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Common Misconceptions of US-China Competition
Correcting 10 Myths and Flawed Arguments in US-China Policy
As the China threat becomes evermore present in the minds of policymakers and everyday Americans alike, we need to ensure everyone is on the same page about the basics. There’s a lot of malarkey out there. Previously, I created a basic syllabus titled “A Short Course in the Sino-American Conflict” that covers the basic readings for understanding the past, present, and future of Sino-American competition. But I do recognize that’s a lot of reading and certainly not the sum of all knowledge on the subject. In order to help get us all on the same page, I thought I’d take the time to correct the 10 most common myths and flawed arguments that I hear in DC and around the country from military commanders to Wall Street investors. There’s surely more out there, but these are the ten most common that I hear. Without further delay, let’s dive in.
Misconception #1: China Owns All of Our Debt and Will Make Us Default
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I’ve heard this talking point since I was a teenager and while it’s fallen out of favor with most of the right wing since the last administration, I still hear it every now and then from senior military folks that should know better and regular civilians alike. You’ll see headlines like “The US Owes China $1 trillion!!!” and be rightfully concerned and scared by such a large number. For any person and most countries and companies, a trillion is a big number but when your public debt balance exceeds $30 trillion, 1/30 is actually quite a small amount: it’s about 3%. Chinese companies are allowed to own greater percentages of US companies than that. In recent years, China has actually cut back on purchases of US debt holdings, likely for its own security. You see, the mythos of China forcing us to default is a bit like a hostage taker screaming “I’ll shoot myself and then you!” It’s not simply a valid method of coercion with numbers like these. While there are concerns about our debt to GDP ratio overall, China has its own debt problems to worry about too. Moreover, countries have gone to war while owning each other’s debt in the past, and what usually ends up happening is the pausing of debt payments until hostilities conclude. A slightly related fun fact is that Germany didn’t pay off its reparations debts from World War I until this century. Truly, the bigger debt threat from China is losing a war to the PLA and being forced to pay reparations, not Beijing owning 3% of our total public debt.
Misconception #2: The US military is Unmatched
A common patriotic refrain, and more recently common coping mechanism, goes something like “the US has the greatest military in the world since the Roman Empire! We’re unmatched!” While it is true that the US military has many capabilities that most of the world, including China, could only dream of…wars are not simply determined by excel spreadsheets of capabilities rankings like a World of Tanks message board. What makes a capable military is the subject of countless books, essays, and commentary so let me just present a few statistics that won’t help you sleep at night.
The US Navy no longer possesses the largest battle force on the planet. While we argued with each other and sat on our hands, the PLAN went out and used their world-class shipbuilding industry to build their own 355 ship fleet. Now, beyond mere ship numbers we can argue about displacement, training, armament, etc. But it should be worth noting that many analysts consider the latest class of Chinese cruiser to be one of the most advanced and best warships in the world. The Chinese Navy, particularly when combined in the 1st and 2nd island chains with its massive conventional, land-based missile arsenal is nothing to laugh at.
The PLA is rapidly growing its nuclear arsenal. One of the key advantages the US held over China in escalatory conflict was our ability to both outnumber the PLA’s middling nuclear arsenal and intercept what few missiles they could launch at the homeland. That threat is rapidly evolving and something I’ll cover more further down on this list. Just know the PLA is rapidly accelerating towards parity sometime in the 2030s.
Geography, mass, industry, and timing all matter. To paraphrase the movie Patton put a US tank against a PLA tank and we’ll see who wins. On completely neutral ground, I still have faith we can kick the hell out of the PLA. The problem is that nothing about war is neutral. The most likely conflicts around China’s periphery, particularly over Taiwan, all favor the PLA in terms of their ability to mass forces, resupply, and move quickly relative to the US as it fights the tyranny of distance across the Pacific. This is why I’ve previously written about the need to focus our efforts in the defense of Taiwan around delaying and disrupting the PLA’s invasion of Taiwan to buy time for the fleet and bulk of US forces. Ask anyone who’s had to wargame or plan for the defense of Taiwan, the odds ain’t great once the PLA decides to go. Where our forces are scattered around the globe, the PLA only has to focus on its near-abroad. In a protracted conflict, our defense industry and war economy will suffer greatly from decades of neglect, skeleton crews, and lack of backup systems and production facilities. We’re trying to walk into a powerlifting competition on a juice cleanse.
