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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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