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‘Threatening’ China and US security: the international politics of identity


China's increasing capabilities are a central focus of modern day US security concerns. The International Relations literature is a key forum for analyses of the so-called ‘China threat’ and yet it remains relatively quiet on the role of ideas in the construction and perpetuation of the dangers that country is understood to present. This article reveals that throughout history ‘threats’ from China towards the United States, rather than objectively verifiable phenomena, have always been social constructions of American design and thus more than calculations of material forces. Specifically, it argues that powerful and pervasive American representations of China have been repeatedly and purposefully responsible for creating a threatening identity. It also demonstrates that these representations have enabled and justified US China policies which themselves have reaffirmed the identities of both China and the United States, protecting the latter when seemingly threatened by the former. Three case studies from across the full duration of Sino-American relations expose the centrality of ideas to historical and contemporary understandings of China ‘threats’, and to the American foreign policies formulated in response.

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1 CBS News, ‘Do China, Russia pose “mortal threat” to us?’, available at: {} accessed 11 April 2012.

2 Norris, Robert and Kristensen, Hans M., ‘Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945–2010’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 66 (2010), pp. 7783.

3 Mearsheimer, John, ‘China's Unpeaceful Rise’, Current History, 105:690 (2006), pp. 160–2.

4 Cohen, Warren, ‘China's Rise in Historical Perspective’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 30:4–5 (2007), pp. 683704.

5 Chang, Gordon, The Coming Collapse of China (London: Arrow, 2002).

6 Brown, Michael, Coté, Owen Jr, Lynn-Jones, Sean, and Miller, Steven (eds), The Rise of China: An International Security Reader (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

7 See, in particular, Gries, Peter Hays, ‘Social Psychology and the Identity-Conflict Debate: Is the “China Threat” Inevitable?’, European Journal of International Relations, 11:2 (2005), pp. 235–65; Friedberg, Aaron L., ‘The Future of US-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?’, International Security, 30:2 (2005), pp. 745.

8 Pan, Chengxin, ‘The “China Threat” in American Self-Imagination: The Discursive Construction of Other as Power Politics’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 29 (2004), p. 305.

9 Fairbank, John King, China Perceived: Images and Policies in Chinese-American Relations (London: Andre Deutsch, 1976), p. xiv.

10 IR constructivists have been most active in this regard. See, for example, Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Onuf, Nicholas, World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989); Kubálková, Vendulka, Onuf, Nicholas, and Kowert, Paul (eds), International Relations in a Constructed World (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998).

11 Goh, Evelyn, Constructing the US Rapprochement With China, 1961–1974: From “Red Menace” to “Tacit Ally” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). See also Tunsjø, Øystein, US Taiwan Policy: Constructing the Triangle (London: Routledge, 2008); Iriye, Akira, Across the Pacific: An Inner History of American-East Asian Relations (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., 1967); Jesperson, Christopher, American Images of China, 1931–1949 (Stanford: Stanford University, 1996); Michael Hunt, David Shambaugh, Warren Cohen and Akira Iriye, Mutual Images in US-China Relations, Occasional Paper no. 32 (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Asia Program, 1988); Madsen, Richard, China and the American Dream: A Moral Enquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Dorogi, Thomas, Tainted Perceptions: Liberal Democracy and American Popular Images of China (Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 2001).

12 See Pan, ‘“China Threat”’; Pan, Chengxin, Knowledge, Desire and Power in Global Politics: Western Representations of China's Rise (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, forthcoming).

13 Authors have afforded attention to US public opinion of China. However, it is consistently studied as a phenomenon discrete from, and secondary to (albeit somehow affecting), foreign policy, rather than as a force within the construction of China and the availability of policy options. See, for example, Kusnitz, Leonard, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy: America's China Policy, 1949–1979 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984); Foot, Rosemary, The Practice of Power: US Relations with China Since 1949 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995); Holsti, Ole, Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), esp. pp. 8690.

14 See Hillary Clinton, ‘America's Pacific century’, Foreign Policy (November 2011), available at: {} accessed 12 April 2012.

15 Pan, ‘“China Threat”’, esp. pp. 310–13.

16 Ibid., p. 313.

17 Ibid., p. 306.

18 Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans Sheridan Smith, A. M (London: Tavistock, 1972), p. 80.

19 Campbell, David, Writing Security (rev. edn, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), p. 3, emphasis in original.

