific Pivot is by no means some kind of ad hoc response to the cries for help from the SE nations because the strategic reorientation aimed at China was underway well before the territorial disputes became an issue. And given the security implications that Tibet and Taiwan pose for China, simply not talking is hardly an unreasonable act of protest. If someone had pulled the same stunt against the US (on a regular basis, I might add), one could be pretty certain that the response would’ve been much more potent and consequential.

        1. Handler

          Funny thing about “governing”: one actually has to have control and, with that control, responsibility. The PLA consists entirely of extremist hawks, and no PLA hawk had ever openly articulated quite as astounding a (nuclear) threat as Zhu Chenghu. Are you suggesting when the decision was made to send Zhu Chenghu as representative to the Asia security summit in 2010, the decision did not have to be approved by the central government? That would suggest quite a bit of independence on the part of the PLA, wouldn’t it? Of course that may be preferable, for you at least, to acknowledging the central government’s responsibility–assuming they had control.

          By the way, Zhu Chenghu’s US counterpart was Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense. Surprisingly chosen to attend by the President of the United States.

          Of course I focused on the PLA. It is entirely inconceivable that broader trust may be ascertained between states without dialogue between their militaries. This is especially true when one of those nations’ militaries has for decades, by continuing to employ strident Maoist rhetoric, focused on the other as its arch-nemesis. It is especially true when one of the nations’ militaries has been a serial proliferator of nuclear weapons (in highly unstable regions).

          You initially gave considerable weight to the Pacific Pivot, even going so far as to say it had the capacity to remove all doubt about US intentions. Now you appear to be backing away from that statement, and you continue to ignore the fact that the US Navy is far more welcome in the seas around SE Asia and East Asia than the PLAN. We can go back further in history to determine whether China has provoked encirclement if you’d like…

          “And given the security implications that Tibet and Taiwan pose for China, simply not talking is hardly an unreasonable act of protest.”

          Indeed, if it were only that simple. Then again, invading Tibet–and firing missiles at Taiwan for having elections–may be understood as an unreasonable act, even when citing “security implications”. Let’s concur that we must judge reason by its continued contribution to the resolution of problems. How is this not talking working out for China? The last time the US Navy was turned away from Hong Kong (due to a mishap involving a South American camelid, I believe), it had to make its way through the Straits to avoid bad seas, causing a PLA hissy-fit. Actually, that does sound pretty unreasonable. Rather ridiculous, in fact.

          “If someone had pulled the same stunt against the US (on a regular basis, I might add), one could be pretty certain that the response would’ve been much more potent and consequential.”

          Pulling what stunt? The US has been invited to establish bases in several countries in East and South East Asia. It has the technology to peer over China’s borders without leaving international waters. The Soviet Union was able to do all of this and the US co-existed with them. The Soviets were only kept from establishing permanent nuclear missile bases in Cuba, an act of proliferation whose only adequate parallel in East Asia is in North Korea.

          1. Tee

            The idea that one person’s position is necessarily representative of that of the PRC leadership as a whole is absurd, especially when the position is a particularly hawkish one. What of the others who don’t hold such a hawkish position? The problem with your focus on the PLA is that it completely ignores the role of the civilian leadership and the fact that the views of the leaders in general span across a spectrum. And your attempt to compare Zhu Chenghu with the Pacific Pivot is simply disingenuous, as well as absurd – the latter is actually a policy that is being carried out.

            “You initially gave considerable weight to the Pacific Pivot, even going so far as to say it had the capacity to remove all doubt about US intentions. Now you appear to be backing away from that statement, and you continue to ignore the fact that the US Navy is far more welcome in the seas around SE Asia and East Asia than the PLAN. We can go back further in history to determine whether China has provoked encirclement if you’d like…”

            I’m not backing away from anything. I’m simply stating as a matter of fact that the desires of China’s neighbours have had little, if any, impact on the US’s strategic intentions against China’s rise. You seem all too keen to deflect responsibility away from the US but you need to give credit where credit is due. By the way, just as an aside, while the governments in the region may welcome the American military presence, the average citizens are not so enthusiastic, for good reason: http://www.iacenter.org/Koreafiles/ktc-civilnetwork.htm

