Some in America’s national security establishment is fearfully trying to stoke public anxiety about China. Exasperated with unsuccessful wars against stateless terrorists, Washington now seems to think China will be the thing that concentrates U.S. foreign policy. Well before the coronavirus outbreak, the Obama administration sought, however fruitlessly, to “pivot to Asia.” In his first year in office, President Trump released a National Security Strategy, which rebranded China as a revisionist power actively trying to “erode American security and prosperity.” 

As mutual recriminations play out amid the coronavirus pandemic and a new wave of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, a new generation of would-be cold warriors believes their moment has arrived. In making their case to get tough on China, they cite the words of Chinese officials as evidence of ill will.

Michael Pillsbury, partly the inspiration for President Trump’s more confrontational approach to China, pointed to a book by a Chinese colonel about the “post-American era” and “duel of the century.” One analyst claims the Chinese have persuaded Americans they are locked in such a duel — though a national survey by my organization, the Eurasia Group Foundation, finds little such concern among the public.  

The 2020 presidential candidates now compete for who would be tougher on China. A Trump ad claims, “Biden protected China’s feelings.” A Biden ad retorts, “Trump rolled over for the Chinese.” Toughness by itself is neither a strategy nor a policy and it’s unclear what goals are being advanced by these rebukes. Especially when China finds it necessary to denigrate the U.S. in turn, calling U.S. criticism “lunacy” and one of its chief critics, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an “evil politician.” This verbal escalation only emboldens China hawks, and we are now careening toward a dangerous cycle.ADVERTISEMENT

When assessing a foreign government which has little culture of — or incentive for — transparency, American politicians would be wise to realize talk is cheap, and often misleading. International relations scholars and China experts have supplied ample evidence to indicate China’s assertive rhetoric frequently deviates from the country’s true intentions. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda is less an expression of the Chinese government’s foreign policy and more a grasping attempt to gin up support among and save face with the Chinese people.

Many American policymakers fail to appreciate this, and for a good reason. In the United States, the pronouncements of political and military leaders are interpreted by the press and the public as statements of policy; American democracy requires this transparency. When a president makes a State of the Union address, or a top general states a reporter, both might “spin” to impress American voters or intimidate foreign leaders — but they are penalized politically (and sometimes legally) for outright lying. Not so in China, where democratic institutions unconstrain the government, and propagandizing to the Chinese public is routine.

China’s primary security preoccupation is internal, not external. After all, it has a government of, by and for the Communist Party, which anxiously guards its power and dictates the country’s interests. The political ideology of the CCP is obsessed with unity, which is inconvenient in such a diverse and populous country. That has led to Beijing’s atrocious efforts to “re-educate” Uighur Muslims and Christians, repatriate independence-minded Tibetans and mollify democracy-loving Hongkongers. So engrossed is it in warding off these perceived threats to national cohesion, China has very little interest in picking a fight with the world’s economic and military colossus. If anything, the Chinese government is caught in a balancing act, ratcheting up its anti-U.S. rhetoric to display solidarity with an offended public while tamping down that public’s mounting nationalist fervor.

Conflicts often intensify because leaders fail to empathize with each other’s domestic constraints and predicaments. They lack the imagination to see or the political courage to admit, how an adversary’s harsh rhetoric might be intended to impress a patriotic audience at home, attributing it instead to malign intentions. (This is particularly true in the internet era when the public of one country can read the news of the other without appreciating its domestic political imperatives and norms.) The U.S. and China must not fall into this trap.

And the press must not egg them on. U.S.-China geopolitics is not a zero-sum competition. This kind of press coverage increases cynicism and decreases knowledge, and it interferes with the American public’s ability to perceive a rival country’s true motives and ambitions. ADVERTISEMENT

Two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, President Reagan’s secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, clung to his Cold War mind-set, claiming a “dynamic, and an expanding, Soviet threat” despite the visible dwindling of Soviet power. Had the U.S. paid as much attention to what Soviet policies, abilities and ambitions were rather than what Soviet leaders claimed them to be, we might have judiciously abstained from supporting military juntas in South America mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

Even were we to take Beijing’s rhetoric at face value, China still lacks the capacity to challenge America’s core national security interests genuinely. China faces major economic problems, which will cut down its growth rate before it achieves parity with the U.S. It lacks a network of strong alliances. The yuan is not about to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. And, as my organization has found, the Chinese public has positive views of the U.S. and American democracy, though that admiration dipped markedly in the past year. 

Breathless anxiety that China is locked in an existential fight over “the rules, norms, and institutions that will govern international relations” distorts the stakes of the U.S.-China relationship. If American policymakers see China as a global threat rather than a mainly regional challenge, they risk committing resources to battles not yet worth fighting.

During the last presidential campaign, it was suggested that we take Trump seriously but not literally. The same should be said about the Chinese leadership. Bluster aside, China is a real and formidable competitor. Its interests and those of the United States are often in conflict. But America’s response should be informed by a frank assessment of China’s growing but still limited power and of America’s vital security interests.

The U.S.-China relationship will dangerously deteriorate — and American prosperity and security will diminish — if Washington convinces itself, citing CCP talking points as evidence, that China is an evil actor rather than a proud country like any other, seeking a more elbow room and simply trying to defend what its government views as its interests.

Mark Hannah is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and host of its “None Of The Above” Podcast.