WASHINGTON — Twenty years ago, White House officials were worried about China, and tensions were rising.
On April 1, 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane off China's coast, forcing the Americans to make an emergency landing on Chinese territory. The Chinese detained the U.S. crew for 11 days and carefully inspected the sophisticated aircraft before they handed it over. Washington accused the Chinese fighter pilot of reckless flying. Beijing demanded an apology.
The incident reinforced the Bush administration's view that China was America's next major adversary.
But on the morning of Sept. 11, Al Qaeda extremists hijacked four airliners and crashed three of them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. America's attention abruptly shifted to the "war on terror."
U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the challenge posed by China was set aside for nearly two decades.
"It was an incredible geopolitical gift to China," said Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's former U.N. ambassador.
"It was a huge mistake for the United States to focus on the war on terror, because the real challenge was going to come from China," said Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore.
China's gross domestic product jumped from $1.2 trillion in 2000 to more than $14.7 trillion in 2020.
"While you were busy fighting wars, China was busy trading," said Mahbubani, the author of "Has China Won?"
As the U.S. was bogged down fighting Islamist militants in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, China's economic and military power grew exponentially. Beijing built up its missile arsenal, extended its reach in the South China Sea by constructing artificial islands, stole intellectual property on a massive scale and pursued predatory trade tactics, experts say.
"After 9/11, China very quickly realized that Washington's strategic focus would be shifting 3,000 miles away, away from the East China Sea, away from the Taiwan Strait and into Afghanistan," said Craig Singleton of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank. "It was an opportunity to quietly develop very coercive military capabilities that were all designed and intended to expand its power in East Asia."
James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank, said that the 9/11 attacks did not alter China's goals but that they created the chance to close the gap with a rival distracted by the "war on terror."
"They were doing the same things all along, and we slowed down," he said. U.S. officials at the time assumed that "we could put the China problem on the back burner while we brought democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan," said Lewis, who worked on national security issues in several administrations.
The U.S. spent an estimated $8 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and on other fronts in the fight against terrorism, according to a report by the Costs of War Project at Brown University.
Lewis said the money could have been spent on research and development, modernizing the country's infrastructure, building high-tech weapons "and all the things we could have done over the past 20 years."
Preparing for the wrong adversary
While China ratcheted up defense spending on ship-killing missiles in the western Pacific and expanded its navy, the Pentagon revamped the Army to take on insurgents in the Middle East armed with AK-47s, and the Air Force grew accustomed to operating with total air superiority.
"We gave them 20 years, and we retooled our military for a fight totally irrelevant to the principal security challenge of today," said Evan Medeiros, the Penner Family Chair in Asia Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration reversed course with China to gain its support at the U.N. Security Council for the fight against Al Qaeda, easing pressure on Beijing over human rights and pressing Taiwan to hold off on an independence referendum. At Beijing's request, in 2002 the U.S. declared an obscure Uyghur organization, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, to be a terrorist group.
The move, and the rhetoric surrounding the fight against terrorism, gave China a justification to crack down on Muslims in China, experts said.
By the time Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, officials spoke of the need to "pivot" to Asia and focus more on countering China. But a faltering war effort in Afghanistan and turmoil in the Middle East kept drawing Washington's attention away from China.
It is difficult to say how things would have evolved without the 9/11 attacks, but some experts argue that the U.S. might have adapted its defense and economic strategies years earlier to take China's rise into account.
"Absent 9/11, you potentially would have had a faster shift in U.S. strategy towards China, in a more competitive direction," said Medeiros, who was Obama's top adviser on the Asia-Pacific region. "At a minimum, you would have had a faster shift in U.S. defense strategy."
'Delusional' about China
For years, U.S. political and business leaders did not see China's economic and trade policies as a major problem, Medeiros said.
"I think it took time for people to really recognize the nature of the China economic challenge, but that didn't have to do with Iraq and Afghanistan," he said, adding that the mentality was "Hey, everybody's still making money in China, so why rock the boat?"
In 2001, no one in Washington fully grasped that China was on a phenomenal trajectory, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a center fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
At that point, China's economy was a "sliver" of its current size, and Beijing had no meaningful naval presence in the Western Pacific, she said.
"It's absolutely true that China gained the upper hand because the U.S. was distracted. But it's not like we would have won this competition already if 9/11 hadn't happened, " said Mastro, who is also a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Until about five years ago, successive administrations misjudged China, believing Beijing could be a partner, said Dmitri Alperovitch, the executive chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a nonprofit think tank.
Political leaders mistakenly believed that if Washington helped open up global markets to Chinese industry, the Chinese government would gradually open up the country's political system and play a more cooperative role on the world stage, he said.
"I don't actually think that Afghanistan or the war on terror had a lot to do with it, that if we didn't have that distraction we would be less delusional about the threat that China poses," said Alperovitch, who is also a co-founder of CrowdStrike Inc., a cybersecurity company. "We had hope as a strategy, and it backfired."
China now is decidedly at the top of the agenda in Washington, and both parties agree about the need to "get tough." President Joe Biden has kept former President Donald Trump's tariffs on China, and lawmakers and corporations are pushing for measures to promote the U.S. microchip industry, invest in research and safeguard the U.S. technology sector from industrial espionage.
But is the response to China too late?
Some experts say valuable time was lost, that the U.S. still lacks a long-term strategy about how to counter China and that the country's polarized politics threaten to distract it from the main task at hand.
But they say the U.S. remains a center of innovation and still has the means to compete with China and win.
In the 1970s, after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam in a humiliating defeat amid economic troubles and skyrocketing oil prices, the Soviet Union believed the U.S. was on a downward spiral, said Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. China now often portrays the U.S. as a decaying power on an inevitable decline.
Lewis said he has told his Chinese counterparts in private conversations not to write off the U.S. just yet.
The Soviets thought the U.S. was gone, Lewis said, "and 15 years later, who was still standing?"