US Politics and the China Bogeyman: the Fear of Accommodation

On security, US military superiority over China has amounted to an absurd new military asymmetry. US Polling statistics reveal that military hawks tend to receive more votes than military doves. If the result is polarization, the competition then is to what degree one candidate can out-hawk the next. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina wants to establish 50 army brigades, 36 Marine Corps battalions and 350 naval ships. The United States needs, the one-time (and failed) CEO lamented, “the strongest military on the face of the planet.” Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush described American, and international, security in much less detail, “We need to tell the world” (as if it didn’t already know) that “If we’re going to lead the world, we need the strongest military possible.”[2]

Not just in campaign politics, the United States military is seemingly constantly under siege from an ambitious, challenging China. In the Pacific, according to Admiral Samuel Locklear, of the U.S. Pacific Command, “our historic dominance…is diminishing”. The United States “is under serious and growing pressure” by the Chinese according to another post by the National Interest. The tone is alarmist, but the statistics are artificial in their worth as drivers for increasing military spending. China, according to a Rand Corp US-China military scorecard, “is not close to catching up to the U.S. military in terms of aggregate capabilities”. But as the report goes on to say, “China does not need to catch up to challenge the United States on its immediate periphery.” [3]

While not a new consensus by any means, the ability for China to now defend its peripheral interests from what used to be considered overwhelming American military superiority has caused considerable distress for many politicians. A return to the days when a US aircraft carrier could force China to its knees is being actively sort.

In global economics, the guns are also being brought to bear for the ratification of the Trans Pacific Partnership. If China was ever going to be the perfect bogeyman, than the TPP is its solution. “If we don’t write the rules” Obama remarked in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, “China will write the rules out in that region.  We will be shut out” [4]. In this argument traditionally bitter partisanship is put to one side before the interests of a fearful American hegemony. In the words of Speaker John Boehner “[I]f we don’t lead, we’re allowing and essentially inviting China to go right on setting the rules of the world economy” [5].

Faith in the self-proclaimed singularity of the American way and such assumptions about China’s ability to challenge global norms suggest a greater distrust (or is it simply greater misunderstanding?) of both China and other nation states in general. When it comes to China, Washington’s allies have shown themselves to be disobedient. Regional partners have proven to be fickle in sticking to an exclusive, US or nothing line. Seoul has grown increasingly closer to Beijing, while Australia has become overwhelmingly dependent upon the Chinese economy. Regional TTP partners are shown to be staunch friends when it comes to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Seas, but also quick Chinese regional partners when it comes to foreign aid.

Despite leaning on regional allies and partners against the adoption of the Asia International Infrastructure Bank (the brainchild of Beijing), Washington has failed to convince its traditional partners of its concerns. The AIIB’s attempt to break the US-driven monopoly of the development agenda expressed through the IMF-World Bank system has so far been successful. Most US regional and international allies have joined on. The announcement of the UK’s decision to join the AIIB in March has further questioned the prudence of Washington’s continued intransigence.

The greater polarization between the American way and the Chinese way, if one may call it that, with regards to the AIIB is discerning. The reported US concern with the AIIB is governance standards, but the message is hypocritical. Congress has so far refused to even marginally reform the IMF to give members a greater voice, an accommodation yet too difficult to swallow. China policy as such, has become both static and boring. The message is that leadership from without, rather than shaping from within, is how China should be handled. Cooperation, so the notion spells, according to one US official, “is not the best way to engage a rising power” [5].


[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/08/27/politics/marco-rubio-scott-walker-foreign-policy-charleston/

[2] http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2015/09/16/gop-debate-2/32509899/

[3] http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR392.html

[4] http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2015/04/27/wsj-interview-transcript-president-obama-on-tpp-china-japan-pope-francis-cuba/

[5] http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-trans-pacific-partnership-china-america-the-balance-13264

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/mar/13/white-house-pointedly-asks-uk-to-use-its-voice-as-part-of-chinese-led-bank

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Adam Bartley is a Researcher and PhD candidate at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bartley.aa@gmail.com

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