Competition with China really isn’t a zero-sum game. So why does it feel that way?
Yet it will be similarly hard to avoid “provocation,” or what looks like it when viewed from Beijing. Washington has little choice but to hedge against the possibility of future Chinese misbehavior. But the hedging steps it takes—the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle doctrine for war in the western reaches of the Pacific, reinforced alliances in Asia, investments in cyberwarfare capabilities—feed the suspicion of those who believe that the United States is out to keep China down: the classic vicious spiral of the security dilemma. Even steps the United States has not taken can feed that suspicion. In one “fit of self-induced paranoia,” in the words of an Obama adviser, angry Chinese officials insisted that Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize was given on the orders of the U.S. State Department.
When policymakers in Beijing look around, they see American allies, troops, and ships, backed by military spending still many times higher than their own. They see outside powers with an interest in internal territorial issues that cover nearly half of their country. They see Western companies in control of most of the globe’s key resources. They see some of the world’s longest land borders shared by wary neighbors with whom they have gone to war in recent decades. They see plenty of reasons, from a coming demographic cliff and a rickety banking system to increasingly intolerable air and water pollution, to worry about the future of the economic success that is at the root of their power. And they look across the Pacific and see a United States with certain enduring relative advantages—of geography, of demographics, of resources, even of latent economic potential. Americans may be most anxious about Chinese strength, but that sense of vulnerability could come to trouble us even more.
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