            “Indeed, if it were only that simple. Then again, invading Tibet–and firing missiles at Taiwan for having elections–may be understood as an unreasonable act, even when citing “security implications”. Let’s concur that we must judge reason by its continued contribution to the resolution of problems. How is this not talking working out for China? The last time the US Navy was turned away from Hong Kong (due to a mishap involving a South American camelid, I believe), it had to make its way through the Straits to avoid bad seas, causing a PLA hissy-fit. Actually, that does sound pretty unreasonable. Rather ridiculous, in fact.”

            Goodness, I hope you’re not going to take the “defender-of-freedom-and-democracy” argument, because we all know that the US is quite capable of suppressing both freedom and democracy. The fact of the matter is that Tibet and Taiwan are regarded as part of China, even by the US (despite its attempt to equivocate on the exact status of Taiwan), and if the US had a genuine desire to reduce the level of distrust with China it would act more like it on these core issues, never mind that China is not talking.

            “Pulling what stunt? The US has been invited to establish bases in several countries in East and South East Asia. It has the technology to peer over China’s borders without leaving international waters. The Soviet Union was able to do all of this and the US co-existed with them. The Soviets were only kept from establishing permanent nuclear missile bases in Cuba, an act of proliferation whose only adequate parallel in East Asia is in North Korea.”

            By “stunt” I was referring to US actions on Tibet and Taiwan. However, are you seriously suggesting that the US would have no problem with Chinese military bases surrounding the US? There would be absolutely no cause for distrust, right?

          2. Handler

            “The idea that one person’s position is necessarily representative of that of the PRC leadership as a whole is absurd, especially when the position is a particularly hawkish one.”

            Well, no. It is certainly not absurd to say Zhu Chenghu’s well-known position is significantly representative of the PRC leadership seeing that, and against conventional wisdom I’m not going to go with all caps here, *the leadership chose him as their representative* at an important security summit. Of course, they could have done it for his golden voice. In situations like this one really needs to understand what responsibility means.

            Unless you think the PLA alone selected him without approval from the central government (you still haven’t addressed that contingency)?

            “What of the others who don’t hold such a hawkish position?”

            In another world we might ask: wouldn’t it have been great if they were chosen to represent China? One might even suspect Gates would have been glad to have had an open dialogue instead of being hectored by an idiot with no regard for the people he is supposed to be committed to protect. A responsible China at a security summit, Sadly, that’s all for another world.

            “The problem with your focus on the PLA is that it completely ignores the role of the civilian leadership and the fact that the views of the leaders in general span across a spectrum”

            I find this repeated objection very peculiar since you have focused only on US military action and policy in the region.

            Equally, I believe the PLA’s actions–particularly those involving nuclear proliferation to Pakistan and, by Pakistani proxy, North Korea–have been and remain critical to the US strategy of containment toward China. As I’ve stated above, it is inconceivable that China and the US will ever establish significant trust without dialogue between their militaries and a thorough understanding of their (i.e. the militaries’) intentions toward each other.

            It should be quite clear that both governments have provided mixed signals as to nature of the cooperative/competitive relationship they’ve established. Since you chose to select from a small number of military actions and policy in order to represent US intent toward China, I’ve done the same (one would think you’d get the point when I added: “See how easy that is?”) You appear eager to sidestep the malicious intent articulated repeatedly by the PLA by an insistence on a plurality of viewpoints China supposedly holds, yet you are unwilling to grant the US the same plurality of voices (precisely when you argue the pivot has “cleared up [any lingering doubt]“). Rather than call your approach blatant hypocrisy, I’ll softly suggest your contortions have all the appeal of a urbane one-legged dance.

            “I’m simply stating as a matter of fact that the desires of China’s neighbours have had little, if any, impact on the US’s strategic intentions against China’s rise.”