20 Campbell, Writing Security, esp. chap. 4.

21 Ashley, Richard, ‘Foreign Policy as Political Performance’, International Studies Notes, 13 (1987), p. 51, emphasis in original.

22 Doty, Roxanne Lynn, Imperial Encounters: The Politics of Representation in North-South Relations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 13.

23 Foucault, Michel, ‘Prison Talk’, in Gordon, Colin (ed.), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977 (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1980), p. 52. See also Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 1979). Power in IR is now a widely contested concept. See, for example, Barnett, Michael and Duvall, Raymond, ‘Power in International Politics’, International Organization, 59 (2005), pp. 3975; Guzzini, Stefan, ‘The Use and Misuse of Power Analysis in International Theory’, in Palan, Ronan (ed.), Global Political Economy: Contemporary Theories (London: Routledge, 2000).

24 Foucault, Michel, ‘Power and Sex’, in Kritzman, Lawrence (ed.), Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977–1984 (New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 112.

25 Doty, Imperial Encounters, p. 4.

26 Ibid. For a discussion of ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions see Cross, Charles, ‘Explanation and the Theory of Questions’, Erkenntnis, 34:2 (1991), pp. 237–60.

27 Campbell, Writing Security, p. 61.

28 Ibid., esp. chap. 2. See also Ashley, Richard, ‘Living on Border Lines: Man, Postructuralism, and War’, in Der Derian, James and Shapiro, Michael (eds), International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1989), pp. 303–4.

29 Campbell, Writing Security, p. x.

30 Hixson, Walter, The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and US Foreign Policy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 8; Campbell, Writing Security, p. 91. See also Ruggie, John, Constructing the World Polity: Essays on International Institutionalization (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 218–9.

31 Calculated from figures cited in Hao, Y. P., ‘Chinese Teas to America – A Synopsis’, in May, Ernest and Fairbank, John King (eds), America's China Trade in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 13.

32 Holliday, J. S., The World Rushed In (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), pp. ixx.

33 Daniels, Roger, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), p. 9.

34 Rohe, Randall, ‘After the Gold Rush: Chinese Mining in the Far West, 1850–1890’, in Dirlik, Arif (ed.), Chinese on the American frontier (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), pp. 1718.

35 See, for example, Morton, Samuel, Crania Americana (Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839); Knox, Robert, Races of Men: A Fragment (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1850).

36 Persaud, Randolph, ‘Situating Race in International Relations’, in Chowdhry, Geeta and Nair, Sheila (eds), Power, Postcolonialism and International Relations: Reading Race, Gender and Class (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 74.

37 San Francisco Chronicle (3 July 1868).

38 Naturalisation Act (An Act to Establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalisation), 26 March 1790. University of Washington, Bothell, available at: {} accessed 11 May 2012.

39 Campbell, Writing Security, p. 75; Luibhéid, Eithne, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 37.

40 Molina, Natalia, Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), p. 26; Washington Post (30 January 1879).

41 Feagin, Joe, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 83–5.

42 Quoted in Gyory, Andrew, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), p. 224.

43 Quoted in Sandmeyer, Elmer, The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), p. 39.

44 McClain, Charles, In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth Century America (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), p. 54.

45 Dulles, Foster, China and America: The Story of their Relations Since 1784 (New York: Kennikat Press, 1967), p. 87.

46 Hing, Bill Ong, Defining America through Immigration Policy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), p. 32.

47 Quoted in Gyory, Closing the Gate, p. 212.

48 Ibid., p. 225.

49 New York Times (26 February 1880).

50 Campbell, Writing Security, pp. 136–7.

51 McClellan, Robert, The Heathen Chinee: A Study of American Attitudes Towards China, 1890–1905 (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1971), p. 26.

52 Chinese Exclusion Act, University of Washington, Bothell (6 May 1882), available at: {} accessed 8 March 2012.

53 Yung, Judy, Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), p. 127.

54 Gyory, Closing the Gate, p. 239; Quoted in Sandmeyer, Anti-Chinese Movement, p. 88.

55 Quoted in Gyory, Closing the Gate, p. 228.

56 59 abstained.

57 Campbell, Writing Security, p. 61.

58 Der Derian, James, ‘The War of Networks’, Theory and Event, 5:4 (2002), available at: {} accessed 19 April 2012.

59 Takaki, Ronald T., Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1998), p. 110.

60 Cohen, Warren, America's Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations (5th edn, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p. 30.

