This week, Admiral Timothy Keating, the top US comamander in the Pacific paid a visit to his Chinese counterparts. Before the meeting, General Chen Bingde — the Chief of the General Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army — said, “It is impossible for the U.S. to be afraid of our military development.”
On the contrary, it is quite possible. China-as-the-next-military-menace meme is quite overblown in policy and pundit circles:
Lou Dobbs: “The global war on terror and radical Islamists has overshadowed China’s rapidly escalating military threat to the United States.” [6/28/05]
Frank Gaffney: “[Bush must adapt] appropriate strategies for contending with China’s increasingly fascistic trade and military policies.” [11/5/04]
Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan: “Appeasement of [the Chinese] dictatorship simply invites further attempts at intimidation.” [12/9/03]
And while a recent Zogby poll revealed that a majority of Americans have a positive view of China, only 35% of congressional staffers do. And 86% of those staffers think, wrongly, that Americans have a negative view of China.
Of course, we cannot rule out the possibility that China will, decades from now, have both the capability and intent to confront us directly, and we must stay well prepared for that possibility. But we need China’s help today to confront forces of destruction. We rely on China to stomp out outbreaks of avian flu and other nasty diseases before they spread here. U.S. inspectors are in three Chinese ports to help screen shipping containers for smuggled radioactive devices headed for our shores. Without Beijing’s deep engagement, North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons. And we are never going to avoid a catastrophic climate crisis without China on board.
Rather than preparing for a military confrontation with a big state — something we know how to do — America has to do something unfamiliar and even more difficult — leverage China and the other “pivotal powers” of the world, India, Russia, the EU and Japan, into working hard to solve common threats we all face: terrorism, pandemic disease, failed states, nuclear proliferation and climate change. Terrorists want to kill us today and could. The Chinese do not want to and can’t.
But for America to thrive in a world with more big powers, we also have to reinvest in American strength at home. If we don’t want US companies to outsource to China and India, we need to develop a healthcare system that delivers excellent care but also controls costs. And if we want our workers to cope with transition instead of rooting for protectionism, we need to provide them not just with retraining, but with a cushion to help them bounce back, in initiatives like wage insurance and universal 401(k)s. And if we want to keep innovation happening here even as more discovery happens overseas, we need to do a better job of growing scientists. Finally, if we want China and India to respond to the specter of the climate crisis, we need to move ourselves to a low carbon economy.
Admiral Keating seemed pleased with his meetings in China. He was forceful about American interests but came away saying he was developing an “honest and true friendship” with Chinese military leaders. Neoconservatives will probably take him to task for that. But we should remember that, as Jon Stewart has said, “The only thing that can destroy us is us.”