A number of Chinese officials and academics, especially Chengxin Pan, subscribe to the China Threat Theory. This school of thought argues that Western groups unfairly portray China as a malevolent force on the world stage. The problem, though, is that this view is both erroneous and understates the very legitimate concerns that the U.S. and other regional states have about China’s increasing power. China Threat Theory is nothing more than a self-serving Chinese narrative that, ironically, is guilty of the same kind of warped worldview as the one to which it accuses American academics and policymakers of subscribing.
It is clearly accurate that some elements within the U.S. government favor overtly aggressive and counterproductive strategies toward China. Furthermore, it’s inarguable that certain strains of academic IR are pessimistic regarding China’s rise. Offensive realism, in particular, is deeply skeptical of the U.S. and China’s ability to peacefully coexist. However, it is grossly misleading to argue that the majority of American policymakers and academics hold this view of the world. Other IR paradigms – defensive realism, liberalism, and certain strands of constructivism – tend to be far less concerned about China’s rise, for example. In the policy realm, initiatives are underway to boost economic and cyber cooperation with China. Even the military is debating the degree of risk posed by China, and there are a number of prominent debates among military war planners about how best to respond to Chinese aggression without precipitating a major war (just look at the reams of reports on AirSea Battle if you don’t believe me).
Beyond the deeply fallacious assertions about American thinking in academic and policymaking circles, China Threat Theory also reveals a complete lack of empathy for other Asian countries. China might legitimately perceive itself to exemplify harmonious and peaceful characteristics, and its leaders might truly believe that they are pursuing policies that best promote cooperation and peaceful relations in Asia. Ultimately, though, this is an overly-simplistic and deeply non-empathetic reading of the situation because not everything is about China. China Threat Theory utterly discounts the possibility that regional actors might be legitimately concerned by China’s flagrant violations of territorial sovereignty and international law. Chinese leaders might not view these concerns as legitimate, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t sincerely felt by countries like Japan and Taiwan. Indeed, it is quite ironic that China Threat Theory posits that American policymakers unfairly represent Chinese motives while China Threat Theory itself patronizingly declares Japanese concerns to be unfounded and insincere. International relations is, first and foremost, concerned about relations between states, and there is a rich body of literature on strategic interactions, enduring rivalries, security dilemmas, etc. Rising powers almost always spook regional neighbors and rival great powers because their increased power makes it increasingly difficult for them to credibly commit to not abuse their power in the future. This is particularly true in the context of China because the People’s Republic has a clear record of blatantly ignoring international law and reneging on its public promises. So the assertion that other countries’ concerns are unfounded and nothing more than propaganda just because the Chinese leadership proclaims its peaceful and benevolent intentions is utterly indefensible.
China Threat Theory is not a serious theory; it is frankly nothing more than Chinese propaganda. It’s always important to recognize internal biases, and there are certainly elements in Japan, the U.S., and other Asian countries that view China in an undeservedly negative light. But just like NATO and Russia, it’s crucial that China remembers that other countries get a vote too, and they may not see China’s “harmonious” militarization of the South China Sea as all that peaceful.