Is China a major security threat to the United States?

Huang Panyue
2019-08-01 17:23:47

By Lu Yin

Recently, there have been two dueling open letters to President Donald Trump in the U.S. media, both of which were signed by over 100 U.S. academics, diplomats, and experts, with one letter titled "China is not an enemy" and another on countering China. Behind these arguments is actually the threat perception of the United States, drawing people’s attention to the question whether or not China is a major threat. On August 1 Army Day, it is important to address whether China poses a major security threat to the United States from a People's Liberation Army (PLA) officer's perspective.

The short answer is no, based on the following three criteria that can be employed to judge whether a country poses a security threat to another.

First, intent. The strategic intention of a country can be extrapolated from its policies. And whether a country's military power poses a threat to another mainly depends on its defense policy. History has repeatedly proved that if a country carries out an aggressive defense policy, regardless the scale of its military strength, it might resort to the use of force to undermine peace and stability. A country with strong military power, but pursues a defensive policy, would not use its military edge to engage others through military means.

China pursues an independent foreign policy of peace and a national defense policy that is defensive in nature. The newly-released Chinese Defense White Paper made the solemn commitment that China will never seek hegemony, expansion or spheres of influence – a distinctive feature of China's national defense and a clear manifestation of China's consistent policy of unwaveringly adhering to the path of peaceful development. As a matter of fact, China does not seek confrontation with the United States. And the Chinese military endeavors to actively and properly handle its military relationship with the United States in accordance with the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. It strives to make the military-to-military relationship a stabilizer for the bilateral relationships, and hence contribute to the China-U.S. relationship based on coordination, cooperation, and stability.

China and Russia hold a joint military exercise, September 25, 2017. /VCG Photo

Second, capability. The Chinese Defense White Paper indicated that "great progress has been made in the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) with Chinese characteristics." But, the Chinese military "has yet to complete the task of mechanization, and is in urgent need of improving its informationization." China's military security is confronted by risks from technology surprise and growing technological generation gap. Greater efforts have to be invested in military modernization to meet national security demands.

Third, facts. It is obvious that the last war that the PLA was involved in took place 40 years ago, which was a self-defense war against Vietnam in 1979. Since then, the Chinese military has no more wars, which is the only exception among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. In contrast, according to research, from its founding in 1776 until 2011, the United States had been at war during 214 out of its 235 calendar years of existence. In other words, there were only 21 calendar years in which the U.S. did not wage any wars.

Another case in point is that, according to media reports, during President Donald Trump's phone call with former President Jimmy Carter this April, Trump said he felt China was "getting ahead of us." Carter replied by saying that since the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries, China had been at no wars with anybody, but the United States had stayed at war.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife visit China, September, 2014. /VCG Photo

One can notice that in the official U.S. documents released by the Trump Administration, China has been defined as a "strategic competitor" rather than an enemy or an adversary. Moreover, at least several U.S. officials or officers have referred to China in congressional testimonies as merely "a strategic competitor," instead an enemy. For example, General Mike Millay, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff nominated by Trump to take over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on July 11 that "China is not an enemy… I would say they're a competitor." Therefore, the definition of China as an enemy of the United States by some U.S. "dragon slayers" is worrisome, but it does not represent the official position of the United States. Accordingly, the argument that China is a major security threat to the United States is questionable.

Last, but not least, viewing China as a major security threat on the part of some Americans will not affect China's peaceful development, or change China's policy of pursuing a relationship of non-conflict and non-confrontation with the United States, or will it truly resolve the problems facing the United States. But what could happen is that it may contribute to the self-fulfilling prophecy of a confrontational or an adversarial relationship between China and the United States, which may drag the two countries into a terrible Thucydides trap. And if that really happens, it will be a severe disaster not only to the peoples of both countries, but also to that of the world.

(Lu Yin is an associate professor with the National Security College at the PLA National Defense University. She is also a Senior Colonel in the PLA.)

Disclaimer: This article is originally published on The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of


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