The Sane Way to Challenge Xi Jinping’s China

This article appeared in Foreign Policy on May 15, 2020.
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The White House believes that the best reelection strategy for U.S. President Donald Trump is to demonize China. Proposals are multiplying to declare economic war, to which Beijing would inevitably retaliate. Such an approach would drive other nations away from the United States and toward an increasingly repressive China.

Although the ongoing pandemic understandably dominates attention today, the U.S.-China relationship is not a short‐​term problem. Relations between the world’s two most important countries are likely to be difficult for decades, and policymakers need to be thinking about this challenge, not just the current moment.

China is not the same as the Soviet Union. The relationship between Beijing and Washington—and the rest of the world—is vastly more substantive and complex, and it has been more beneficial than relationships between the Soviet and American blocs ever were. Fighting a new Cold War would be much more difficult, badly dividing the so‐​called free world and posing serious danger of armed conflict. Washington needs to develop a policy that targets specific threats while preserving cooperation when possible.

The latter point is critical. Those pushing to militarize U.S. policy toward Beijing and isolate it from the United States and the West blame engagement for failing to transform China. They are correct that the international opening resulting from Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms did not deliver democracy. But engagement did help destroy Maoism, creating a much more open China with greater personal autonomy, freedom of thought, and civil society institutions. (Hundreds of millions of people also escaped devastating poverty, a notable good.) Moreover, this process gave the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a stake in a generally peaceful, stable, and prosperous global order; military aggression would come at serious cost.

Unfortunately, Chinese President Xi Jinping is turning back this progress. Yet the social media eruption over his government’s brutal repression involving COVID-19 demonstrated that many Chinese are unhappy and willing to express themselves. Preserving international links with the Chinese people is vitally important. Hosting Chinese students is particularly important, as is providing alternate channels of news and information in Chinese languages, from preserving the independence of diaspora newspapers to aiding those who want to breach the Great Firewall.

Contrary to pessimistic assessments of China, current policies may be no more permanent than those that came before. To be sure, Xi’s abandonment of effective term limits suggests a desire to rule for life, but the best‐​laid plans often go awry. There have been notable liberals, such as Zhao Ziyang, in leadership positions, and there may still be many more elsewhere in Chinese society. Xi has made many enemies inside and outside the CCP. The 66‐​year‐​old will neither live nor rule forever. There could be great, and positive, changes in the future. Adopting policies that inflame nationalist sentiments and unify people against the United States and the West would be counterproductive. Washington should aim for the opposite effect, adopting firm but targeted measures

Finally, China is for now only a 400‐​pound gorilla, not a 800‐​pound one. It can throw its weight around, but not without consequences. The country remains poor, with a vast gulf between the coastal cities and an impoverished inland. The demographic effects of the one‐​child policy linger: The People’s Republic of China may well grow old before it grows rich. The country’s economic challenges were serious even before the new coronavirus arrived, and a prolonged failure to deliver economic growth would seriously undermine the CCP’s credibility, even as the regime threatens to spur nationalism. Increasingly oppressive policies, ranging from political controls on business to restrictions on speech and thought, are likely to hinder innovation and entrepreneurship in the future.

Many Chinese are angry with the Xi government, enough so to take to social media or other means and criticize their leaders even at considerable risk to themselves. The international reputation of the Xi regime has suffered even more, especially after Beijing attempted to block criticism by and manipulate aid to other nations.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration appears determined to toss away its advantage.

First, it is attempting to turn China into an election issue, blaming former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s reelection rival, for being soft on China. Yet unlike Trump, Biden never claimed Xi, who increasingly looks like a rough reincarnation of Mao Zedong, as a friend. Moreover, the partisan nature of the attacks undermine the credibility of the president and his officials. Even friendly foreign governments do not trust Washington. Trying to force other nations to choose between the United States and China is especially counterproductive.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claims regarding the origins of the coronavirus are backed by neither American nor foreign intelligence agencies. That put the administration on par with conspiracy‐​mongers who claim that Beijing created the virus and intentionally spread it around the world. The fact that the Xi government is capable of malign conduct does not justify spreading falsehoods. This has further undermined Washington’s credibility.

