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  • American Conspiracy:Strategic Suspicion and U.S. Re-engagement in Asia
  • Zheng Wang (bio)

For almost 30 years, East Asia—including Southeast Asia—has been relatively peaceful. No interstate war has occurred since the border wars between China and Vietnam ended in the early 1980s, and the countries of this region have enjoyed rapid economic development as a result of the "peace dividend." However, 2010 witnessed several incidents that may indicate a shift away from the "East Asian peace."1 There is a rising strategic suspicion that could bring Asia back to Cold War–style confrontation and a new arms race. This suspicion and its accompanying conspiracy theories have spawned their own discourse and captured the public imagination, exacerbating a heavy, pernicious political atmosphere in this region.

China's Suspicions

What is this rising suspicion? Around the world there is a conspiracy mentality about the real motivations of U.S. foreign policy, a mentality that is alarmingly prevalent in China. This thinking assumes that there is a larger, overarching U.S. scheme or hidden agenda behind current events. From the viewpoint of many Chinese citizens, the United States has a master plan to "divide China territorially, subvert it politically, contain it strategically, and frustrate it economically."2 The focus of many conspiracy theorists is U.S. re-engagement in Asia. The nature of U.S. re-engagement, based on conspiracy theorists' interpretations, is that the United States is purposefully carrying out a "crescent encirclement" of China3 through its use of military bases, deployment of anti-missile systems, military exercises, and alliances. For example, according to Colonel Dai Xu of the People's Liberation Army Air Force, Washington is creating an "Asian NATO" through its relations with [End Page 27] Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, as well as with members of ASEAN.4

Oddly enough, events that many view as showing weakness on the part of the United States are viewed by conspiracy theorists as demonstrating China's weakness. For example, China has been the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury securities since September 2008. U.S. policymakers worry that China's holdings of U.S. Treasuries have "shifted the balance of financial power between Washington and Beijing." Some U.S. analysts suggest that this power shift will embolden China to demand "greater deference from the United States on issues that China considers core interests."5 However, across the Pacific, many Chinese analysts hold a quite different view of their country's ownership of the U.S. economy. Rather than believe that Beijing will be emboldened by such holdings, these analysts believe this is actually a "U.S. dollar trap"—that is, a deliberate attempt to "hollow out" China's economy.6 These observers contend that the United States purposefully and shrewdly influenced the Chinese purchase of U.S. Treasury bonds in an attempt to divert funds that would have otherwise strengthened China's defense and technology innovation.

To the dismay of many U.S. diplomats and scholars, every time an incident occurs involving the two countries, a hoard of conspiracy theories from China seem to follow. The sinking of a South Korean ship in March 2010 and the Diaoyu Islands crisis later in September were both interpreted as U.S. conspiracies. Both incidents came after a period of intense domestic protests throughout Japan and South Korea, with local citizens demanding the closure of U.S. military bases throughout the region. The two events, however, provided the United States with a reason for continuing the upkeep and staffing of these bases. Thus, some Chinese military experts believe that the United States was secretly behind the incidents. By this logic, U.S. re-engagement and prolonged military presence in the region was justified through crises secretly coordinated by the United States. [End Page 28]

Worries from the United States

China is not, however, the only country with suspicions. Following China's rapid growth of strength and power, there has likewise been heightened suspicion and vigilance in the United States toward China's strategic motives. Some China watchers in the United States believe that Beijing is pursuing a sophisticated master plan for foreign policy and military...


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