WASHINGTON — Twenty years ago, White House officials were concerned about China and tensions were mounting.
On April 1, 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with an American EP-3 reconnaissance plane off the Chinese coast, forcing the Americans to make an emergency landing on Chinese territory. The Chinese detained the American crew for 11 days and carefully inspected the advanced aircraft before handing it over. Washington accused the Chinese fighter pilot of flying recklessly. 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 planes and crashed three into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. America’s attention shifted abruptly to the ‘war on terror’.
US troops were deployed to Afghanistan and the Middle East, and China’s challenge was shelved for nearly two decades.
“It was an incredible geopolitical gift to China,” said Kishore Mahbubani, the former UN ambassador to Singapore.
“It was a big mistake by the United States to focus on the war on terror because the real challenge would come from China,” said Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore.
China’s gross domestic product has risen from $1.2 trillion in 2000 to more than $14.7 trillion in 2020.
“While you were waging wars, China was engaged in trade,” said Mahbubani, the author of “Has China Won?”
As the US stalled in the fight against Islamist militants in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, China’s economic and military power grew exponentially. Beijing built up its missile arsenal, expanded its reach in the South China Sea by building artificial islands, stole intellectual property on a massive scale and pursued predatory trade tactics, experts say.
“After 9/11, China realized very quickly that Washington’s strategic focus would shift 3,000 miles away from the East China Sea, away from the Taiwan Strait and into Afghanistan,” said Craig Singleton of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies , a think tank. “It was an opportunity to quietly develop very compelling military capabilities all designed and intended to expand its power in East Asia.”
James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank, said the 9/11 attacks didn’t change China’s goals but created the opportunity to close the gap with a rival that was distracted by the “war on terror.”
“They were doing the same things all along, and we slowed down,” he said. US officials at the time assumed that “we could put the China problem on the back burner while bringing democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Lewis, who has worked on national security issues in several administrations.
According to a report by Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the US has spent an estimated $8 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other fronts in the fight against terrorism.
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 past 20 years.”
Prepare for the wrong opponent
As China ramped up defense spending on missiles to kill ships in the Western Pacific and expanded its navy, the Pentagon revamped its military to deal with insurgents in the Middle East armed with AK-47s, and the air force got used to it. working with total air superiority.
“We’ve given them 20 years and we’ve transformed our military for a battle that is totally irrelevant to today’s most important security challenge,” said Evan Medeiros, the Penner Family Chair in Asia Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration reversed course with China to gain support from the UN Security Council to fight al-Qaeda by easing pressure on Beijing over human rights and prompting Taiwan to hold a referendum on independence. In 2002, at Beijing’s request, the US declared an obscure Uyghur organization, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a terrorist group.
The move, and the rhetoric surrounding the fight against terrorism, gave China a justification for cracking down on Muslims in China, experts said.
By the time Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, officials were talking about the need to “turn” to Asia and focus more on countering China. But a faltering war effort in Afghanistan and unrest in the Middle East continued to draw Washington’s attention away from China.
It’s hard to say how things would have evolved without the 9/11 attacks, but some experts argue that the US would have adjusted its defense and economic strategies years earlier to account for China’s rise.
“Without 9/11, you might have had a faster shift of US strategy to China, in a more competitive direction,” said Medeiros, Obama’s top adviser for the Asia-Pacific region. “You would at least have had a faster shift in US defense strategy.”
‘Delusions’ about China
For years, American political and business leaders did not see China’s economic and trade policies as a major problem, Medeiros said.
“I think it took time for people to really recognize the nature of the economic challenge in China, but that had nothing to do with Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the mindset was, “Hey, everyone still makes money.” in China, so why rock the boat?”
In 2001, no one in Washington fully understood that China was on a phenomenal trajectory, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a center associate at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
At the time, China’s economy was a “splinter” of its current size, and Beijing had no meaningful naval presence in the western Pacific, she said.
“It’s absolutely true that China gained the upper hand because the US was distracted. But it’s not like we would have won this game already if 9/11 hadn’t happened,” said Mastro, who is also a non-resident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Until about five years ago, successive governments misjudged China, believing Beijing could be a partner, said Dmitri Alperovitch, the executive chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a nonprofit think tank.
Political leaders mistakenly believed that if Washington helped open global markets to Chinese industry, the Chinese government would gradually open up the country’s political system and play a more cooperative role on the global stage, he said.
“I don’t really think Afghanistan or the war on terror had much to do with it, that if we didn’t have that distraction, we’d be less delusional about the threat China poses,” said Alperovitch, who is also a co-author of the report. founder of CrowdStrike Inc., a cybersecurity company. “We had hope as a strategy, and it backfired.”
China is now definitely at the top of the agenda in Washington, and both sides agree they need to “get tough.” President Joe Biden has upheld former President Donald Trump’s tariffs on China, and lawmakers and companies are pushing for action to promote the US microchip industry, invest in research and protect the US tech sector from industrial espionage.
But is the response to China too late?
Some experts say precious time has been lost, the US still lacks a long-term strategy to counter China, and the country’s polarized policies threaten to distract the country from its primary mission.
But they say the US remains a center of innovation and still has the resources to compete and win with China.
In the 1970s, after the US withdrew from Vietnam in a humiliating defeat amid economic troubles and skyrocketing oil prices, the Soviet Union believed the US was in a downward spiral, said Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Development. studies. China now often portrays the US as a fading power on an inevitable downturn.
Lewis said he has told his Chinese colleagues in private conversations not to write off the US just yet.
The Soviets thought the US was gone, Lewis said, “and who was still standing 15 years later?”