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China is, in many ways, the central problem for current United States foreign policy. The U.S. political establishment views China as the major threat to continued U.S. global military, economic and political hegemony. Moreover U.S. political elites apparently believe that Chinese leaders are determined to replace the United States as the global hegemon.

Michael D. Swaine of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a distinguished scholar of Chinese military policies, has written an important and deeply researched article challenging these views.

Swaine is certainly not a radical. In fact, he is not even a consistent anti-imperialist. But he is a person deeply concerned about world peace and environmental sanity. Swaine writes:

“Threat inflation is a major problem in evaluating China’s military capabilities and the military security-related intentions of China’s leadership. With some notable exceptions, U.S. authoritative assessments … often employ inadequate, distorted, or incorrect evidence, use grossly hyperbolic language, display sloppy or illogical thinking, or rely on broad-brush assertions that seem to derive more from narrow political, ideological, or emotional impulses than from any objective search for truth…. In an inflated threat environment, other pressing national security concerns, such as climate change, become secondary and in many cases are interpreted only in the context of a grand ‘great power competition’ between the U.S. and China.”

Washington’s understanding of China is based upon:

  • Zero sum thinking (if China gains, we lose)
  • Worst case scenarios (China plans to destroy the U.S.)
  • Gross exaggerations of Chinese power (China is now militarily superior to the United States)

More importantly, U.S. political elites misunderstand the basic nature of the Chinese challenge, which is not primarily a military one. It is both dishonest and misleading to conceive the Chinese challenge as a conflict between authoritarianism and democracy. This interpretation ignores the deeply flawed nature of United States democracy and assumes that the so-called Chinese authoritarians are unconcerned about human rights. Rather, the Chinese challenge revolves around two different understandings of human rights and how to achieve them.

Both China and the United States are committed to capitalism, but to rather different forms of capitalism.

The U.S. form of capitalism, often called neo-liberal capitalism, features minimum market regulation,  a largely unconstrained capitalist class and marginal working class benefits. The American state functions as a safety net for the capitalist class and stabilizes the capitalist system through monetary manipulations and a huge military-industrial complex.

Human rights under neo-liberal capitalism are essentially individual freedoms from government control, plus the right to vote in elections. Material deprivations, such as homelessness, poverty, and unemployment, are not considered human rights violations under neo-liberal capitalism.

The Chinese form of capitalism might be called state capitalism. It features a politically regulated market, including a large state sector, a prosperous but politically constrained capitalist class, export-oriented production with a large state-appropriated economic surplus and an ideological commitment to uplift the working classes.

Human rights under Chinese state capitalism are understood as collective entitlements, not individual privileges. Individual freedoms of speech and association are considered relatively unimportant, while hunger and poverty are deemed serious affronts to collective human rights. Rule by a disciplined political party derived from and imbedded in the working class is regarded a more reliable way to address important social interests than mercurial and plutocratically controlled elections.

Chinese leaders believe that Chinese-style state capitalism is inherently superior to U.S. neo-liberal capitalism and would gradually prevail over the latter in any uncoerced economic competition. They also think that Chinese capitalism is better suited to meet the needs of Third World societies and that the latter, if allowed to choose, will increasingly move in the Chinese economic and political direction.

Chinese leaders recognize U.S. military power as well as the U.S. predilection for military intervention. They fear that Washington, faced with declining political and economic hegemony, will try to weaken or destroy the People’s Republic of China militarily, perhaps using the Taiwan issue as justification.

Chinese military strength has indeed been expanding. But this expansion apparently aims at dominating ocean regions very near China and at making any military attack upon People’s Republic prohibitively expensive for the attacker.

In the conclusion of his article on threat inflation Michael Swaine writes:

“An optimal long-term security goal for both the United States and China should be to create a regional and global system centered on a maximum level of positive-sum security interactions, including cooperative political, diplomatic, economic, technological, and military security structures and agreements to address specific common regional and global threats, including first and foremost climate change, followed by pandemics, financial instability, cyberattacks, and [weapons of mass destruction] proliferation.”