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Is China An Existential Threat To US Or A Challenge To Its Hegemony? – Analysis

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The American search for an overriding global threat around which it could organize its geopolitical interests and which might justify and legitimize its primacy and leadership both to Americans and to the rest of the world, culminated during the Cold War with the Soviet threat reaching the peak, following 9/11 with the threat of terrorism compensating for the collapse of the Soviet Union and now with China becoming threat number one and global terrorism receding to a secondary status. A clear threat would help the US develop a grand strategy and mobilize allies around its geopolitical objectives. [1]

China poses a real but local geopolitical challenge in the Indo-Pacific region with ground-based ballistic missiles, aircraft, and ships that could damage US air bases and aircraft carriers. However, the global reach of American power versus China’s is ascertained by a disproportional arsenal of nuclear weapons, an unmatched air force, and oversized defense budgets, as well as allies with substantial military capabilities in China’s neighborhood to hobble Beijing’s power ambitions.

The US has a more modern air force, a more capable navy and a far larger nuclear arsenal than China. The US’s active nuclear stockpile is 11 times the size of China’s and deployed U.S. warheads are five times what China possesses. According to the most recent assessment by Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists, there has been no significant increase in the numbers of China’s Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and no evidence of “large-scale” ICBM production.[2]

In 2020 US military expenditure reached an estimated $778 billion, representing an increase of 4.4 per cent over 2019 and in the same year China’s military expenditure is estimated to have been $252 billion which although the second highest in the world remains far below the US.[3] Kenneth Mayer in the context of inflated American defence budget during the Cold War made a significant observation as to how the military industrial complex as well as national security elites benefited in the past from the “budgetary raison d’être” that revolved around the Soviet threat. The China threat is likely to be exaggerated to justify an inflated defence budget to the benefit of American military industrial complex.[4]

It is the rising economic profile of China that seeks to challenge the American hegemony rather than its military and nuclear capacities. The growing economic penetration of China has, in fact, enhanced its strategic footprint while escaping a strong pushback in the Indo-Pacific region. Data from the recent Gallup poll suggest that while Americans perceive China as the country’s top enemy, half also believe that China is the world’s leading economic power. It is not the military and nuclear power of China rather staggering 63% of Americans are of the opinion that the economic power of China is a critical threat to the vital interests of the US. This perception has noticeably increased since 2020, likely because of the COVID-related decline in the U.S. economy in the past year.[5]

US perceives a threat to its Hegemony

Exaggeration of threat very often stemmed from Washington’s own insecurity and threat perceptions from Beijing’s growing economic capabilities which could sabotage American leadership role and alliance system. China’s ability to establish alternative financial institutions free from US influence, enhanced participation in the UN and other multilateral initiatives, growing diplomatic network and ability to shape norms and discourse in, wider regions accompanied by a relative decline of American power engendered more speculation about the global reach and potential of China. China clearly lacks the strategic presence and capabilities to check the American power position across the globe.

A shift in the global balance of power was observed in the domain of economy as well as American threat perceptions when China’s state-directed economy withstood the global financial crisis of 2008-09 while Western economies tumbled. Gradually, the rise of China was accompanied by the establishment of alternative financial institutions that gathered momentum without US support or presence. For instance, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has 100 members compared with the Japan-led and Manila-based Asian Development Bank’s 68 members. The Beijing-headquartered AIIB is the first multilateral investment bank where the two economic powerhouses Japan and the US are not represented. [6]

China also began relying more on BRICS, the Group of Twenty, G77, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and regional trade arrangements, which undermined the predominance of institutionalized American power embedded within the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

While the US under President Donald Trump withdrew from multilateral arrangements such as the Iran nuclear deal, the UN Human Rights Council, the Paris climate agreement and the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), China sought to invigorate its role in multilateral forums. For instance, China turned out to be the largest contributor of peacekeepers among the five permanent United Nations Security Council members and the UN’s second-largest funder. China is also an active participant in the dispute-settlement mechanism of the World Trade Organization.

