Trade is no substitute for strong defense 

“More than trade follows the flag.”
— Historian John Keegan

Viking marauders ravaged Europe for more than 200 years, but they didn’t start out that way.

Decades before the long ships began to plunder the islands and northern coast of Great Britain, Scandinavian traders worked the sea routes connecting the Western world. As they bought, sold and bartered, they noted the rich warehouses of the coastal towns, the great wealth stored in the churches and cathedrals. Then, they came back with sword and ax.

Trading turned to raiding, and raiding turned to conquest. Viking kingdoms sprouted up from Britain and France to Sicily and Iceland.

The Vikings were neither the first nor last people to turn from trading with others to conquering them. Indeed, history indicates it’s almost axiomatic that trade partners end up warring with each other: “First we trade, and then we fight.”

Before World War I, the economies of Britain, France and Germany were largely dependent on trade — somewhere between a third and a half of total gross domestic product for each. Much of that trade was with one another. It led some turn-of-the-century theorists to argue that the nations’ growing economic interdependence would make war obsolete.

They were wrong.

That’s not to say that trade is bad. Free trade between like-minded nations is the tide that lifts all boats. Trade is one of the great engines of human progress and prosperity.

The history of war and trade, however, is a cautionary reminder that economic activity alone cannot substitute for statecraft and national security. Trade is not a strategy.

It’s important to apply this lesson of history to our thinking about the future of U.S.-China relations. In 2008, the U.S. was China’s fourth-largest supplier — exporting more than $81 billion in goods. China’s top export destination was America.

We imported more than $250 billion in Chinese goods and services. Yet, the relationship between the Eagle and the Dragon is rather rocky.

Recently, Google caught the Chinese infiltrating its network to spy on human rights activists. Google is hardly the only victim. Chinese hackers are the Vikings of the cyberworld. They have broken into everything from corporate computers to U.S. defense networks.

And there are even more ominous developments on the far side of the Pacific. Chinese military doctrine talks extensively about waging cyber warfare and attacking space-based assets including commercial communications satellites.

The dragon at sea is just as troubling. The Chinese navy is venturing further and further afield. Recently, they have conducted “anti-piracy” operations in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of the Middle East, using their most technologically advanced warships. China’s modernization plans for its sub fleet also are alarming.

The surest way for the U.S. and China to blunder into conflict is for America to ignore China’s increasing military capacity, regional power and malicious online activity. Yet, perhaps the most important untold story of President Barack Obama’s first year is the administration’s failure to produce a clear, robust strategy for dealing with China.

Obama’s attempt to collaborate with China on global warming was a bust. So was the White House effort to get Beijing to back tough sanctions against Iran in the United Nations Security Council. So what’s the plan, Stan?

Mastering the U.S.-China relationship is admittedly no easy task, but the White House can start to get the challenge right by engaging with the dragon from a position of strength.

Pressing Japan to maintain critical U.S. bases in Okinawa would be a good first step. So would be reversing the administration’s own decision to stop buying F-22s, the jets that defend U.S interests in Northeast Asia. Revitalizing America’s sub-building program also would send the right signal, as would expanding — rather than cutting — missile defense programs.

Will America and China come to blows one day? History shows it’s not at all unlikely. And it becomes all the more likely if our leaders continue to ignore the facts on the ground, the seas, the skies and cyberspace. Wishful thinking is no substitute for sound strategy.

The burgers of Britain learned the hard way. “It just can’t happen,” they thought. Right up until the longboats landed.

James Jay Carafano is senior research fellow for national security and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation.

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James Carafano

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