A lively exchange on the Internet generated by the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu think tank, has underscored the deep differences among Americans on how to define the rise of China — and therefore how the US should cope with it.
The dialogue started with Representative Randy Forbes, a Republican from Virginia and co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus, who said “there is a frightening reluctance on the part of government officials to speak openly about the challenges we face from the People’s Republic of China.”
“If US leaders are expected to marshal the diplomatic and military resources necessary to engage in this long-term competition,” Forbes wrote, “they must first be willing to speak more candidly about Beijing’s growing capabilities and strategic intentions.”
Former US assistant secretary of defense for East Asia Wallace Gregson, a retired marine lieutenant general and now director of the China program at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, said: “Discussing China in anything less than a flattering light has become taboo.”
Gregson and associate director of the Center’s China program Greer Meisels said: “Washington is not being clear. This is both unfair to the US electorate and diminishes the defense department’s ability to make logical and supportable claims to the nation’s resources.”
The US should speak frankly about policy on China, they said.
“If the US cannot clearly articulate its strategic concept,” they said, “then our policymakers most likely are not thinking about it clearly.”
These points reflect a debate that highlights the lack of a comprehensive, coherent US stance toward China. At least five schools of thought can be discerned:
‧ Dragon-Slayers: In their eyes, China is a mortal threat that must be confronted at every turn. Unless Beijing is stopped, China will dominate Asia and drive the US back to Hawaii. War with China is probably inevitable. A prominent dragon-slayer is former US under-secretary of state and UN ambassador John Bolton.
‧ Panda-Huggers: They admire China’s success in restoring national pride and stimulating economic growth, and believe the US should accept China’s rise. A notable panda-hugger is former US president Richard Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger, who orchestrated the opening to China in 1972 and later became an apologist for the regime in Beijing.
‧ Bean-Counters: Business executives and investors seem to pay little attention to strategic issues involving China unless it affects their operations. Many have done well in China, others have failed. A big issue is intellectual property rights as the Chinese are notorious for stealing proprietary information and technology.
‧ John Q. Public, sometimes known as Joe Sixpack: A majority of Americans are so preoccupied with the tasks of putting food on the table, paying the mortgage and trying to set aside funds for their children’s education that they do not think much about China, except maybe when a made-in-China electronic device breaks down.
‧ Realists: Somewhere between the dragon-slayers and the panda-huggers are realists who believe that conflict with China is not inevitable. However, they also think the US must take a measured stand on certain issues to avoid being bulldozed by Beijing and they advocate being candid in defining Chinese intentions.