China for most part of the last century was a hesitant actor within the UN and considered peacekeeping operations interference with national sovereignty and disparaged them. A sudden gush in the Chinese activities within the UN made it a suspect in American eyes. For instance, scholars from the US viewed China’s increasing participation in the UN skeptically as a way to recruit support for its BRI and enhance legitimacy of its authoritarian leadership and one-China policy. Juxtaposing the US and China, it was argued as to how within the span of a few years Chinese officials had begun to lead four of the UN’s 15 specialized agencies by September 2019, compared with only one by the US. China’s embrace of larger role in UN peacekeeping raised suspicions that it might be training and preparing its troops by “providing them opportunities to improve its military operations other than war (MOOTW) and modernize its security forces”.[7]

China also began to step up its influence in the turbulent West Asia region where the US power position appeared to be flagging. For instance, President Xi Jinping pledged not only loans for economic development to Arab states, Beijing, in its bid to strengthen its diplomatic foothold in the region and galvanize support for its one-China policy, also criticized US actions in the Middle East such as the Iraq war, and affirmed China’s support for an independent Palestinian state, blaming Washington for disrupting the peace process by recognizing disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Besides, going by official sources and statements made by the former head of US Africa Command, it can be argued that Chinese influence in Africa is considered a significant threat to US security interests, specifically considering the fact that 39 of 54 African states are currently stakeholders of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The spillover of China’s economic influence permeated its diplomatic network abroad. Current statistics suggest that Beijing has surpassed Washington in terms of diplomatic posts abroad. In contrast to China’s 276 diplomatic posts – including embassies, consulates, and permanent missions to international organizations – the US has 273. The fact that China has 96 consulates, 41 are in Asia and 28 in Europe points to the link between its enhanced economic clout and concomitant strengthening of diplomatic network.

Further, the proclaimed Chinese objective of insulating its cyberspace through erecting a robust cyber-defense system and ensuring its security from US data encroachments has led to spiraling of speculations as to Beijing’s intentions. While concerns have been expressed as to the Chinese strategy of walling off and denying accessibility to Western observers, its domestic policies and human-rights records remained under continued US scrutiny, and American threat perceptions were also noticeable over the Chinese investment in advanced technology and research and development that could turn it into a global power in the near future.

Statistics reveal that China’s investment in research and development grew by an average of 20% a year since 1999 and by the end of 2019 accounted for 20% of total world R&D spending. [8] It was believed that advancements in the field of technology would enable China to turn its growing economic and diplomatic engagements into strategic gains by allowing domination over information, discourse and norms while denying space for the US to influence. The American suspicions were aggravated by the Chinese plan to include Digital Silk Road as an integral part of the larger Belt and Road Initiative, through which Chinese tech companies could export internet infrastructure as well as surveillance technology to countries throughout Asia, in the Gulf, and across Africa.

Nonetheless, China’s rising economic power enabled it to pour money into media outlets such as the China Global Television Network, Xinhua and other state-run platforms to spread the norms of sovereignty, non-interference and President Xi’s oft-stated call for a “community of common destiny for mankind.” It has been observed how China rolled out a strategy to change the narrative on Hong Kong’s ongoing protests by dominating the discourse in European media. An expert has noted how the Chinese embassies in Central and Eastern Europe approached local media with an offer to publish an ambassador’s op-ed or an interview with the head of the embassy promoting the official “real account” on the protests. [9]

China as an Existential Threat

China’s uncertain foreign policy behavior, erratic approach toward its neighbors, centralizing leadership with a vision to turn the country into global economic and military powerhouse and lack of transparency in its connectivity projects under the Belt and Road Initiatives caused to inflate the Chinese threat in American perceptions more than its actual proportions. While China’s rising economic and military prominence pushed it to behave irrationally and ambitiously in many cases just like many great powers did in the past, the American threat perceptions from China and articulations of these are more exaggerated than real. The US sees a threat of China primarily challenging its hegemony in the economic arena but it has projected the threat as an existential threat.

Although the US accuses China of violations of intellectual property rights, misuse of state machinery to attain economic prominence and of violation of human rights under its authoritarian one China policy, these could not themselves allow the US to organize and mobilize allies around its geopolitical interests until these were projected within an overarching ideological framework and a perception was generated that China is a threat in all aspects –military, economic and cultural.

