REPORT: Washington Is Inflating China’s Military Threat

New research reveals how faulty U.S. assumptions about Beijing’s capacities and aims undergird an overly-hawkish approach that undermines Asia’s security.

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WASHINGTON, DC — Following Sec. of State Anthony Blinken’s much-anticipated rollout of the Biden administration’s China strategy last week, a new research brief from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft argues that many U.S. policymakers and defense analysts have misapprehended the extent of the threat that China’s military poses to U.S. interests in Asia and beyond, pursuing a strategy of containment by-another name that risks undermining regional security.

“The Biden administration is doubling down on Trump’s China strategy, stressing sharp, values-centered, and largely punitive responses to Beijing’s rise at the expense of strategic and direct engagement aimed at securing stability and prosperity in Asia,” said Michael D. Swaine, Director of the Quincy Institute’s East Asia program and author of the new report. “Secretary Blinken’s speech last week only underscored the extent to which Washington has misapprehended the threat that China’s military poses to core U.S. interests.”

The Biden administration, Swaine argues, must right-size its assessment of China’s military to be responsive to the real challenges posed by Beijing’s rise and its dynamic, complex relationship with both Washington and US allies and partners in Asia. 

“An exaggerated threat perception of China,” Swaine writes, “Can pose at least as much of a danger to the United States as underestimating it. Framing the military challenge Beijing poses in categorical and exceedingly alarmist, worst-case ways removes the need to determine the limits of Chinese threats. China becomes 10 feet tall, undeterred from wanting to destroy the United States except by a massive U.S. counterforce. Such threat inflation also undermines those voices within China that favor moderation, significantly raises the danger of Sino–American crises and military conflict, and diverts huge amounts of U.S. resources away from desperately needed nonmilitary uses at home and abroad.”

Instead of inflating the Chinese military threat, Washington can advance stability and prosperity in the region and promote U.S. interests by:

• Producing more balanced, fact-based assessments of China’s capabilities and intentions that reject the inflated rhetoric of former officials and outside pundits.

• Transitioning toward a more financially feasible active denial force posture, designed to deny China clear control over its maritime periphery without contributing to rapid or severe escalation in a crisis or conflict. 

• Creating, in conjunction with China, a regional and global system centered on a maximum level of positive-sum interactions, including, among others, cooperative structures and agreements to address common regional and global threats like climate change, pandemics, financial instability, cyberattacks, and WMD proliferation.  

• Pursuing limited collective security arrangements with U.S. allies and partners, China, and possibly other regional nations to secure primary maritime routes, help combat terrorism, and resolve local disputes and conflicts. 

“The United States is not going to build its way out of the current deepening military competition with China, nor develop a successful long-term China strategy based on inflated threats,” Swaine writes. “It will need to accept the logic of balance over dominance in many areas, fashion credible strategies designed both to deter and reassure Beijing in both the regional and global arenas, and strengthen its capacities at home.”

Read the newest QI report by clicking here