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Is the United States “Inflating” the Military Threat From China?

Official and unofficial pronouncements from many sectors of the American foreign policy and political establishment routinely portray China as a major military threat to the United States — even claiming that this threat is existential.

This is part of a pattern that my guest today calls “threat inflation” which he argues leads to policy decisions that paradoxically leaves the US less secure.

Michael D. Swaine, is director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is the author of a new report titled “Threat Inflation and the Chinese Military” which shows how US officials may be exaggerating the military threat from China and what he argues are problematic policies that stem from inflated threat perceptions.


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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What is Threat Inflation and How Does it Relate to China’s Military Threat to the United States?

Michael D. Swaine [00:02:08] Threat inflation means that you are looking at actual or potential threats that China might pose in ways that are beyond what in fact, they are. You see them as more dire and serious than they actually are and more deeply challenging of U.S. interests. In some cases, there might be no threat, and yet you think there is a threat. In other cases, there is a threat or a concern or a challenge, but it’s not really as extreme or as dire as would be in reality and therefore doesn’t justify a reaction on that basis.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:53] And you argue that in general, the U.S. foreign policy establishment and policy makers view China through this lens of threat inflation. Can you explain that?

Michael D. Swaine [00:03:08] Well, I think my study on this issue has focused mainly on the military side. And, of course, threat inflation can exist in many different areas or threats can exist or be posed by China in many areas. My argument is, is essentially that in a range of areas, not in every area, not in every way, but in a range of very important areas, including military capabilities and intentions, economic and technological capabilities and intentions, etc., that the U.S. government and the U.S. policy people in the policy community tend to exaggerate what is the nature of this threat that China is posing in this area and go from there to prescribe all kinds of responses to that that in many cases go overboard and are essentially or excessively zero sum in nature. In other words, I win. You lose.

What are the exaggerated threats that people in US policy say China poses to the US?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:08] So what would be an example of someone in either the U.S. government or policy community sort of making an exaggerated threat?

Michael D. Swaine [00:04:17] Well, you see it in general characterizations of what China represents to the United States as a way of kind of defining what U.S. policy should be. Probably the most important example of this is the tendency to characterize China as a, quote, unquote, existential threat to the United States in the West.

Who in the United States is inflating the intensity of China’s military threat to the US?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:39] Who’s saying that?

Michael D. Swaine [00:04:40] Oh, this has been views expressed by leading U.S. politicians and former U.S. officials, people like Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, General McMaster, who used to be the national security adviser to Trump, Matt Pottinger, also in the Trump White House, Harry Harris, a former commander of the Indo-Pacific command; the term is thrown around quite a bit. It doesn’t necessarily get formally stated in policy documents on a consistent basis, but there are definitely suggestions that that’s the case. And I mean, what it means essentially is that China is not only sort of implacably committed to essentially destroying the U.S. as a strong democratic nation, but also has the capabilities to achieve that end. And so, we’re looking at a really, really serious kind of threat. I mean, on the level or beyond what the Soviet Union posed to the United States at the height of the Cold War. And so, I think that’s probably the foremost example. Another example, though, is in the military area where China is regularly described as a kind of quote unquote, pacing threat to the Chinese military. This is a term that’s used pretty routinely by U.S. defense officials, by Secretary of Defense Austin, and I think by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, and others. Now, although the United States has never really fully defined what this means, what this means to me is that China possesses equal military capabilities to the U.S. in really almost all major military technological areas and is therefore pacing alongside the U.S. as a very sophisticated military power and the United States has to really pace itself to those capabilities. And I would argue that this is an exaggeration of Chinese military capabilities of the United States military writ large. It is a comparable threat in certain select areas that we’ve seen emerge thus far in shipbuilding, in missile development, in in a few other areas. But it certainly is not an across-the-board pacing threat, as I define it, in all major areas of military technology. Now, a third example would be that China seeks to use its economic power to subjugate and control other nations, largely by issuing loans that are intended to draw that nation into debt so that China can then use that debt to coerce the nation into giving it certain kinds of really extreme concessions. This is called debt trap diplomacy.

