Is China a Significant Threat to the United States?

In May 2020, there was a significant downturn in Sino-American relations brought about by the confluence of many factors. These included the economic and social impact in the United States from the coronavirus pandemic, the passage of a new PRC security law limiting the freedom of expression in Hong Kong, the removed of Hong Kong’s special trading status by the US in response to the PRC legislation, the reemergence of China as a major issue in the November 2020 US presidential elections, multiple unresolved issues in Sino-American trade, the Chinese and American security forces’ concentration on each other as their nation’s principal threat, China’s growing geostrategic and geopolitical rivalry with the United States in the Indo-Pacific area, President Trump’s America First policy that reasserted the need for US preeminence in global affairs including the Indo-Pacific region, new US strategic and operational plans viewing China as a major competitor to American influence and national interests which required strong countermeasures, increased US arms sales to Taiwan, continued American congressional condemnation of China’s treatment of ethnic minorities and religious groups, and increased PRC intelligence activities in the US including the stealing of American dual-use technology for military and surveillance purposes.

Underlying all of these issues was the growing ideological schism between the American democratic model for governance and the socialist model of China which pitted the values of personal freedom against the authoritarian need for greater control over the individual. There was increasingly strong rhetoric from both sides of the Pacific, with a polarity of views in the two countries focused on whether China and the US needed each other for trade, economic prosperity, and global stability and those in both countries who believed an inevitable conflict was emerging due to the tectonic-like forces pushing the two great nations into more and more areas of contention.

Within this environment, we ought to consider whether China is a significant threat to the United States. The answer is “yes,” primarily because Washington and Beijing have each defined their vital interests in ways that are seen by the other as threatening their future. If China were democratic or the US socialist, there might be a greater possibility of accommodation on many if not most of the bilateral points of tension in their relationship. But the likelihood of these changes in governance in China or the United States is extremely small, so the underlying ideological conflict between the two systems of government will more than likely persist and probably grow. This ideological conflict is driven in part by China’s intention to reestablish its central role in Asian affairs after centuries of being occupied and humiliated by foreign powers, and by the US determination to use its substantial power to protect and defend its regional and global interests. As seen in the opening paragraphs, there are sufficient hot spots in Sino-American relations for fires to ignite (including the Taiwan issue) regardless of whether one analyzes the relationship from an ideological or realpolitik point of view.