The PLA has spent the last 20+ years modernizing to focus on the most likely conflict: Taiwan. While we have a lot of capability, we don’t have a whole lot of capacity. In other words, we don’t have enough of the right systems, in the right places, with the right plans, to take the PLA on. In a few areas, it may have a couple years to go to be truly capable. But even today, we don’t like what we see: a massive fleet, an extremely capable missile arsenal, ultranationalist sentiments that will buff PLA morale and encourage aggression, the use of civilian vessels to augment PLA logistics. All while we still fight in the US about timelines, intent, and defense cuts. It’s not that we can’t counter these capabilities, it’s that the PLA has developed capabilities to provide them asymmetric advantage in key areas around the Taiwan fight.
In summary, the US military may have a lot of great capabilities, particularly our ability to fight jointly, but to say we are unmatched is at least 5-10 years out of date at this rate. We need to step up if we want to maintain the advantages we have left. Hubris is our greatest vulnerability.
Misconception #3: Bipartisan Consensus on China = GroupThink
After years of hyper-partisanship in DC, you’d think everyone would be happy we can finally agree on something: that the China threat is serious. According to some, this new “bipartisan consensus on China” is equivalent to the groupthink that drove the Iraq War. I have little tolerance for these people because if they *actually* were in the know or bothered to pick up a newspaper beyond their own columns, they would see the immense public and private debates that are ongoing around China. We can agree that China is a threat, and that’s about it. Fierce fighting over strategy, timelines, capabilities, and how best to balance threat awareness with the dangers of hysteria are all quite common. And that’s how good government is supposed to work. To say there’s a groupthink consensus would be to ignore all the scuff-ups that happen weekly over everything from PLA capability to TikTok.
Now, I’ve said in the past that China hawks would be keen to remember how we were once the minority voice in DC and how we were dismissed for years. We should always be open to gut checks and new ideas, but this sudden backlash against a DC that can finally work together is mostly driven by ego, not genuine fears of another Iraq 2003. And just to be clear, let’s review why this is NOT Iraq 2003.
We are actively seeking to deter conflict, to deter and if necessary defeat the invasion of a sovereign, democratic nation from an aggressive authoritarian nation. There are no ambitions of marching on Beijing or starting some war that we (see above) could very well lose for either profit, democratic expansionism, or (LOL) the military-industrial complex. I cannot say this enough, we’d really all prefer to avoid war if we can successfully deter the PLA. We just won’t tolerate the invasion, subjugation, and mass atrocities against Taiwan or anyone else.
We have a lot of information, much of it thanks to solid OSINT collection and analysis, about CCP rhetoric, intentions, and actions. We aren’t chasing aluminum tubes when the PLA has thousands of very real missile tubes pointed at our forces in the Western Pacific and at Taiwan. Xi and the party’s own rhetoric, when properly translated, often affirms the PRC’s bad intentions. We’re not short on evidence, from genocide to weapons tests, that the CCP is a genuine threat.
Our allies are getting on board from Japan to the Philippines to Europe. This isn’t some half-assed coalition of the willing, even if I wished our allies would do more, faster. Our friends really are waking up to the general threat of the CCP and the specific threats of coercion in their own backyards. The CCP continually steps in it, even when it tries to launch new campaigns selling itself as a friendly, peaceful nation.