What US policy decisions have been made on the premise of a falsely inflated threat from China?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:33] And I’ve done an episode specifically on debt trap diplomacy and how it is a myth and not supported by facts, so I encourage folks to go back and listen to that episode, which was published in May or June. So go check that episode out. But I’m wondering, could you draw a straight line between any policy decisions that have been made in recent years in regard to China, in what you argue is an inflated threat from China or the perception that China poses a greater military threat to the United States and its allies than it potentially does.

Michael D. Swaine [00:08:16] I think, threat inflation contributes to, it doesn’t on its own determine, but it definitely contributes to, the effort of U.S. policymakers to — including President Biden and his top foreign policy team — to cast the global order as one that’s essentially structured by an existential struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. We hear him, Biden, say this all the time. This is what we’re looking at in the global order. This is the major thing that we’re facing, which therefore requires in many ways a very zero-sum level of competition with authoritarian states. It leads, in my view, to what you call the securitization of just about every policy arena that the United States is involved in with China from any kind of technology interactions to joint efforts to deal with urgent common problems like climate change, pandemics, etc., Threat inflation produces, I think, what we see now in Congress: a never ending, it seems, pressure for ever bigger defense budgets to deal with China, which then take resources away from other areas. It serves to also close off areas for mutual accommodation with Beijing and searches for meaningful cooperation. The political dynamic in the United States right now of the polarization of the country has resulted in efforts by the Biden administration to try to seek some degree of bipartisanship by moving forward in certain areas. And one of these is regarding China and China as a very dire, dire threat. So politically, it’s being used in that way and that exaggerates, I think, the level of concern and alarm within the United States, among the population. You have Republicans and Democrats all saying the same thing, oh, my God, China’s gigantic. It’s really after us then that I think inflates and exaggerates the threats. And of course, in doing this, the Chinese respond to all of this and the Chinese themselves act. They don’t just respond, they act. And they are doing that on the basis of an increasingly worst-case assessment of what the threat is that the United States poses to China. So, you get into a kind of vicious circle of worsening policies with inflated threats and counter threats being exchanged. And you sort of see that in the dialog that you get between Chinese and American leaders, where they are focusing on their differences, focusing on the kinds of threats that the other side poses. So, they end up talking past each other in many cases. And so, you know, it has a lot of policy consequences that crowd out other options that lead to the adoption of more extreme policies and you know, push for decoupling with China in all kinds of areas in extreme really uncalled for ways with really little attention paid to developing what I regard as more specific and concrete ways to moderate or bound the rivalry that we have with China, and we do have a rivalry with China in many ways, through various types of understandings. All of this gets undermined in policy terms by threat inflation.

What is the United States’ current security dilemma with China?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:46] So you’re describing a situation in which threat inflation contributes to a pretty classic security dilemma in which supposedly defensive measures taken by one side are interpreted on the other side as threatening and so they take their own measures which they consider defensive, which the other side considers threatening. And so, you’re sort of applying this to China, in which the United States is ever increasing its defense budget to counter China. China sees that ever-increasing defense budget takes its own measures. I mean, for example, China is currently rapidly expanding its nuclear weapons program and it seems as if we are seemingly locked into this dilemma.

Michael D. Swaine [00:12:33] Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a security dilemma, but it’s a little more than that. We use this term quite a lot to describe the situation, but the security dilemma is a little bit more in some ways benign than that, in the sense that countries are just simply acting to try to improve their own defenses and they’re not necessarily trying to threaten another country. They’re just trying to improve their own defenses. They’re not locked in an interactive exchange with another country, but other countries just look at that and they say, oh, well, they may have done that for themselves, but now they really seem to be posing a threat to us, so we need to improve our ability. And you can have this go on between countries that aren’t really actually engaging each other in any major way. In the Chinese case, it’s gone beyond that somewhat in that you see each country is looking at the other as a deliberate, direct and in many ways, as I said, fundamental, if not existential threat to the other. And so, you’ve gone from just a sort of indirect kind of threat based on a security dilemma to a more deliberate threat that is really resulting in a very increasingly intense security competition between the two countries, where it bleeds over into other areas. And both sides really assume that the other bears it nothing but ill will, and that the other side can’t really be dissuaded from its commitment to undermining oneself. So that is the kind of dynamic that we’re that we’re in now where we’re getting more deeply into with the Chinese.

