Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

China: Competitor or Enemy?

More than four decades ago when Deng Xiaoping became the first leader of Communist China to pay a state visit to the United States, few observers thought that he was stepping on a ladder that would lead his nation over several steps from its status as “valuable partner”, in President Jimmy Carter’s words, to a challenger, a competitor and a rival of the American “superpower”.

Earlier this month the US Congress pushed China further up that ladder by sounding alarm bells about “Chinese ambitions”. The House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the US and the Chinese Communist Party didn’t directly designate China as an enemy but its Chairman Mike Gallagher (R.Wis.) came close to that position by labelling it “a threat”.

If the current trend continues, the term “threat” may soon be replaced by “enemy”.

Opinion polls show that China today is one of the most unpopular nations in the United States along with Russia, and Islamic Republic in Iran.

Even then China is in a unique position because its unpopularity cuts across partisan lines in Washington.

Russia, for example, enjoys some goodwill among MAGA Republicans while some Obama-Democrats have a soft spot for the mullahs’ regime in Tehran. Some American pundits even see the current trend leading to a new Cold War with China replacing the defunct Soviet Union as “the enemy”.

There are, however, key differences between the old Cold War and the one imagined by the pundits. The Soviet Union posed an ideological threat to the US, in fact to all capitalist democracies while China, recent theoretical gesticulations by President Xi Jinping notwithstanding, isn’t marketing its Utopia as a model for all mankind.

The USSR was also involved in fomenting anti-US, in fact anti-West, agitations by supporting over 40 Communist parties across the globe, including such European democracies such as those in France, Germany and Portugal.

The Soviets were also fueling the fires of armed rebellion against pro-West governments in more than a dozen nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America while propping up a number of “Third World” dictators , especially in Africa and the “Arab world”.

Soviet leaders seldom had any qualms about the use of force to impose their will. Crushing dissent by force in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the missile blackmail in Cuba, and the invasion of Afghanistan to impose a Communist regime, showed that, in its challenge to the US-led world order, the Politburo wouldn’t shy away from going to the wire.

More importantly, the Soviet challenge drew the US into the biggest arms race in history which the Soviets ended up by losing.

Even today, Vladimir Putin sees Russia as a successor of the USSR with an increasingly revanchist agenda. The invasion of Georgia in 2008, and of Ukraine in 2022, are the latest manifestations of that revanchist agenda.

In contrast, China stopped its largely imaginary ideological challenge to Western capitalism, led by the US, in the 1970s by ending support for rebels in Angola, Mozambique and South Yemen and abandoned such allies as Enver Hoxa in Albania and People’s Guerrilla Fedayeen fighting against the Shah in Iran.

In fact, compared to the USSR-Russia, Communist China has seldom embarked on military adventures to advance its goals. In the 1960s, in a border war, it lost large chunks of its territory to the Soviet Union. It also fought a brief war with India, annexing chunks of Indian territory along its border. Apart from occasional bombardments against the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, largely designed to attract attention, the People’s Republic has not used military force. The last time it invaded anyone was in 1979 when it annexed a chunk of Vietnamese territory in a brief war.

American grievances against China, however, are not limited to concern about its massive military build-up. China is trying to create a blue-water navy to assert domination in South China Sea while modernizing its antiquarian arsenal of weapons.

If the current trend continues, other things being equal, by 2035 China could be as big a military power as the US is today. But who knows whether or not the current trends will continue and that other things will remain equal.

China has a number of vulnerabilities that the USSR did not. It is regarded with suspicion, not say hatred, by almost all its neighbors, with the possible exception of Pakistan. Unlike the USSR which was major exporter, China is also heavily dependent on energy imports and prices on the world market. As the Chinese learn to feed themselves better, the People’s Republic is also becoming more dependent on food imports.

All that means that unlike the USSR or Russia that could get along, albeit miserably, with an autarchic system, the People’s Republic is heavily dependent on global trade.

That brings us back to the United States, which remains China’s biggest market and trading partner.

In 2021 China exported an estimated $3.5 trillion worth of goods and services more than a sixth of which was to the US while the US exported under $200 billion to China, a deficit of over $300 billion.

Though China is often accused of trying to buy everything in the US to steal American technology and skills the fact is that the People’s Republic isn’t among the top foreign investors in the US, falling behind even Ireland and France. Instead, China has emerged as one of the top holders of dollar reserves, helping boost the always wobbly figures for national savings in the US.

One myth bandied around in Washington is that the Chinese hate the US. We seen no serious research into that claim. But anecdotal evidence gathered in a dozen visits to China between 1970 and 2014 suggests otherwise. In fact the US is number-one destination for Chinese tourists and students while the so-called American lifestyle is attracting a growing number of Chinese in urban areas.

There is no doubt that the Chinese leadership hasn’t always played the power game according to acceptable rules. It certainly was economical with the truth about the origins of Covid-19 and the deception spread through the World Health Organization.

Reports that China is engaged in industrial espionage may also be true, albeit exaggerated.

All that, however should not push China up the ladder to a status of threat followed by that of “enemy”. China has closely cooperated with the US in passing seven UN Security Council resolutions against the Islamic Republic in Iran.

It has also enforced sanctions decreed by former President Donald J. Trump while benefiting from cut-price Iranian oil. China has not recognized the annexation of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea and Donetsk and Luhansk by Putin and has not endorsed the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The myth of “the Yellow Peril” put Western powers on a wrong track vis-à-vis Chia for many decades. Before labelling China as “enemy”, the West should consider seeing it as a competitor for global influence, always remembering that a competitor could force you to develop your own capabilities.