China’s economic rise over the past decades has been meteoric, during which time the volume of rhetoric about the “China threat” has also grown at historic rates. In the early 1990s the Pentagon needed a new superpower rival to justify Cold War-sized defense budgets. But displays of American military power in the first Gulf War and the 1995-96 crisis in the Taiwan Strait also prompted China to develop a military strategy designed to keep American forces out of its neighborhood. Now, with counterterrorism missions in Iraq and Afghanistan down from their peak and China’s military posture maturing significantly, the U.S. military has been devoting more time and resources to figuring out ways to counter China’s new strategy.
Beyond the military, political hawks have been quick to draw attention to the China threat. During last weekend’s Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said that China has a choice between peaceful cooperation and engaging in a “zero-sum game for regional power and influence.” Even academics have gotten in on the game, with many arguing that China’s rise will not be peaceful.
Though China’s saber rattling in East Asia and the South China Sea hasn’t made a big splash in the 2016 presidential campaign so far, the question of how the United States should respond to China’s rising military and economic power is one of the most important foreign policy challenges the next president will face.
Both candidates have staked out aggressive positions on China. Trump has promised to impose steep tariffs on Chinese imports, suggested that South Korea and Japan should acquire nuclear weapons, and has called for a strong military presence in Asia to discourage “Chinese adventurism.” Clinton, for her part, was a lead architect of the “pivot to Asia” as Secretary of State, redirecting U.S. military and diplomatic efforts from the Middle East to Asia to confront China’s rise.
A close look at public opinion, however, reveals that although complex, the American public’s attitudes towards China are more sanguine than those of its fearful leaders.