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Congratulations to the American Enterprise Institute’s Daniel Blumenthal for coming up with some genuinely new insights into the U.S.-China balance of power and especially its relationship with the evolving economies of the two countries. Unfortunately, Blumenthal’s new essay for RealClearPolitics.com also shows that gaping blind spots remain in establishment thinking about the China challenge its members claim to be analyzing seriously.

For the purposes of this post, let’s grant Blumenthal’s mainstream assumption that it matters greatly to the United States which great power dominates East Asia politically. I disagree, but the point here is that if America does want to fend off a China challenge, greater policy changes will be needed than Blumenthal and other conventional wisdom-mongers seem ready to contemplate.

The author’s main theme is that the United States has no legitimate reason to doubt its economic capacity to prevent China from becoming Asia’s kingpin, and his new wrinkle involves measuring economic power by looking more at national wealth, and less at national economic growth. Since the U.S. wealth levels are both much greater than China’s, and since the gap has just resumed growing according to statistics he cites, America can easily afford the military forces needed to put China back in its place. And he blames China’s recent and impressive catch-up on this score on Americans’ recent (Blumenthal doesn’t specify the time frame) political decision to skimp on military spending while continue to devote exorbitant sums to entitlement spending – which has indeed long dominated the budget outlays (along with, as he’s noted, interest payments on the resulting ballooning national debt).

According to Blumenthal, Americans and their leaders as a result have chosen to elevate “the intergenerational transfer of wealth” over national security. Strictly speaking, he’s right. But other interpretations of national priorities seem just as legitimate.

For example, as the author briefly notes, the U.S. population is aging. So a major national retirement funding challenge will face even the most defense-minded politicians. That doesn’t let American leaders or the recipients of these entitlements off the hook in terms of making sacrifices needed to safeguard national security. But it’s bound to raise the question of whether the burden of sacrifice should be limited to middle class Americans. The great increase in national wealth mentioned by Blumenthal makes clear that the nation has many other resources on which it can draw to fund a bigger military – especially since the private economy’s wealth has led the surge. In other words, why not tax the rich or corporations more heavily to pay for new personnel and weapons?

One obvious rejoinder is that modest levels of taxes on wealthy Americans and on American companies are needed to ensure the economic growth needed to keep national wealth levels robust. But even accepting the doctrinaire trickle-down economics underlying this assumption, should upper-level individual incomes and business profits be completely exempted from any responsibility to pay for the military? If so, why? And wouldn’t that policy greatly loosen the relationship between national wealth and military capability emphasized by Blumenthal?

The author also neglects another big pool of resources that can be brought to bear on countering China: the wealth of America’s regional allies. Stunningly, after decades of American pleading for greater burden-sharing, countries with a far greater stake than the United States in resisting Chinese regional domination continue free-riding on U.S. defense guarantees. Why should American entitlements recipients see any reduction in benefits before Japanese and South Koreans pay at least as much for their own security (relatively speaking) as the much more geographically distant United States does? And their contributions could be immense. Japan alone, for example, is the world’s third largest national economy (behind the United States and China, respectively). 

Finally, as with nearly all the rest of the establishment, Blumenthal completely neglects the opposite side of the U.S.-China defense resources equation: The decisive extent to which American economic policy continues enriching China, and therefore continuing to enable it to afford lots of both “guns and butter” (as economists and political scientists have dubbed military and social spending). Thanks in part to literally trillions of dollars of earnings from the trade surpluses it’s long run with the United States, the Chinese pie keeps expanding strongly (that’s the economic growth whose importance Blumenthal softpedals). As a result, more new resources are generated for whatever priorities or combination of priorities the Chinese government chooses.

Even worse, as I’ve long noted, recklessly lax tech transfer policies on America’s part have for decades given the Chinese much of the knowhow needed to turn out increasingly advanced weapons and other military systems. Some signs of official concerns about this outflow have appeared in Washington lately, but U.S. leaders (and the rest of the establishment) remain woefully behind the curve.

When America’s East Asia security strategy stops bolstering the Chinese threat it depicts as such a huge concern, when it insists that local countries act like they have at least as great a stake in remaining independent of China as does the United States, when the wealthiest Americans are required to devote more of their recent immense windfalls to the common defense, and if all of those changes still leave China closing fast on the combined forces of the United States and its neighbors, it would become legitimate to ask Main Street Americans to start shouldering greater burdens. Until then, the U.S. working and middle classes will be entirely justified in demanding that the nation’s Asia strategy pass a minimal seriousness test first.