Everyone’s a China Hawk

Tom Stevenson

Sino-American relations are probably at their lowest point since the 1970s. Scott Kennedy and Wang Jisi argue in Foreign Affairs that one reason for the decline was Covid: diplomatic meetings and cultural exchange programmes dwindled, which created ‘echo chambers’ on both sides. That may be true, but pressure was building long before the pandemic.

In the US, talk of the ‘China threat’ is ubiquitous. The Washington Post saw in Xi Jinping’s trip to Moscow last month a plan for a ‘post America’ world order. In Foreign Affairs, John Pomfret and Matt Pottinger accused China of openly ‘preparing for war’: China’s military budget has doubled over the last decade (though it’s still small compared to that of the US). Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal called China ‘an expansionist, tyrannical power whose inordinate ambition endangers freedom worldwide’. The CIA director, William Burns, who recently spoke in the Baker Institute’s Shell Distinguished Lecture Series, was more measured, but said China was ‘not content to only have a seat at the table, it wants to run the table’. In the words of Larry Summers, ‘everyone is a China hawk.’

Meanwhile in Beijing, the Chinese government announced a revision to its foreign policy doctrine last month. China has been busy forging bilateral links with European states, even if the messages coming from Emmanuel Macron, Annalena Baerbock and Christine Lagarde are mixed. When Lula visited Beijing last week, Brazil and China signed fifteen trade agreements, though most seem to be fairly minor (Brazil is considering a hosting a new Chinese semiconductor factory).

In the Middle East, the restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by China, has increased the chances of a settlement of the brutal war in Yemen, sustained for over seven years by the US and UK. On 12 April, Sinopec acquired a 5 per cent stake in Qatar’s North Field East expansion project. China is also in talks with Saudi Arabia about conducting some of the oil trade between them in yuan. This has been rumoured for about a decade. It now looks less improbable. Most of these developments are easy to overstate. But Saudi oil denominated in dollars and ‘protected’ by US military force in the Persian Gulf has been a significant part of US global strategy: a revision to that system would be very significant.

According to Xi, China’s military build-up (the creation of a ‘great wall of steel’) is necessitated by the ‘perils of US hegemony’. In a speech in early March, Xi said that ‘Western countries headed by the United States have implemented containment from all directions.’ The difficulty for US planners is that Xi’s assessment isn’t too far from their own. The secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, said in May 2022 that the US was not looking to ‘block China from its role as a major power’, but he also said it would ‘shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system.’ One man’s shaped strategic environment is another’s containment.

The decision to prevent China from accessing the technology for the most advanced semiconductors (sixteen nanometres or lower) was made at the highest level of US foreign policy: Blinken, Burns and the national security Adviser, Jake Sullivan. Whatever its practical effects, from China’s perspective it looks, in the words of the Economist, like a US attempt at ‘beating China to death’. Elsewhere the paper described the Biden administration’s ‘attempts to defang the Chinese tiger’ and warned that tigers don’t succumb to the dentist voluntarily.

Historically, China had a nuclear policy of minimum deterrence based on the smallest arsenal possible. But it has been building more silos, more launchers and probably more warheads. Perhaps China is jettisoning minimum deterrence. Or perhaps, as Van Jackson put it in the Asia Times, ‘China has looked into the abyss that is American militarism and decided that minimum deterrence requires a higher minimum.’

In February, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence published its annual threat assessment, which concluded:

China is reorienting its nuclear posture for strategic rivalry with the United States because its leaders have concluded that their current capabilities are insufficient. Beijing worries that bilateral tension, US nuclear modernisation and the PLA’s advancing conventional capabilities have increased the likelihood of a US first strike.

US nuclear policy has always been to seek superiority. According to James Acton, the co-director of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Programme, new radar and satellite installations mean China probably now has an early warning system capable of detecting a US first strike. If he’s right, the increased survivability of Chinese nuclear weapons may mean that the chances of the US using its own have been reduced.

Senior American military figures are forever predicting the date of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan (most regional specialists, however, don’t think it’s imminent). Visiting New York at the end of March, the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, said that her country ‘stands on the front lines of democracy’. When she returned to Taipei, China announced three days of military exercises. On 11 April the US conducted its largest ever joint military exercise with the Philippines, involving more than twelve thousand US troops, to test out new access agreements to Philippine military bases announced in February.

The current US government has tried to tie its domestic political projects to a confrontation with China. As Scipio Nasica said of Rome’s relations with Carthage, the existence of an official enemy can have a stimulatory effect on the home state. But the risks are too high. The US military used to have reasonably friendly contacts with the Chinese military. US undersecretaries of defence would visit Beijing. They now travel to Taipei. The hotlines are quiet, the rules unclear. Without a framework for managing Sino-American relations, too much depends on the personal moderation of a few leaders.


  • 21 April 2023 at 8:00am
    Godfree Roberts says:
    I have not heard a single suggestion about HOW the US will attack China nor, for that matter, where. The why is irrelevant, obviously.

    Even AUCKUS, in all its glory, is puny compared to China's PLAN, and vastly overmatched in airfare and missiles. After our trouncing in 1951, a land assault is unlikely.

    In other words, America is as toothless against China in the West Pacific as it is against Russia in Eastern Europe. It's all talk and proxy baiting, but no way will the US take on China.

    • 21 April 2023 at 10:38am
      Patrick Cotter says: @ Godfree Roberts
      What you say works only in a world of reason. Most wars begin as massive missteps or out of hubris. Most reasonable people believed up to the last moment Putin couldn’t have been stupid enough to invade Ukraine. The Americans are forever working one another into a pitch of anxiety and paranoia. The spate of domestic ‘front door’ shootings in the USA this week is a typical example of that mindset. Sometimes it seems their entire polity is a pantograph of the fretting individuals who constitute it.

  • 21 April 2023 at 9:36pm
    J_B says:
    I'd recommend a little analysis of CCP discourse on the USA here, for balance.