Misconception #4: The US Started the New Cold War/Wants to Start the New Cold War
This is my favorite myth because it truly requires you to be a) ignorant of Chinese actions around the world for the last 10-15 years and b) to literally subscribe to the messaging backed by none other than the CCP itself. Congrats, you’ve subscribed to the propaganda of a genocidal regime. Now, the old cold war brings about a lot of different emotions for a lot of different people. Sometimes we forget how absolutely “on the brink” the world was for 40 years. The Oxford definition for a cold war follows: a state of political hostility between countries characterized by threats, propaganda, and other measures short of open warfare. Does that sound familiar? Hell, the CCP’s various organs have run a master class on measures short of open warfare, actively sell propaganda for war with America within China, all while its wolf warrior diplomats threaten war and annihilation for the US and its allies. So yes, we are in a cold war with China, no we did not start that period of political hostilities. In fact, it was quite the struggle to get people on board with responding to years of PLA and CCP provocation and actions from cyber operations to conventional military buildups. In the last few years we’ve just finally started standing up to the CCP. Saying we started this cold war is like saying John Wick provoked the Russian mob. Finally, some of us don’t like the near-term framing of a cold war anyway because we tend to think this is mid-1930s and a world war is on the horizon. So. Food for thought.
Misconception #5: Great Power Conflict Means Nuclear Armageddon
Read your Schelling. From the 2010s through today, “X politician wants World War III” was used against everyone from Hillary Clinton to Mike Gallagher for daring to stand up to Moscow and Beijing. There are *a lot* of steps between aiding Ukraine or sanctioning the CCP to global thermonuclear war. They call it an escalation ladder for a reason. As I wrote about in a previous post, Ukraine has shown us that the 0-100MPH school of escalation isn’t in fact a real thing. We can do a lot under the proverbial nuclear gun. And sure, there’s been days even I’ve been a little more uneasy about nuclear escalation. But there’s a big difference between paying a little closer attention to what the enemy is saying vs doing and going to DEFCON 1. If anything, what should worry you is that we don’t really know what Beijing’s nuclear playbook looks like as its arsenal grows, and they’re not exactly interested in talking and don’t trust the de-escalation measures we’ve used with Moscow for decades.
Misconception #6: We Should Use Russia to Fight China
Even some of the biggest China hawks are guilty of this fallacy. It’s a twisted take on Clancy’s fever dream of the US and Russia joining up to fight China in The Bear and the Dragon (the 90s were a weird time for geopolitics) and a lack of understanding in how exactly the Sino-Soviet split occurred during the first cold war. Yes, in a perfect world it would be great that the Russians aren’t siding with Beijing and causing trouble in Europe but this fantasy ignores some basic facts:
Moscow and Beijing are far more interested in turning back the US-led world order than fighting one another. During the last cold war, Moscow and Beijing were competing over ideological leadership in the communist world. This led to both personal and political differences that could not be resolved. We don’t have a real wedge, they need each other at this point more than either needs us.
Putin and Xi are friends. Xi admires Putin and both grieved the loss of the USSR. Mao and Khrushchev, among others, did not get along. Maybe when they’re both dead and gone we can talk, but that doesn’t appear to be anytime soon. Even more, if you wanted to accelerate that change, you’d be encouraging a Russian defeat in Ukraine so the Putin regime accelerates its collapse.
With what Army? We’ve literally decimated the Russian Army in Ukraine, these days, what exactly does Russia bring to the table that the PLA couldn’t smash, especially when their infrastructure along their border regions is a lot more efficient than the Russians. And even before we decimated them, it’s become clear the Russian military was a paper tiger. They don’t bring a whole lot to the table for what it would cost us in morals, money, and our friends.
