Pollsters at the Pew Research Center recently asked an intriguing question: Who is the "most important partner for American foreign policy?"
Unsurprisingly, Great Britain was the top choice. What Winston Churchill called "the special relationship" endures.
But look a little harder and you may be startled. In second place: China.
Perhaps those polled were confused. Perhaps they thought they were being asked which foreign nation is "most important." Because if they do regard China as America's "partner" — much less an important one — they're misinformed.
That conclusion was reaffirmed last week when the Defense Department issued its "Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2018." It openly acknowledges for the first time that the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) is practicing long-range bombing runs that are "likely training for strikes against U.S. and allied targets."
The PLA Air Force also "has been re-assigned a nuclear mission. The deployment and integration of nuclear-capable bombers would, for the first time, provide China with a nuclear 'triad' of delivery systems dispersed across land, sea and air."
You've heard of creating facts on the ground? China has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea, and installing military infrastructure — e.g. barracks, airstrips, missile systems — on them. According to the Pentagon report, floating nuclear power plants are the next step, with installations beginning before 2020. These "pop-up islands" are intended to transform international sea lanes into Chinese territorial waters.
The Pentagon continues to be concerned about China's acquisition of American military technologies through such means as "targeted foreign direct investment," "cyber theft," and "exploitation" of Chinese nationals working for American firms.
The report notes: "Several recent cases and indictments illustrate China's use of intelligence services, computer intrusions, and other illicit approaches to obtain national security and export-restricted technologies, controlled equipment, and other materials."
Long-term, China has global ambitions. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), according to the Pentagon report, aims to "develop strong economic ties with other countries, shape their interests to align with China's, and deter confrontation or criticism of China's approach to sensitive issues."
Here's how it works: The Chinese government lends money to poor countries in Asia, Africa and Europe, or builds infrastructure for those countries on credit, knowing the chances of being paid back are low to nonexistent. China then proposes ways to relieve the financial pressure — in exchange for acquiescence to Chinese interests, or even the surrender of sovereignty.
James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, calls these deals "debt traps." Laos, Mr. Dorsey writes, has "become almost wholly dependent on China" which now owns the bulk of its "unsustainable debt."
Sri Lanka was unable to service $6 billion in Chinese loans used to build a port on its southern coast with access to strategic Indian Ocean sea lanes. The "solution": Sri Lanka has given China a 99-year-lease on the port. In Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, China now has a military base where it has deployed a company of marines.
China's many and egregious violations of human rights also should be of greater concern to Americans.
Tibet has been under Chinese occupation since 1950. Rinzin Dorjee of the Tibet Policy Institute in Dharamsala, India, is among those who have attempted to call attention to "the extinguishing of Tibetan culture and identity through an influx of millions of Chinese migrants in Tibet." He adds: "At the same time, Tibetans in rural regions are made landless through expropriation of their land."
For some minorities in China, the situation is considerably worse. The Uighurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang. As many as a million have reportedly been incarcerated in more than a thousand re-education camps.
The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend: "The widening scope of the internment program suggests Beijing is now seeking to erase a sense of Islamic identity among Uighurs, and other Muslim ethnic groups, in its biggest program of mass extrajudicial detentions since the 1950s, researchers say."
Journalist Nithin Coca reported in Foreign Policy magazine last month that "prisoners in the camps are told to renounce God and embrace the Chinese Communist Party. Prayers, religious education, and the Ramadan fast are increasingly restricted or banned." He observes that "amid this state-backed campaign against their religious brethren, Muslim leaders and communities around the world stand silent."
The explanation, I'd guess, is that they fear the People's Republic. But what accounts for the odd syndrome that causes so many Americans to fail even to recognize China as imperialist, oppressive and threatening to U.S. national security?
Part of the answer was provided by Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, in his 2015 report on how aggressively and successfully the Chinese are "reaching into American universities and American film studios to censor and distort the reality they portray — and, in the case of our campuses, perhaps to create bases for espionage."
American military planners at least understand that China's government and Communist Party, both headed by President Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, do not regard the United States as an "important partner." They regard the United States as their rival and adversary.
Their apparent goal is to diminish American power and, throughout as much of the world as possible, to substitute their illiberal and anti-democratic values for those of America and other free nations. Preventing such outcomes is not impossible — but first we need to see China as it is, rather than as we might wish it to be.