61 Ashley, ‘Foreign Policy’, p. 51.

62 Fairclough, Norman, Language and Power (London: Longman, 1992), p. 92.

63 Fairclough, Language and Power, p. 77.

64 Takaki, Strangers, p. 111.

65 Quoted in Hunt, Michael, The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), p. 92.

66 Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948, vol. 8 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1973), p. 147.

67 Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States 1949, vol. 9 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1974), pp. 826–34.

68 See, for example, Los Angeles Times (2 October 1949); Washington Post (2 October 1949); Chicago Daily Tribune (2 October 1949); New York Times (2 October 1949).

69 This is a key point made in Tunsjø, US Taiwan Policy, p. 21.

70 Leffler, Melvyn, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 81.

71 Department of State, Foreign Relations, 1949, vol. 9, p. 466.

72 Øystein Tunsjø addresses this type of question as part of a wider analysis of US-Sino-Taiwan relations, demonstrating that early Cold War shifts in US foreign policy were inextricable from powerful understandings of the identities of China, Taiwan, and the United States itself. See Tunsjø, Constructing the Triangle.

73 Tucker, Nancy Bernkopf, Patterns in the Dust: Chinese-American Relations and the Recognition Controversy, 1949–1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), p. 187.

74 Department of Defense, The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of the United States Decision Making on Vietnam, vol. 1 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), p. 373.

75 Campbell, Writing Security, esp. chap. 6.

76 Fairbank, China Perceived, p. xiv.

77 Cumings, Bruce, The Origins of the Korean War, vol. 2: The Roaring of the Cataract, 1947–1950 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 107.

78 Executive Order 9835, 21 March 1947. Reprinted in Bernstein, Barton and Matusow, Allen, The Truman Administration: A Documentary History (New York: Harper and Row), p. 363.

79 Department of State, Department of State Bulletin, vol. 16 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1944), pp. 534–6.

80 Department of State, Bulletin, 16, p. 535.

81 National Security Council, NSC 68, 14 April 1950. Reprinted in May, Ernest (ed.), American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC 68 (Boston: Bedford/St Martin's, 1993), pp. 2382.

82 Cimbala, Stephen, US Military Strategy and the Cold War Endgame (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 37.

83 In May, American Cold War Strategy, p. 26.

84 Campbell, Writing Security, p. 61.

85 Foot, Practice of Power, p. 54.

86 Department of State, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, 1951 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1965), p. 316.

87 Persaud, ‘Situating Race’, p. 74.

88 Immigration and Nationality Act, 27 June 1952. University of Washington, Bothell, available at: {} accessed 4 July 2012.

89 Smedley, Agnes, Battle Hymn of China (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1943).

90 Snow, Edgar, Red Star Over China (New York: Random House, 1938). See also Snow, Edgar, Random Notes on Red China (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1957); Snow, Edgar, The Other Side of the River (New York: Random House, 1962).

91 Steele, A. T., The American People and China (New York: The McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966), pp. 171–2.

92 Rigg, Robert, Red China's Fighting Hordes: A Realistic Account of the Chinese Communist Army (Harrisburg, PA: Military Service Publishing Co., 1951), p. 19. See also, for example, Hunter, Edward, Brain-Washing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men's Minds (New York: Vanguard, 1951); Dunlap, Albert, Behind the Bamboo Curtain: The Experiences of an American Doctor in China (Washington DC: Public Affairs Press, 1956).

93 Liu, Shaw-tong, Out of Red China (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1953), p. ix.

94 See Fried, Richard, Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); Shrecker, Ellen, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History With Documents (2nd edn, New York: Palgrave, 2002).

95 Bostdorff, Denise, Proclaiming the Truman Doctrine: The Cold War Call to Arms (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2008), p. 146, emphasis added.

96 Doty, Imperial Encounters, p. 13.

97 The academic literature includes Mearsheimer, ‘China's Unpeaceful Rise’; Cohen, ‘China's Rise in Historical Perspective’; Cohen, Warren, ‘China's Strategic Culture’, Atlantic Monthly, 279:3 (1997), pp. 103–5; Roy, Denny, ‘Hegemon on the Horizon? China's Threat to East Asian Security’, International Security, 19:1 (1994), pp. 149–68. The popular literature includes Gertz, Bill, The China Threat: How the People's Republic Targets America (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 2000); Menges, Constantine, China: The Gathering Threat (Nashville, TN: Nelson Current, 2005); Timperlake, Edward and Triplett, William, Red Dragon Rising: Communist China's Military Threat to America (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 2002).

