Avoiding Hysteria about China

There has been a surge of inflammatory comments recently about China’s expansive territorial claims and abrasive behavior toward its neighbors.  Former Defense Department official Joseph Bosco asserts in an article in the National Interest Online that the United States and its allies need to draw a “big red line” in East Asia to warn Beijing against further adventurism. He urges the United States not only to reiterate and strengthen its backing for traditional allies such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, but to forge new security ties with Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries in the region that worry about Chinese expansionism.  Bosco emphasizes that it is crucial to eliminate any doubt whether the United States would move militarily to counter Chinese aggression, lest policy ambiguity lead to the same kind of miscalculation that produced North Korea’s attack on South Korea in 1950.

But Bosco and other anti-China hawks are mild compared to Philippines President Benigno Aquino in invoking nightmarish historical analogies. In an interview in the New York Times,Aquino argues that China’s territorial claims in the East China and South China seas reflect the same strategy as Nazi Germany’s claims in the late 1930s, and he warns world leaders not to coddle the aggressors in Beijing.  The world has to say “enough is enough,” he insists.  “Remember the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”

Bosco, Aquino, and others who adopt such strident views need to take some deep breaths.  They also need to consult a calendar.  It is 2014, not 1950, much less 1938-1939.  Beijing’s leaders are hardly pleasant democrats, but neither are they the equivalent of Kim Il-Sung, Mao Zedong, Josef Stalin, or Adolf Hitler.  Today’s China appears to be a revisionist power—one seeking to alter East Asia’s strategic and economic landscape to Beijing’s advantage whenever possible.  But such behavior is still a far cry from the actions of the murderous revisionist powers that did not care how their actions disrupted the international system and produced horrifically destructive wars.  Treating Beijing as though China is such a malignant power will only foster paranoia among the Chinese leadership elite and create the danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Invoking strained, if not preposterous, historical analogies has repeatedly gotten the United States into unnecessary wars.  Ho Chi Minh, Slobodan Milosevic, and Saddam Hussein were all bad actors, but contrary to the shrill warnings of overwrought pundits and politicians, they did not pose a threat even remotely comparable to Hitler or Stalin.  Neither does the current regime in Beijing.  We need a sober, cautious approach, not hysteria, in dealing with China.