The Threat From China: Something All Americans Can Agree On

Chinese President Xi Jinping / Getty

American politics has never really "stopped at the water's edge," despite the late Sen. Arthur Vandenberg's famous plea to make foreign policy apolitical. Today, political divisions over how to approach Iran, Israel, Venezuela, the European Union, and of course Russia, make it maddeningly difficult for leaders in Washington to produce coherent, sustainable, and effective policies. There is one issue, however, arguably the most important of them all, where every American—progressive and conservative, nationalist and internationalist—can agree: the threat posed by China.

Just this week, three in-depth news stories came out highlighting the seriousness and complexity of the Chinese threat. Perhaps most worrying is "how China is replacing America as Asia's military titan," as Reuters phrased it. "Chinese leader Xi Jinping has refashioned the People's Liberation Army into a force that's rapidly closing the gap on U.S. firepower—and in some vital areas has surpassed it," the wire service reported. "American victory over China in a regional war is no longer assured." The story detailed how Beijing has overturned the military balance in East Asia.

In just over two decades, China has built a force of conventional missiles that rival or outperform those in the U.S. armory. China's shipyards have spawned the world's biggest navy, which now rules the waves in East Asia. Beijing can now launch nuclear-armed missiles from an operational fleet of ballistic missile submarines, giving it a powerful second-strike capability. And the PLA is fortifying posts across vast expanses of the South China Sea, while stepping up preparations to recover Taiwan, by force if necessary.

Beyond the military sphere, two other news outlets shed light on the coming dystopian effects of Chinese surveillance technology. Newsweek detailed how China is using artificial intelligence, or AI, to develop systems to enhance government surveillance, often in collaboration with American companies like Microsoft. "In states with unaccountable institutions and frequent human rights abuses," the story said, "AI systems will most likely cause greater damage. China is a prominent example. Its leadership has enthusiastically embraced AI technologies, and has set up the world's most sophisticated surveillance state in Xinjiang province, tracking citizens' daily movements and smartphone use." And Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE are exporting these technologies around the world, constructing "smart cities" in Pakistan, the Philippines, and Kenya with extensive surveillance. Worse, "as governments become increasingly dependent upon Chinese technology to manage their populations and maintain power, they will face greater pressure to align with China's agenda."

The New York Times also highlighted how China is exporting its model of the surveillance state abroad. "Under President Xi Jinping," the paper reported, "the Chinese government has vastly expanded domestic surveillance, fueling a new generation of companies that make sophisticated technology at ever lower prices." Reporting from Ecuador, the Times explained how, in 2011, the south American country installed a surveillance system that "is a basic version of a program of computerized controls that Beijing has spent billions to build out over a decade of technological progress." While the Ecuadorian government claims the footage goes to the police for manual review, it also goes to the country's "feared domestic intelligence agency," which has a history of attacking the president's political opponents. The Times also noted:

Ecuador shows how technology built for China's political system is now being applied—and sometimes abused—by other governments. Today, 18 countries—including Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, and Germany—are using Chinese-made intelligent monitoring systems, and 36 have received training in topics like "public opinion guidance," which is typically a euphemism for censorship.

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Loans from Beijing have made surveillance technology available to governments that could not previously afford it, while China's authoritarian system has diminished the transparency and accountability of its use.

Taken together, these three articles portray a totalitarian state that is ambitious, belligerent, and, perhaps most dangerous, patient, eager to supplant the United States as the center of power in international affairs. It is clear that, in such a scenario, America's security would be indefinitely threatened, its values undermined, and the world would be a much darker, less vibrant place. But this threat, as daunting as it is, should, unlike other foreign policy challenges, bring Americans across the political spectrum together to confront it. Why? Because China threatens what all of the main political ideologies in the United States hold dear.

On the political right, President Trump, and the nationalists and populists who form the core of his base, believe generally in a more protectionist foreign policy. That means a deep hostility toward China's mercantilist economic practices, which they argue have hurt American workers. Indeed, the ongoing trade war with China is an example of such hostility. Moreover, this group sees China swindling the United States, stealing American intellectual property—in part to bolster its military and surveillance state—and closing many of its markets to American exporters and investors. All of this is viewed as a threat to American security, prosperity, and, above all, sovereignty.

The Republican Party's establishment, meanwhile, is more internationalist and sees China threatening key allies in East Asia, the health of democracy across the world, and the American-led world order, of which the Chinese have taken advantage while challenging the pillar that upholds the system: American military dominance. Furthermore, for neoconservatives concerned about protecting human rights and spreading democracy, China should be the greatest threat of all.

Similarly, the Democratic Party's establishment believes in a more traditional, internationalist foreign policy focused on many of the same factors as its GOP counterpart. This center-left bloc also likes to champion democracy and human rights, just with less emphasis on military power. Anyone concerned about these issues should care about countering a country that is brainwashing its Muslim population and exporting its sophisticated tools of repression.

Beyond climate change, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, best represented by the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, sees "right-wing authoritarianism," "nationalist oligarchy," and "authoritarian capitalism" as the chief global threats. By definition, that means progressives should see China as the most dangerous threat in the world. They also share the economic concerns of nationalist-populists, only they frame the issue more as corrupt cronyism and flawed capitalism.

All of these groups may have slightly different motivations, but they share a strong suspicion of, if not an aversion to, Beijing's machinations. Maybe American leaders can actually leave their politics at the water's edge and work together to counter China's imperial designs and oppressive form of governance, which it sees as a viable alternative to free, democratic societies. After all, China poses the most daunting strategic challenge to the United States going forward into the 21st century. Perhaps that can drive Washington to form a comprehensive strategy, one that is bipartisan and durable. Hey, it's a nice thought at least.