To camouflage the real threat perceptions that China’s rise posed to American hegemony, the threat of China has been articulated in the US primarily in ideological terms – America stands by values such as liberal democracy and human rights which conflict with norms that China sought to defend such as sovereignty, non-interference, authoritarianism, secrecy and unfair practices etc. On the other hand, to justify their actions Chinese leaders view human rights and liberal democracy as Western rather than universal values and consider America’s promotion of these values primarily as a way to sustain its hegemony and weaken contending powers. The US and China by considering each other as ideological rivals are becoming more susceptible to view their actions irreconcilable.

Notwithstanding the validity of the arguments that China has violated international laws and norms to push its economic rise, Beijing has also acted as a stakeholder in the international system. China has taken up an enhanced peacekeeping role as evidenced in Mali, South Sudan and Darfur. China not only significantly enhanced Beijing’s contribution from 3% in 2013 to 10.25% by 2018 to the UN peacekeeping budget; it significantly contributed to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals worldwide, according to a UNDP report. [10]

The American rhetoric toward China is turning hostile. While the US may like China to believe that it has ended the Afghan war in order to prepare for war with China, Beijing is preparing itself militarily for the possible clash. In fact, the harsher will be the rhetoric, the greater will be China’s ability to deliberately construct internal and external threats to centralize power by arousing nationalist sentiments. The American policy toward Taiwan including measures such as the Taiwan Travel Act and the Taiwan Relations Reinforcement Act could bring the US and China to open conflict. While Beijing needs to bring in more transparency in its actions, there must be efforts both from US and China to find ways to continue to cooperate in critical areas, such as climate change and global health in view of deteriorating environmental conditions world-wide and spread of Omicron- a new variant of Covid-19.

References
[1]Manoj K. Mishra, “Afghan Neutrality: Principles Breached and Costs Incurred”, World Affairs: The Journal of International issues, Vol.19, No.3, 2015, pp. 84-101.
[2] Michael T. Klare, “The Pentagon Inflates the Chinese Nuclear Threat in a Push for New Intercontinental Missiles”, The Nation, May 19, 2021, https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/pentagon-china-nuclear/
[3] “World military spending rises to almost $2 trillion in 2020”, SIPRI, 26 April, 2021, Available at https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2021/world-military-spending-rises-almost-2-trillion-2020

[4] Carl Ciovacco, “Bias and the Perceived China Threat”, The SAIS Review of International Affairs, September 3, 2020, Available at https://saisreview.sais.jhu.edu/bias-and-the-perceived-china-threat/
[5] Mohamed Younis, “New High in Perceptions of China as U.S.’s Greatest Enemy”, Gallup, March 16, 2021, https://news.gallup.com/poll/337457/new-high-perceptions-china-greatest-enemy.aspx
[6] Manoj K. Mishra, “Assessing the Chinese threat to American Interests”, World Affairs: The Journal of International issues, Vol.25, No.1, 2021, p. 144.
[7] Logan Pauley, 2018. “China Takes the Lead in UN Peacekeeping”, The Diplomat, April 17, https://thediplomat.com/2018/04/china-takes-the-lead-in-un-peacekeeping/
[8]”China’s R&D strategy”, European Commission, Foresight, https://ec.europa.eu/knowledge4policy/foresight/topic/expanding-influence-east-south/industry-science-innovation_en, retrieved on 5 January, 2020.
[9] Sarah Cook, 2020. “The Globalization of China’s Media Controls: Key Trends from 2019”, The Diplomat, January 21, Available at https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/the-globalization-of-chinas-media-controls-key-trends-from-2019/.

[10]Xiaojun Li, 2018. “China is offering ‘no strings attached aid’ to Africa. Here’s what that means”, The Washington Post, September 27, Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/09/27/china-is-offering-no-strings-attached-aid-to-africa-heres-what-that-means/.

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Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in International Relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is currently working as a Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously, he worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India. He taught Theories of International Relations and India’s Foreign Policy to MA and M.Phil. students.

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