How do United States’ Asian allies react to their zero-sum defense dynamic with China?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:15] Earlier, you said that threat inflation compels policymakers into a kind of zero-sum position in which China’s losses is their gain. But counter-intuitively, you argue as well in your paper that this undermines in times America’s relationship with its allies and its allyship and its sort of multilateral cooperation in the Pacific sphere, in which countries in that region don’t necessarily view things in a zero-sum sort of way. Can you explain that dynamic?

Michael D. Swaine [00:14:56] You have to understand that in an area like the Asia Pacific, right, it’s a very dynamic economic area. It’s where China resides and China is the major economic partner for most countries in the region in a major way, including U.S. allies, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand, big, big economic partner of China. So, what do you have? You have these countries looking at the region. They see that China is growing, that it’s becoming more assertive in some important ways that impact themselves, such as in the South China Sea and over various other issues. And they want the United States to play a role in the region. They want the United States to be a counter to some degree to China and prevent China from really acting in a more aggressive manner. However, they don’t want America’s role to grow to the point where the United States regards China as we’ve just been discussing, as an implacable zero-sum opponent, that is going to undermine the interests not just of the United States, but of U.S. friends and allies, including Asian countries. And therefore, you need to adopt very strong, very confrontational, zero-sum types of approaches to dealing with the Chinese and need to therefore sanction and backstop U.S. policies that support that kind of objective. That’s where Asian countries get off the boat. Asian countries will say, no, we don’t want that. We want you to continue to balance but we don’t want you to provoke. We don’t want you to leave the Chinese with no choice but to become even more aggressive. We want you to caution the Chinese. We want them to correct their behavior in some ways, but we don’t want you to overdo it. And so, if you have a high level of threat inflation and you’re trying to foster that and you’re trying to push it on other countries and you’re trying to use that to justify these more zero-sum policies. And I think the United States has been moving in that direction. It certainly was moving in that direction in the Trump administration. It has modified it somewhat under the Biden administration. It says, we don’t want countries to have to choose sides, but it still acts though in ways that it wants South Korea, it wants Japan to play a more active role in countering China in ways that the United States would accept. And so, it does act to undermine confidence that the United States is a reliable and a cautious and prudent button balancer in the region.

What is China’s true threat to the security of the United States?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:42] So what leads you to conclude that the threat from China is exaggerated and inflated beyond its actual threat to American national security interests?

Michael D. Swaine [00:17:56] Well, what leads me to conclude that is taking a serious long look at what actual Chinese capabilities are and to take a serious look at what Chinese statements have been and what Chinese actions have been, and whether or not they do tend to validate these much more extreme threat inflation statements or belies, and I see that in many areas they don’t. For example, there are those who believe and in fact, Secretary Blinken has stated that China has announced that it has a goal of being the globally dominant force. It has made this abundantly clear in announcements. Well, that is not true. You cannot find an announcement in a Chinese source that states that as its objective. It is an interpretation of a speech probably by Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader of some years ago, where he talked about the need for China to play what can be interpreted and translated as a leading role, not the leading role in the world. And, you know, there are many, many examples of this kind of interpretation from Chinese statements in the West. You have to be very careful about reading the original Chinese, reading the context in which it’s made. Now, I’m not saying to you the Chinese are absolutely guaranteed, without question, do not harbor that objective. You can’t prove the negative. However, there is not strong evidence to prove the positive in this case. So, I’m arguing that you don’t want to proceed on the assumption, the basis that in fact, is China’s goal and it can’t be deterred from it. Therefore, we need to do X, Y and Z. I mean, that places us again in this kind of dire, existential, zero-sum competition with the Chinese, because if we don’t dominate them, they’re going to dominate us. So, I think that’s a very good example. But there are many, many others I could cite from Chinese military capabilities. As I said earlier, when you look at Chinese military capabilities across the board, they have made enormous gains in some areas. They have undermined in fact, they’ve ended, American military prominence in maritime western Pacific. That level of post-World War Two prominence is gone. The Chinese Navy and Air Force and missile capabilities have basically eroded that to a point of parity, or some say China even has an advantage. But China is not overwhelmingly strong even in the Pacific. China is not in a position where it’s so militarily strong that it now believes it can go ahead and seize and hold Taiwan regardless of what U.S. policy is or what the United States does. It has a high chance of succeeding if it tries to do that. I think it remains an extremely dangerous and high gamble that the Chinese realize is the case and that they will not take unless they believe they have little option other than to do so.

