WASHINGTON – Twenty years ago White House officials were worried about China and tensions were mounting.
On April 1, 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft off the coast of China, forcing the Americans to make an emergency landing on Chinese territory. The Chinese detained the American crew for 11 days and carefully inspected the sophisticated aircraft before handing it over. Washington accused the Chinese fighter pilot of reckless flight. Beijing demanded an apology.
The incident reinforced the Bush administration’s view that China was America’s next major adversary.
But on the morning of September 11, Al Qaeda extremists hijacked four airliners and crashed three into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. America’s attention suddenly shifted to the “war on terror.”
In the aftermath of the attacks, US troops deployed to Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the challenge posed by China was sidelined for nearly two decades.
“It was an incredible geopolitical gift for China,” said Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former ambassador to the UN.
“It was a huge mistake for the United States to focus on the war on terror because the real challenge was going to come from China,” said Mahbubani, a distinguished researcher at the National University of Singapore.
China’s GDP has grown from $ 1.2 trillion in 2000 to over $ 14.7 trillion in 2020.
“While you were busy fighting wars, China was busy trading,” said Mahbubani, author of “Has China Won?”
As the United States bogged down in the fight against Islamist militants in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, China’s economic and military might increased exponentially. Beijing has built its missile arsenal, extended its reach into the South China Sea by building man-made islands, stolen large-scale intellectual property and pursued predatory business tactics, experts say.
“After September 11, China very quickly realized that Washington’s strategic direction would shift 3,000 miles, away from the East China Sea, away from the Taiwan Strait and into Afghanistan,” he said. said Craig Singleton of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank. . “It was an opportunity to quietly develop highly coercive military capabilities which were all designed and intended to expand its might in East Asia.”
The September 11 attacks did not change China’s objectives, but created the possibility of closing the gap with a rival distracted by the “war on terror”, said James Lewis, senior vice president of the group think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. .
“They were doing the same things from the start and we slowed down,” Lewis said. US officials at the time assumed that “we can put the problem of China on the back burner while we bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Lewis, who has worked on national security issues under several administrations. .
The United States has spent about $ 8 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other fronts in the fight against terrorism, according to a report by the Costs of War Project at Brown University.
Lewis said the money could have been spent on research and development, modernizing the country’s infrastructure, building high-tech weapons “and all the things we could have done in the last 20 years.” .
Prepare for the wrong opponent
As China ramped up defense spending on ship-killer missiles in the Western Pacific and expanded its navy, the Pentagon reorganized the US military to deal with Middle East insurgents armed with AK-47s, and the Air Force has grown accustomed to operating with full Air Superiority.
“We gave them 20 years and we re-equipped our army for a fight totally unrelated to today’s main security challenge,” said Evan Medeiros, the Penner Family Chair in Asia Studies at the School of Foreign Service. from Georgetown University.
After the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration backed down with China to gain support in the UN Security Council for the fight against al-Qaeda, easing the pressure on Beijing on human rights and urging Taiwan to suspend an independence referendum. At Beijing’s request, in 2002, the United States declared an obscure Uyghur organization, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a terrorist group.
The move and the rhetoric surrounding the fight against terrorism have given China a rationale to crack down on Muslims in China, experts said.
By the time Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, officials spoke of the need to “pivot” to Asia and focus more on fighting China. But a failed war effort in Afghanistan and unrest in the Middle East continued to distract Washington from China.
It’s hard to say how things would have turned out without the September 11 attacks, but some experts argue that the United States may have adapted its defense and economic strategies years earlier to take into account the growing power of the United States. China.
“In the absence of September 11, you would have potentially had a faster shift in US strategy towards China, in a more competitive direction,” said Medeiros, who was Obama’s senior advisor for the Asia region. Peaceful. “At a minimum, you would have had a faster change in US defense strategy.”
“Illusion on China”
For years, U.S. political and business leaders have not viewed China’s economic and trade policies as a major issue, Medeiros said.
“I think it took a while for people to really recognize the nature of China’s economic challenge, but it had nothing to do with Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “[The mentality] was, ‘Hey, everyone still makes money in China, so why rock the boat?’ “
By 2001, no one in Washington fully understood that China was on a phenomenal trajectory, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies center at Stanford University.
At this point, the Chinese economy was just a “sliver” of its current size and Beijing had no significant naval presence in the Western Pacific, she said.
“It is absolutely true that China got the upper hand because the United States got distracted. But it’s not like we would have won this competition by now if 9/11 hadn’t happened, ”said Mastro, who is also a non-resident senior researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.
Until about five years ago, successive administrations misjudged China, believing Beijing could be a partner, according to Dmitri Alperovich, executive chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a nonprofit think tank.
Political leaders mistakenly believed that if Washington helped open world markets to Chinese industry, the Chinese government would gradually open up the country’s political system and play a more cooperative role on the world stage, according to Alperovich.
“I don’t really think Afghanistan or the war on terror had much to do with it, that if we didn’t have this distraction we’d be less delusional about the threat from China,” said Alperovich, who is also co-founder of CrowdStrike Inc., a cybersecurity company. “We had hope as a strategy and it backfired.”
China is now decidedly at the top of the agenda in Washington, and both parties agree on the need to “toughen up”. President Joe Biden has upheld tariffs imposed on China by former President Donald Trump, and lawmakers and businesses are pushing for action to promote the US chip industry, invest in research and protect the US tech industry of industrial espionage.
But is the response to China coming too late?
Some experts say precious time has been wasted, America still lacks a long-term strategy to counter China, and the country’s polarized politics threaten to distract the United States from the main task at hand. .
But they say America remains a center of innovation and still has the means at its disposal to compete with China and win.
In the 1970s, after the United States withdrew from Vietnam in a humiliating defeat amid economic turmoil and soaring oil prices, the Soviet Union believed America was on a downward spiral, according to Lewis of the CSIS. China now often portrays the United States as a waning power in inevitable decline.
In private conversations with his Chinese counterparts, Lewis said he told them not to deregister the United States just yet.
The Soviets thought we were gone, said Lewis, “and 15 years later who was still standing?