            The onus of proof is really on your here, since a sychronicity obtains, invitations have been offered, thousands of troops and hundreds of thousands of tons of equipment have been transferred, and one new base has been established. If nothing else, this involves a reprioritization and recognition of an opportunity to establish better relations with China’s neighbors, all of whom are opposed to China’s expansion.

            http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/2011/12/137_100403.html

            “By the way, just as an aside, while the governments in the region may welcome the American military presence, the average citizens are not so enthusiastic, for good reason: http://www.iacenter.org/Koreafiles/ktc-civilnetwork.htm

            http://www.gallup.com/poll/24679/gallup-world-poll-south-koreas-political-dilemma.aspx

            According to a 2007 Gallup poll, 71% of a representative sample of South Koreans responded “No” to the statement, “The United States should withdraw from South Korea as soon as possible.” This despite the fact that the same poll indicated the majority of South Koreans do not feel threatened by North Korea, and despite years of deteriorating relations between South Korea and the US. All significant research done since 2008 (including JoongAng’s surveys) has show improved relations and increased acceptance of US troops in South Korea. I suppose this really burns apologists for China, whose troops regularly executed captured Koreans in the Korean War, but I’m afraid they’ll just have to accept it. I live in Korea, by the way. I’d be more than happy to debate Korea’s importance to US-China relations and the PLA’s persistent efforts to tie Korea to the Taiwan issue.

            “The fact of the matter is that Tibet and Taiwan are regarded as part of China, even by the US (despite its attempt to equivocate on the exact status of Taiwan), and if the US had a genuine desire to reduce the level of distrust with China it would act more like it on these core issues, never mind that China is not talking.”

            Uh-huh. The South China Sea is a core issue too, isn’t it? Look, I hate to break this to you but China’s claim over Tibet and Taiwan is a disputed one even within the US government (and much more so among the electorate); for decades nations have tried to negotiate relationships with Beijing along the lines of ambiguity in the one China principle (which does not mean Taiwan is a part of the PRC) and the hope that nominal autonomy for Tibet would come to pass. China’s presumption in declaring these issues “solved” due to the fact that they are considered “core issues” is representative of the type of political autism for which she’s become known and reviled. When PLA troops shot Vietnamese fisherman to death in 2005 this same political autism was on display: China declared it an “internal security” issue and demanded silence on the event. In the end these are the tactics autarchic ruling parties are prone to use because they do not need to encounter true opposition to their version of events. That makes them spectacularly unprepared to handle disagreement and conflict with the outside world save by the invocation of doublespeak: you must do what we want because you’ve always agreed to what we want by agreeing to what we say our agreement means. I mean, how ham-fisted can you be?

            “By “stunt” I was referring to US actions on Tibet and Taiwan.”

            Which, specifically? I’d like to hear if you’ll justify firing missiles in the direction over Taiwan while you call sending carriers there or selling defensive weaponry a “stunt”. I’d like to hear if you are one of those strange types who considers Taiwan a threat to the PRC. I’d like to hear if you’ll blame the US for intervention in Tibet while supporting China for intervention in Korea.

            “However, are you seriously suggesting that the US would have no problem with Chinese military bases surrounding the US?”

            The US has a rather favorable geographic position. Unless you think the PLA would even be welcome in Mexico, Canada, or Belize, the Soviet Union accomplished as much as will ever be possible. China is, therefore, free to try by creating terrific relations with nations neighboring the US.

            Now, if I might ask you a question: China was instrumental in North Korea developing nuclear technology and continues to argue that North Korea has the right to defend itself with such technology, despite its supremely detrimental effect on Korean reunification. Since you are into fairness, would it be wrong to accidently allow another pariah state (has its own government but is not represented in international organizations) in the Pacific to develop its own deterrent, even if it impeded reunification? Which act do you think would be more damaging to the distrust between the US and China? And what do you make of the fact that it has only happened with China’s allies?

  2. Tee

    @Handler,

    I’m writing just so you know that I have read your latest reply. I appreciate the time you’ve put into the reply, but I have decided not to continue the discussion here.