The Drumbeat of War

Mar 3, 2023

Anti-China sentiment in the United States is now at the danger point. The rapid progression of conflict escalation over the past five years — a trade war quickly followed by a tech war that has now morphed into a new cold war — is now hinting of something far worse.  There is open talk of a kinetic, or hot war, that would most assuredly have devastating consequences for both the US and China, to say nothing of the rest of the world.  Look no further than an opinion piece in yesterday’s New York Times, “A War With China Would Be Unlike Anything Americans Faced Before.”

The US is at real risk of talking itself into war. Nowhere was that more evident than in the opening hearing on February 28 of the new “House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.” Two MAGA loyalists dominated the panel of four that presented so-called expert testimony on the China threat — H.R. McMaster and Matthew Pottinger.  General McMaster (ret.) was Trump’s national security adviser in 2017-18 and Pottinger was the deputy national security adviser from 2019 until early 2021 when he resigned “on principle” after the failed January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.

The first hearing, staged for an evening prime-time television audience, was a modern-day incarnation of the “red-baiting” hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee that ultimately paved the way for the anti-communist vendetta of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis) in the early 1950s. I was particularly struck by Pottinger’s opening statement that featured a video clip casting Xi Jinping in the lead role as the architect of a Chinese communist threat to America and all the democratic values it stands for. Notwithstanding the threat to democracy posed by Pottinger’s own boss, Donald Trump, the video closed with an ominous, cherry-picked warning of Xi, “to use war as a means to protect our core national interests…”

Pottinger’s message was music to the ears of the stridently bi-partisan anti-China membership of the Select Committee. While its chairman, Mike Gallagher (R-Wis) framed the US-China conflict in existential terms, the ranking minority member, Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill), was more circumspect in stressing that “We do not want a war.” Like Pottinger, the committee’s two leaders also went for the high-impact video — in this case jointly produced by Republicans and Democrats, alike — that underscored the dark side of the PRC, from the tragedy of Tiananmen Square in 1989 to human rights abuses against ethnic Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang Province. While the new select committee is charged with tackling strategic competition between the US and the CCP, the focus of the first hearing had little to do with competition as we have come to know it in the West. The emphasis, instead, was on deep-rooted conflict and the growing risks of kinetic war.

All this is strikingly reminiscent of a world that sleepwalked its way into World War I. As historian David Fromkin wrote of one of the toughest lessons of the Great War, “If a government is determined to bring on a war, no appeasement, no matter how extensive or imaginative, will restrain it.” Back then, that was true of Austria, and it also was true of Germany. Today, is that the case of the United States, or China? The more we beat the drumbeat of war, the greater the risk our determination becomes self-fulfilling.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

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