The United States is finally, at least rhetorically, committed to competing in an age of great power competition. The Trump administration made the commitment and officials from both parties recognize that China is the US military’s “pacing threat” and that the United States needs to make significant changes at home, such as by developing an industrial policy to wean itself from dependence on supply chains going through our primary “competitor.”
While the Trump administration took on China and the Biden administration continued many of those policies, including investments in Pacific allies to deter Chinese abuses, efforts are falling woefully short. Almost a year into his presidency, Biden’s response on the campaign trail in 2019, when he said that China was not a US competitor and incredulously said would not “eat our lunch,” looks like a telling signal that the president himself may not be as convinced of the threat China poses to US vital interests as others like Pentagon leaders claim.
The president’s failure to see the China threat as primarily if not entirely a military threat is demonstrated in the way officials across the administration discuss the China challenge. Officials shroud the China problem in euphemisms or talk as if the China problem is neither existential nor urgent. When China tested a globe-spanning nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon, Biden spokesman responded to a question about it by reiterating that the administration welcomed “stiff competition.” When a reporter asked John Kerry how his climate change agenda fits with China’s genocide of Muslims among other gross violations, Kerry said, “Life is full of tough choices.” And when facing the suffocating problem of China’s trade practices, China’s constant intellectual property theft, increasingly brazen domestic repression, and the long reach of its censorship tentacles into Western media and businesses, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said that “robust commercial engagement will help to mitigate any potential tensions [with China].”
There is nothing necessarily wrong with officials choosing rhetoric that is minimally antagonistic to keep passions in Beijing cool. But we should at least have evidence that the more subdued rhetoric goes along with tougher policies so we can have confidence the officials are merely being diplomatic and are not deceived or clinging to an idealistic notion about how to avoid catastrophic war with China. But the rhetoric downplaying the CCP’s outright hostility toward the United States and our allies while China makes frequent and flagrant provocations against our vital interests, such as flying record-breaking numbers of warplanes near Taiwan, should give us the strong sense that Team Biden is not so clear-eyed.
Since the 1990s, the United States, to varying degrees depending on the administration, has engaged in a kind of willful self-deception about geopolitics. Officials believed that commerce with the Chinese Communist Party would open up and liberalize the regime, and would keep other factors that motivate countries—such as ideology, religion, history, and strategic and military culture—far less important and eventually negligible.
In Barack Obama’s 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, he reflects this naïveté when he declares:
When Truman, Acheson, Kennan, and Marshall sat down to design the architecture of the post-World War II order, their frame of reference was the competition between the great powers that had dominated the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries… That world no longer exists.
Meanwhile, China was engaged in a careful intentional agenda to supplant the United States as the world’s strongest and most influential power. Centered on the military domain, China was engaged in a sprint to challenge the United States while America focused on increased trade and access to China’s massive market. American political and business elites were blissfully enriching an evil regime that had the intent, if not ability, to undermine the post-World War II, America-led era.
Last week the Pentagon’s 2021 China military report revealed how much that county has gained ground against the US. The report said China is developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that will “significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces and will require increased nuclear warhead production, partially due to the incorporation of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities.” It also confirmed public reporting that China is building at least (emphasis mine) “three solid-fueled ICBM silo fields, which will cumulatively contain hundreds of new ICBM silos.” The report also said the number of China’s road-mobile DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) is growing, which is a serious concern since they can conduct conventional and nuclear precision strikes on US and ally assets on land and at sea. The report warns that “the accelerating pace of the PRC’s nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027. The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020.” The growing number of nuclear weapons is a problem; the DoD’s admission that its projection was off a mere year ago demonstrates a humility and should caution readers that the current projection could also be off and too modest.
The report contains other eye-popping sections, including the note that China “has engaged in biological activities with potential dual-use applications.” Moreover, “studies conducted at PRC military medical institutions discussed identifying, testing, and characterizing diverse families of potent toxins with dual-use applications.”
The Pentagon document highlights why the US needs a modernized and credible nuclear weapons force to deter adversaries from employing nuclear weapons. But that is not the sole purpose of the US nuclear deterrent. The United States also uses nuclear weapons to deter chemical and biological weapons use as well as large-scale conventional attack. So the Pentagon’s China report underscores the foolishness and danger of a possible change to US nuclear declaratory policy: President Biden has indicated that he would embrace a declaratory policy meant to signal the US is further limiting the circumstances wherein it would employ nuclear weapons to defend its vital interests against non-nuclear attacks, even if they have strategic implications. If the president is as deceived about the nature of the China military threat, including the threat of massive strategic attack, as others in his administration seem to be, we should not be surprised if he makes this change.
Yet too many officials inside the Biden administration seem to be holding on to a hope that China and the United States have far too much money to make, too much climate change to fight, and that war would be so grim between these two technologically advanced powers that it is impossible to take the thought of war seriously. This view smacks of undue optimism, only possible when denying history’s bloody record. It also ignores what Reinhold Niebuhr argued: understanding humans’ fallen nature should be the starting point for any international relations theory. Regimes often do not behave how we think they ought. They do not make the same risk calculations as the United States does, nor do they value to the same degree the peace that US nuclear weapons seek to maintain. US officials in the Biden administration might value international organizations to decrease global carbon emissions and to set standards for fair trade to collaborate on “global health” and to decrease nuclear arms. But that is by word and deed not what is motivating China’s actions. The CCP’s ideology is driving its national aims and even if US officials are desperate to keep the US policy toward China non-ideological, the CCP does view it as a clash of ideology and believes its ideology and system of government are superior to that of the United States. If the United States is to prevent that from happening, the Biden administration and the administration after it must doggedly focus on deterring China in the military domain.
The Biden administration is not doomed to fail. But the military must do more than warn and describe China as a pacing threat; it must invest in and deploy the right weapons to deter China, in close collaboration with our Asian allies—and urgently. Across the US government, there must be a concerted effort to weaken China and deter Chinese aggression, while simultaneously strengthening US sovereignty and the strength of military alliances. Self-deluded idealism got us into this challenge, and continuing it now could lead to devastating consequences.