“We must hold China accountable”. Everyone has their own personal reason why they think this is an important American goal. For economic protectionist demagogues like Donald Trump, it’s that China manipulates its currency, makes lots of cheap goods and gives them to us for next to nothing, and gave us Covid! For war happy neoliberals and neoconservatives, it’s that they’re committing genocide against the Uighurs or that they’re aggressive in the Taiwan Strait, which everyone knows America should control. For right leaning populists like Tucker Carlson, it’s that they are an authoritarian communist state that restricts the free speech and free thought of their people and covertly undermines American culture. People from all over the political spectrum will point to the evils of China and their supposed intentions to destroy America. This is why we must hold the Chinese accountable, they’ll say.
I’ll start with the necessary caveat that many of the accusations against China are valid. They do manipulate their currency, although this is a laughable claim coming from any American who supports the Federal Reserve, the greatest currency manipulator in the world. China does make cheap goods that undercut the prices Americans can sell them at, although it’s not at all obvious this is a net negative given the cost-saving benefits this provides to the American lower and middle class consumer. They have committed crimes against the Uighur muslims, although it’s always a good idea to be skeptical when the U.S. war party makes claims that a foreign adversary is oppressing its people, given their track record of exaggerating or outright fabricating similar accusations in order to justify war. It’s true that COVID-19 originated in China, likely due to some form of gross negligence on the part of their government. And it’s absolutely the case that China is an authoritarian state, to this day run by the Chinese Communist Party, although it is more of a capitalist nation today and not quite comparable to the horrors propagated by Mao’s China, Stalin’s Soviet Union, or the Kim Dynasty’s North Korea. Still, there are severe restrictions on freedom in China that we should oppose and certainly should not want implemented in our country.
What isn’t entirely clear is what exactly those like former Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler who call for holding China accountable are suggesting. There is no obvious solution whereby the U.S. government can make China better by simply being tough on them. In fact, the U.S. has a long and bloody history of making countries far far worse by intervening on similar grounds of taking a supposedly rogue, totalitarian regime to task.
But China isn’t just some poor Middle Eastern nation like Iraq who we can hold to account by putting on crippling sanctions, bombing, invading, killing a million people, and otherwise destroying. China is the most powerful country in the world outside the United States and has an arsenal of nuclear weapons that could wipe humanity off the face of the planet many times over. That means any form of military conflict between the U.S. and China is absolutely off the table, or at least it would be if our leaders had any sense of sanity or desire to preserve humanity.
Most of those arguing for holding the Chinese accountable probably do not actively support starting a war with China. They simply want the U.S. to present a tough posture, slap on a few sanctions, and maybe say some bad things about Chinese President Xi Jinping. But to be so cavalier about threatening one of the world’s premier nuclear powers is reckless and dangerous. While many may not intend for their requests for tough U.S. Government posture against China to be an invitation for military conflict, we live in a country filled with weapons manufacturers, politicians, corporate media, Generals, and neoconservative intellectuals who salivate at the thought of engaging the Chinese in some form of armed escalation. These are people who will look for the slightest of openings to push a war through and when rhetoric like “we must hold China accountable” becomes normalized, that opening widens.
The China hawks’ positions in many ways parallel those of the people who have spent the past five-plus years obsessing about the Russians, in light of their supposed interference in the 2016 election. Democrats and establishment Republicans alike lectured incessantly about the need to be tough with Vladimir Putin. They cried endlessly that then-President Trump was too friendly with Putin, highlighted by the 2018 Helsinki summit, when the Russophobe class was outraged that Trump spoke diplomatically with Putin. These Russia hawks argued for increasing sanctions, expanding NATO as close to the Russian border as possible, and ramping up support for anti-Russia forces in the war in neighboring Ukraine. And while no serious person advocated for an outright hot war with Russia, the mainstream political class and their allies in the corporate press pushed constantly for anything under the sun that would increase political tensions between the U.S. and Russia, with no regard for the increased risk of real conflict this created.
Now, with a Democrat in the White House, we are seeing the rise of a very similar dynamic, but with China as the target instead of Russia. We regularly see Joe Biden opponents accuse him of being soft on China, not being tough enough on President Xi, and selling out American interests for the sake of his secret affinity for the Chinese. Again, this should sound very familiar to the charges leveled against Trump throughout his entire presidency, in regards to his relationship with the Russians. Remember, Trump was a secret Russian agent, claimed the unhinged Jonathan Chait. Trump colluded to win the election with the evil Putin, who runs a totalitarian dictatorship ready to take over the world. This was the mainstream narrative being pushed by nearly all of the largest corporate news outlets.
Another similar dynamic to the Trump years is that in reality Biden has done nothing to ease tensions with China or be “soft” on them. He has made no statements condemning a hostile American posture towards China or in any way drawn down our military presence in the far East. In similar fashion, Donald Trump, despite the constant accusations of him being a Russia sympathizer, was consistently hawkish in his actual Russia policy. He approved lethal arms sales to anti-Russian forces in Ukraine, something Obama refused to do. He withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an important barrier to nuclear arms escalation between the U.S. and Russia. And despite occasionally praising or saying a kind word about Putin, he never took any real steps to actively de-escalate tensions between the two nations.
In fact, the constant barrage of attacks labeling Trump as soft on Russia was a primary factor motivating his hawkish policies. He knew that the slightest bit of outreach would get him crushed by his political opponents, so to avoid further scrutiny, he simply maintained and escalated America’s confrontational posture toward Russia. So in reality, Trump’s opponents got to have their cake and eat it too. They got to attack Trump endlessly and portray him as a Russian stooge to the unwitting American public, while at the same time getting all the anti-Russia policy they could dream of. Similarly, those who desire a policy of American belligerence towards China have nothing to really complain about. The U.S. maintains a global empire that includes troops and bases all over Asia that surround the Chinese, preventing them from having any ability to expand their own military presence even if they wanted to. Meanwhile, Biden opponents accuse him of being soft on China, thus further decreasing the already scarce possibility that Biden would work to improve American-Chinese relations.
Because we’ve been fortunate enough to never experience a nuclear war and no nuclear weapons have been used since Harry Truman obliterated over a hundred thousand Japanese 75 years ago, it’s easy to dismiss the risk as nonexistent. People generally don’t fear what has never hurt them before. But the truth is that there have been many close calls to nuclear confrontation and if one decision or another had been made differently, it very well could have led to the nuclear war humanity simply cannot afford.
The single most important issue to the survival and flourishing of humankind is that we don’t drop nukes on each other and that means that America, Russia, and China have to get along. Anything that makes this peace less stable, even threatening language that may seem trivial to some, is something we should condemn. There is no question that the Chinese government is evil and engages in the types of freedom suppressing behavior that libertarians, or anyone for that matter, should oppose, but asking the U.S. government, which engages in plenty of its own totalitarian behavior, to “hold them accountable” is only asking for more trouble. America has no authority, much less any actual ability, to improve the Chinese state through righteous toughness. It does, however, have the ability to put us all at much greater risk by engaging in the type of jingoistic behavior that it does so regularly, with a nuclear world power that can actually hit back.