What is responsible restraint and what does it have to do with Taiwan, China, and the United States?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:08] So I’m glad you mentioned Taiwan because that was next on my list of questions. Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that it is his intention, the peaceful reunification of Taiwan, is the stated goal of the Chinese Communist Party. Yet at the same time, you do see a surging nationalism perhaps and other warning signs that in fact they do have designs on Taiwan that are not entirely peaceful. You conclude that a more moderate assessment of the Chinese threat suggests a better strategy, one you call, quote, responsible restraint. What are the elements of that strategy and how might that strategy be applied towards U.S. policy, towards Taiwan?

Michael D. Swaine [00:21:57] Well, I think it has several components to it. The first element of it is to reinvigorate and to inject greater credibility into the long-standing American policy that’s called the one-China policy. Now, this one China policy is many, many people do not fully understand it because the complexities of American policy towards Taiwan are pretty extensive, and you have to really know the history and the statements that have been made over time and why. The United States has a policy that it does not recognize that legally Taiwan is a part of the People’s Republic of China, but it doesn’t reject that view either. It acknowledges and it doesn’t challenge the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China. And the United States, of course, shifted diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China, which was located on Taiwan to the PRC in 1979. Along with that shift in recognition went an acceptance or not challenge rather of the Chinese view that Taiwan is part of China and an end to formal diplomatic relations with the Republic of China and such as you would have with a nation state. Taiwan was not recognized as a nation state, but the United States still committed itself to maintaining non diplomatic, unofficial relations with Taiwan and to selling arms to Taiwan as needed. Now, the problem is that in recent years the United States has moved ever closer to Taiwan, eroding some of these limitations and barriers to official relations and increasing its level of support militarily, politically and otherwise with trips to Taiwan by senior officials, although not the most senior officials in the United States and other types of behavior that have really suggested that the United States is moving towards a kind of one China, one Taiwan policy: that is a road to conflict with the Chinese. I don’t know any serious sinologists and China strategists who have looked for long time at the Taiwan problem who would say that the movement towards an essential one China one Taiwan policy is a good thing, that this will deter the Chinese and stability will be ensured. No, it won’t. If we move further in that direction, it will act on the Chinese and get them to believe that the United States is no longer interested in peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue in either direction, as long as it’s peaceful and on course, that’s the U.S. position, that the United States is no longer interested in that, and it wants to maintain Taiwan indefinitely as a separate entity from China and will resist Chinese efforts, even peaceful efforts, to make unification between China and Taiwan. If the Chinese draw that conclusion, they will not have much choice other than to increase their level of capability in controlling, deterring the United States and resolving the issue, possibly through use of force. The Chinese are not going to just simply give up and walk away from the Taiwan issue. It is deeply rooted in Chinese nationalism and their sense of history and injustice on the part of foreign imperial powers, in particular the Japanese, who took Taiwan from China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. That’s a very deep-rooted kind of belief that the Chinese have, so that’s one element: you’ve got to revitalize the one-China policy. If I could, just very briefly, the other thing that you’ve got to do is you’ve got to establish a military posture in Asia that is based on a defensive stance, not an offensive stance of putting forces on Taiwan or warships in Taiwanese ports. And the Quincy Institute just came out with a major study called Active Denial that presents a much more moderate, defensive but financially feasible and effective, in terms of deterrence, military posture for the United States vis-a-vis Taiwan. We just released this and it’s on the Quincy Institute website.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:20] So basically, you’re signaling that you will defend Taiwan, but you’re not taking actions that might be interpreted by the Chinese as offensive…