98 Kaplan, Robert, ‘How We Would Fight China’, The Atlantic Monthly, 295:5 (2005), p. 49.

99 Babbin, Jed and Timperlake, Edward, Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 2006), pp. 23–4.

100 Callahan, William, ‘How to Understand China: The Dangers and Opportunities of Being a Rising Power’, Review of International Studies, 31:4 (2005), p. 701.

101 CBS News, ‘Mortal Threat?’.

102 Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955, vol. 2 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1986), p. 118; Garver, John, Face Off: China, the United States and Taiwan's Democratization (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), p. 3.

103 Ashley, ‘Foreign Policy’, p. 51; Rubinstein, Alvin, Shayevich, Albina, and Zlotnikov, Boris, The Clinton Foreign Policy Reader: Presidential Speeches with Commentary (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2000), p. 116.

104 Pan, ‘China Threat’, p. 313.

105 William Clinton, ‘Press briefing by David Johnson, Deputy White House Press Secretary and Senior Director of Public Affairs for the National Security Council, 3 July 1996’. The American Presidency Project, available at: {} accessed 4 May 2012.

106 Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People's Republic of China [2002–8] (Washington DC: US Department of Defense, [2002–8]).

107 United States Senate, Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 109th Congress, First Session, vol. 151, pt. 6 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 2005), p. 7592.

108 Barack Obama, ‘Statement on Elections in Taiwan’. The American Presidency Project, available at: {} accessed 17 August 2012.

109 Ramo, Joshua, The Beijing Consensus (London: Foreign Policy Centre, 2004).

110 See, for example, Guerrero, Dorothy and Manji, Firoze (eds), China's New Role in Africa and the South (Oxford: Fahamu Books, 2008); RiordanPaz, Guadalupe (eds), China's Expansion into the Western Hemisphere (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 2008).

111 Burton, Charles, ‘The “Beijing Consensus” and China's Quest for Legitimacy on the International Stage’, in Laliberté, André and Lanteigne, Marc (eds), The Chinese Party-State in the 21st Century: Adaptation and the Reinvention of Legitimacy (New York: Routledge, 2008).

112 Halper, Stefan, The Beijing Consensus: How China's Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

113 Cho, Young Nam and Jeong, Jong Ho, ‘China's Soft Power: Discussions, Recourses and Prospects’, Asian Survey, 48:3 (2008), p. 462. See also Anheier, Helmut and Isar, Yudhishthir, Conflicts and Tensions (London: SAGE, 2007), p. 181 and p. 465.

114 Breslin, Shaun, ‘Understanding China's Regional Rise: Interpretations, Identities and Implications’, International Affairs, 85:4 (2009), p. 821; Breslin, Shaun, ‘Developmental State or Dysfunctional Development?’, Third World Quarterly, 17:4 (1996), pp. 689706.

115 Suzuki, Shogo, ‘The Myth and Reality of China's “Soft Power”’, in Parmar, Inderjeet and Cox, Michael (eds), Soft Power and US Foreign Policy: Theoretical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 209.

116 Suzuki, Shogo, ‘Chinese Soft Power, Insecurity Studies, Myopia and Fantasy’, Third World Quarterly, 30:4 (2009), pp. 779–93.

117 Pan, ‘“China Threat”’, p. 319.

118 New York Times (16 November 2011).

119 Campbell, Writing Security, p. 3, emphasis in original.

120 Pan, ‘“China Threat”’, p. 317.

121 Ibid., esp. pp. 310–13.

122 Der Derian, ‘War of Networks’.

123 Nye, Joseph, ‘The Case for Deep Engagement’, Foreign Affairs, 44:4 (1995), p. 94.

124 Barack Obama, ‘Remarks Prior to a Meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao of China in New York City’. The American Presidency Project, available online: {} accessed 1 June 2012.

* A version of this article was presented at the British International Studies Association conference in September 2012. I would like to thank the three anonymous RIS reviewers for their detailed and constructive advice in helping to bring it to a wider audience.

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