Misconception #7: We Won’t Go to War because $$$
This is a fallacy that goes back to pre-WWI. “The world is more-interconnected than ever! We won’t fight because it costs us money!” Look aside from the fact that the entire history of the 20th century after 1914 should disprove this argument, let’s look at the facts: we’re actively decoupling because we, and Beijing, realized that interconnectedness can actually be used for coercion, Beijing was using its monetary influence here to steal technology, hunt down dissidents, and influence US policy. As we are seeing, sometimes other interests/factors can trump money. Ensuring Beijing doesn’t own global semiconductor production is just as real a factor in the US defense of Taiwan as Beijing’s insecurity over a Chinese people that lives peacefully under democracy is for its willingness to conduct a campaign of annihilation against the island nation. Money matters most until it doesn’t…that’s like the whole plot of human history. Moreover, and I cannot emphasize this enough, the national security community is very disconnected from Wall St and vice versa. I have the headaches to prove it. We aren’t holding off on war so the stock market can go up and Beijing certainly isn’t either. In fact, they’re actively taking measures to ensure that doesn’t happen in the event they do go to war. Not to mention, Xi continues to speak publicly about the need to expect and prepare for “great suffering.” I’ll let you interpret that as you may.
Misconception #8: We Should Coerce Taiwan into Building the Military We Want
Once again, I can’t believe I have to say this but no, we should not sanction or otherwise punish our allies for not doing exactly what we tell them. Barring everything else, Taiwan is just as hyper-partisan as our own domestic politics. Turning on the DDP in power now just to twist their arms would only push the people in favor of the pro-China opposition in the KMT. It’s fine to lecture and argue our allies in private, we’ve done that with NATO for decades, but publicly doing so, especially through official channels of coercion, is Trumpian populism that invites only disaster. That being said, I would very much appreciate it if the Taiwanese government sped things up a little and took things a little more seriously. But I also recognize, and apparently so does Speaker McCarthy, the complex and delicate political realities in Taipei right now. It’s not great, but punishing Taiwan would only make it a hell of a lot worse. You don’t punch your friends when they’re trying to better themselves, you help them out and encourage them.
Misconception #9: Chinese Influence in America is Neo-McCarthyist Hysteria
I like to say that the threat of the CCP is a bit like if the Soviets actually had money. There really is CCP influence in Hollywood, through the form of box office access and investments, we really have lost a lot of tech and research to the CCP, there really are CCP agents hunting down dissidents in America, they really have infiltrated our critical systems, they really are trying to conduct influence campaigns against the American public. These are all very real threats because the difference between the Soviets and the CCP is that the CCP has money, and money buys America more than an ideology that denounces money ever will. So no, it’s not neo-McCarthyist hysteria to say that what the CCP is up to in America and around the world can be described as the KGB’s wet nightmare. I have a very real fear that partisan domestic politics will blow up the China threat consensus around this issue, the success or failure of the Counter-CCP Committee will be a litmus test for future cooperation.
I also must caution against those who would run too far in the other direction with this: we do not want or need a return to a HUAC-type atmosphere, red scare, or making Asian-Americans scapegoats(who are often the most common targets of CCP attacks, disinformation, and coercion.) We can fight this the right way, not the fascist way. And while the CCP threat, particularly influence in the US, is only growing and becoming evermore existential, we cannot become our worst selves. And most hawks, the ones I respect, know that. Don’t confuse the fringe for the majority. Don’t let them become the majority, either.
Misconception #10: We Must Choose Between Strengthening Our Democracy at Home and Fighting China Abroad
This talking point fell off as the Biden administration became increasingly hawkish on China, but I still see it from some of my friends on the left. There is this idea that we must choose between fighting China or strengthening America and it is tied to the domestic politics of both the GOP and Democratic parties, by those who never want to move past the Trump admin (for good or bad). We have to do both, because they go hand in hand. Saving the world from the CCP can only happen if our own democracy is strong and the American people prosperous. But just as important is the fact that the CCP isn’t going to wait for us to get back up like it’s a regulation boxing match. If we let the CCP run rampant abroad…they’ll eventually come knocking on our door. I thought we learned that lesson during the 1930s and 40s, the last time fascism was on the rise. We’ve done it before and we can do it again: we can rebuild American while keeping the bad guys in check. Simply put: we don’t get to choose. Is there anything in this or my previous articles that sounds like it doesn’t require equal and whole-of-government effort at home and abroad in order for us to succeed?
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