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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