Michael D. Swaine [00:26:32] Well, no, it’s a little different from that. The US policy is strategic ambiguity. What that means is you’re not signaling that you, yes, absolutely, without question, no matter what provocation, you will defend Taiwan if attacked by China. The United States has not stated that and that is not U.S. policy, despite President Biden suggesting it on several occasions — he didn’t understand the policy and the U.S. government reaffirmed the policy after he spoke. No, the position of the U.S. is that it provides defensive articles to Taiwan to maintain its deterrent capability, and the United States also maintains its own deterrence capability but that does not extend to a guarantee that the United States will intervene militarily in the defense of Taiwan. Now, I think the Chinese assume the U.S. will likely do that if there is a conflict but the point is avoiding getting there and you avoid getting there by avoiding committing yourself to the defense of Taiwan as an absolute condition for the United States.

How can the United States avoid conflict with China?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:33] And you also point to another opportunity to avoid conflict with China by finding opportunities in which China and the United States might bind themselves more closely together in other areas and approach competition, I should say, in non-zero-sum ways. Can you briefly describe what opportunities you see for that?

Michael D. Swaine [00:28:01] Well, sure. I mean, the first and foremost and obvious opportunity is greater cooperation on climate change. I mean if you want to talk about a near existential threat, climate change, is it. If we allow the planet, to go up 2 Celsius degrees in warming over the next couple of decades or more, we’re going to be in a heap of trouble and the United States and China are both major contributors to global warming, and they both will be heavily damaged by excessive global warming. So, they need to cooperate and cooperate meaningfully in dealing with this problem. Being in a zero sum, confrontational, largely rivalrous relationship with one another that is based on very deep suspicion naturally undermines the ability to cooperate in that area. There’s an attitude in the United States government that no matter how zero sum or confrontational, adversarial we are with the Chinese and this area, that area, this area we’ll still cooperate because it’s in the Chinese interest to cooperate. Well, I think that’s naive. I think it’s naive to think that if indeed we’re adopting, or the Chinese are adopting themselves these kinds of zero sum, hostile policies with little trust between the two sides, it’s going to inevitably undermine the ability of both countries to be able to work together, either at the national level or at the subnational level in dealing with things like climate. Another one is pandemics. Look at how the Sino-U.S. rivalry has undermined the ability of both countries to deal with the COVID pandemic. It has directly undermined their ability to cooperate in areas — they do cooperate to some degree, but I think not nearly enough of. It has resulted in resistance on the part of the Chinese to accepting Western vaccines, although there also are other reasons but part of it is the rivalry. It has certainly resulted in the U.S. not acting with the Chinese to really go after assistance to the rest of the world in providing vaccines, providing other types of means to deal with the pandemic. So that’s another area where you have the real need to cooperate. And the third area, of course, is WMD proliferation, weapons of mass destruction. You need to have some level of understanding and cooperation between the U.S. and China to deal with North Korean nuclear weapons. You can’t just simply assume that the Chinese are either out to undermine the U.S. position on Korea or will back North Korea no matter what, no matter what North Korea does, or anything else that might follow from a zero-sum view towards China in its goals in Asia and elsewhere. You have to be able to develop a basis for working with the Chinese on a kind of road map towards stabilizing that situation, which is far from stable under current conditions and rivalry between the U.S. and China undermines that. A third area is global economic behavior. China is a major global actor. It contributes to one third of global growth. It’s a major trading and investment and increasingly involved in the financial area. Finances are critical to keeping the global economy going and there is currently now a difficulty in the United States in inflation and its own financial situation. In China, they’re also dealing with their own issues, both in financing and in trade and I think the two countries really need to be able to cooperate more to make sure we don’t end up creating a bifurcated, fragmented global economic system and financial structure. We need to be able to interact on that issue to preserve stability and economic prosperity for everybody.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:31:54] Well, Michael, we’ll have to leave it there. I’ll post a link to your report in the show notes of this episode. Thank you.

Michael D. Swaine [00:32:00] Thank you very much, Mark. I really enjoyed it.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:05] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Michael D. Swaine for speaking with me and I have posted a link to his report on threat inflation and the Chinese military in the show notes of this episode. All right. We’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!