For the past decade or so, there has been debate about the validity of the “China threat theory.” The above picture shows the presence of US military bases in relation to China in the region. My first reaction to this picture was: Is there talk of a “US threat theory” in China that I am not aware of? When I first saw this picture, I was very intrigued. In my studies of international relations, I have never heard the term “US threat theory,” or nor do I know of scholars talking about the US using these terms.
So I turned to Google. If you Google “China threat theory,” (in quotes) you get over 266,000 results, but if you Google “US threat theory,” there are 7 results. One of which is this People’s Daily article quoting Lu Xiaobo, the Director of the East Asia Institute of Columbia University, as saying both “China threat theory” and “US threat theory” exist. Is this really the case? Then I looked in Baidu for “美国威胁论”(U.S. threat theory) and found that the creation of the U.S. as a security threat in public dialogue was hardly the case. Rather than making the case for U.S. threat theory, the articles that I did find are mostly reflections and reactions on “China threat theory.”
Now, I take threat construction very seriously and the point of this post is not to say that the US is a threat, but to talk about the idea of threat construction. I hope to provide some information and viewpoints that might provide some reflection on how a “threat” manifests through language, especially in the context of US-China relations. Ole Weaver, in the book On Security, talks about security “not as an objective or material condition, but as a ‘speech act,’ enunciated by elites in order to securitize issues or ‘fields,’ thereby helping to reproduce the hierarchical conditions that characterize security practices.”
In 2007, the Global Times (环球日报)published an article entitled “Why you never hear about ‘US threat theory.’” The article looks at how the United States creates an image of “security” rather than one that causes other nations to perceive it as a “threat.” The premise of the article is:
Even though the United States freely roams the world as they please, often waging war or being a major party in the cause of conflict, there are virtually no experts, media, or any politicians that stand up and propose “U.S. threat theory.” This is an incredible phenomenon! On the other hand, China engages in military build-up only to ensure that its own territory is not divided, and yet elicits “concern” from Western countries and some countries in the Asia-Pacific, causing the so-called “China threat theory” to flourish.
The article then talks about two ways that the U.S. uses to prevent other countries from constructing it as a threat. First is using “justice, freedom, and democracy” as cover-up:
In light of this, the tactic of “cover-up” employed by successive U.S. administrations is indeed worthy of consideration. The U.S. is ahead of other countries in the public advertising and the media industry, and in military and foreign policy and internal and external propaganda, it is definitely not inferior. In dealing with CIA and operations of special forces that do not naturally gain international and public support, in dealing with situations where explanation is needed, the U.S. will often first accumulate evidence, find a reputable spokesperson, and then gain support. In times where public support is impossible to gain, the U.S. president has a last resort of using the statement “not excluding any possibility” that works as a last resort. Hence, no matter the real nature of his military actions, the U.S. president can always find arguments on the basis of “fighting for democracy.”
The next tactic the article says that U.S. uses is giving carrots after using sticks, and thus reducing the shock that the country being attacked or invaded suffers:
“Carrots and sticks” are complimentary, they not only help the U.S. military influence weak governments when a political vacuum occurs, they can also stablizie a political situation, and provide a catalyst for economic development when the conditions are ripe.
The article continues:
Open any article about military affairs in the U.S. press, and many reports are about how the U.S. military provides humanitarian assistance to the “weak,” how the U.S. brings security and stability to all the corners of the world, etc. This type of publicity that pays great attention to detail will leave a deep impression with many people.
Now back to the “China threat theory” side. Ole Weaver talks about threats and security as a “speech act,” and we can clearly see this in action in public statements made by U.S. officials. In this article (great article, would recommend reading the entirety), The Nation talks about Rumsfeld’s speech at a strategy conference in Singapore:
After reviewing current security issues in Asia, especially the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea, Rumsfeld turned his attention to China. The Chinese can play a constructive role in addressing these issues, he observed. "A candid discussion of China…cannot neglect to mention areas of concern to the region." In particular, he suggested that China "appears to be expanding its missile forces, allowing them to reach targets in many areas of the world," and is otherwise "improving its ability to project power" in the region. Then, with consummate disingenuousness, he stated, "Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust deployments?"
The article follows with:
To Beijing, these comments must have been astonishing. No one threatens China? What about the US planes and warships that constantly hover off the Chinese coast, and the nuclear-armed US missiles aimed at China? What about the delivery over the past ten years of ever more potent US weapons to Taiwan? But disingenuousness aside, Rumsfeld’s comments exhibited a greater degree of belligerence toward China than had been expressed in any official US statements since 9/11, and were widely portrayed as such in the American and Asian press.
So, the threat that is being constructed has nothing to do with the actual material weapons that the U.S. has or that China has. When Rumsfeld talks about China “improving its ability to project power,” he seems to be automatically implying that if the U.S. does the same thing, it’s just not a big deal (check out “Obama’s Empire” from New Statesman). I’ll leave you with a quote from this article in International Organizations – Alexander Wendt and Daniel Friedman write:
The threat posed to the United States by five hundred British nuclear weapons is less than that posed by five North Korea ones, because the British are friends and the North Koreas are not, and amity and enmity are social, not material, relations. In that sense it is “ideas all the way down.”