After World War II, do you think that Americans could point to the day when the Soviet Union switched from ally of convenience to sworn adversary? A decade from now, will we be able to point to the day when our Cold War with China began? Americans need a scapegoat for everything, and China is the perfect enemy for the anemic economic recovery of today. As America stagnates at the top of the world stage, China rises. As American incomes stay flat, those in China skyrocket. Their students are excelling—although they only report scores from Hong Kong and Shanghai—as ours fail to meet basic national standards. And, of course, they’re stealing our jobs!
Listening to our nation’s leaders makes it seem as though we’ve already begun a Cold War with China. The New York Times front page last Sunday morning portrayed Chinese investment in struggling economies throughout Latin America and the Caribbean as something vaguely sinister. The Economist ran an issue last week with a cover decorated by an ominous-looking Chinese submarine and a headline about “China’s Military Rise.” Never mind that they spend a quarter of what we do on their military. Never mind that their submarines are apparently so far behind ours that we can track them from outer space. Never mind our numerous and ongoing military interventions in the Middle East; in a speech last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta focused primarily on China. America must always be a Pacific power, he said, and clearly he wasn’t talking about New Zealand.
China makes a better ideological opponent for the 21st century than Iran; they’re more believable as a dangerous enemy. Their government does not respect the types of rights that should be fundamental to all people: freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, and of assembly—to name a few big ones. As a response to protests, they’ve closed off Western Tibet; we have no idea what atrocities they could be committing there. Their stance on Taiwan and their support for the North Korean regime undermine the interests of democracy. And in some ways, having them as a rival could benefit America; when the Soviet Union beat us and put Sputnik into orbit, it encouraged more Americans to study science and math. The interstate highway system evolved out of defense concerns. A rivalry with China could inspire us to improve our education and infrastructure—two areas in much need of improvement.
But we must take care to ensure that such a rivalry doesn’t instead lead to increased military spending and intervention in Asia, as the Cold War with the Soviet Union did. China may be a large and powerful nation, but their military poses little threat to us. They lack a navy large enough to invade Taiwan. While we have eleven aircraft carrier groups, they have just one. Conservatives cried invisible wolf as China unveiled the prototype for what’s thought to be a new, stealthy fighter jet—the J-20—but the new F-35 is far superior. We have many times as many fighter jets as them and many times as many nuclear weapons.
We must not be afraid to support causes that upset China. Nor must we be afraid to push them to stop dumping their goods on the world market at artificially low prices, to support freedom for their citizens, and to enact increased workplace protection. But we are no longer the sole hegemon—if we ever were—and we need China’s help to deal with Iran, North Korea, and a series of other issues.
No war, hot or cold, will force them to see our point of view. Only through increased interaction and increased exposure to Western values will their citizens demand more freedoms. The Great Firewall cannot remain in place indefinitely. Like the Berlin Wall it will someday fall. But when it does fall, it will be due to pressure from a Chinese population ready for the modern world of Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia. In the long run, these do more to advance the cause of liberty than the type of wasteful, expensive, and counterproductive conflict that pitted us against the Soviet Union for half a century.