The administration’s painfully botched response to the crisis makes China look competent in comparison. Beijing mishandled its response, failing to give timely reports on its burgeoning health crisis, provide accurate information about the virus’s characteristics, and expeditiously halt travel from the initial epicenter in Wuhan. Had Beijing acted more quickly and transparently, the global pandemic might have been avoided.

However, the United States had plenty of time to prepare as it watched the viral explosion in China and did nothing other than shut off travel from the country—a useful but limited step. The federal government prepared tests that didn’t work while preventing private laboratories and firms from providing ones that did, putting the United States weeks behind. The president continued to downplay the threat even as cases multiplied, and he gave contradictory instructions and advice as the problem grew more serious. His performance has gotten no better with age.

Washington did its best to alienate even close allies. Few governments distinguished themselves as they closed borders, barred export of medical equipment, and elbowed aside nominal friends in search of supplies. The Trump administration did the same after spending three years insulting, chastising, and penalizing other states, with few positive results to show for its efforts. Then it demanded that governments preoccupied with the pandemic support its political attacks on Beijing.

Finally, even when addressing serious issues, America’s chief diplomat demonstrates little diplomacy, including tact, nuance, judgment, and timing. Using the G-7 summit to mount rhetorical assaults on Beijing when other members were desperately attempting to surmount the ongoing pandemic was maladroit at best. Seeking to co‐​opt the widespread desire for an accounting of the pandemic discouraged allied cooperation. Suspending funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) while COVID-19 ravaged countries around the globe won no one’s support.

Washington desperately needs a policy reset. The objective should be to capitalize on China’s weaknesses and America’s strengths. The United States should work with allied states and other nations that have been angered or disappointed by Beijing’s behavior to propose an international inquiry into the virus’s origin and the international response. The initiative should be a multilateral effort conducted through an international body, perhaps a specially created commission to avoid well‐​founded suspicions of WHO’s biases.

The effort should not be presented as targeting the PRC, which would ensure Beijing’s nonparticipation and noncooperation. Even European states have divided, some angry over the European Union’s lack of aid and correspondingly appreciative of China’s assistance. Rather, the investigation should be directed at helping the world learn lessons from what happened to prevent a recurrence. That requires a full, open, and honest review, with criticism of any country when appropriate. The inquiry would go ahead with or without Beijing’s assistance.

The administration also should work with likeminded governments to propose new international guidelines and requirements for dealing with the spread of infectious diseases. This effort would be prospective, not punitive, but would highlight actions that exacerbated the crisis. Both WHO and the United Nations Security Council would be appropriate venues for action—or perhaps a special international commission on COVID-19.

If China and Russia attempted to block such efforts, they should be isolated, with willing governments moving ahead nonetheless as much as possible. No doubt, China would be inclined to resist; however, the Xi regime might hesitate before reinforcing its loss of reputation. Reuters reported on a recent report from a think tank associated with the Ministry of State Security expressing concern about the damage done to the Chinese brand.

Looking to the future, Washington should suggest regular consultations with Asian and European governments to develop united responses to Chinese misbehavior. It would help if the administration learned how to better play with others—or if a more competent administration replaced it. Still, other nations may be willing to cooperate, having experienced significant losses from China’s authoritarian system—particularly the suppression of information and punishment of those seeking to inform colleagues and report on the disease’s spread. The Chinese government’s behavior can no longer be dismissed as a purely internal concern.

COVID-19 has made the diversification of supply chains an imperative; a serious allied commitment to cooperate could help link together like‐​minded, democratic Asian and European states as stable investment locations. Other trade and economic issues, such as the role of Huawei and Chinese investment, also bedevil the European states as well as America. Working with rather than against the European Union on trade would have gotten Washington a better trade deal with China, emphasizing structural issues, rather than superficial and transitory objectives such as increased purchases of American goods.

There is no uniform or easy solution for tough geopolitical challenges posed by Beijing. Democracy in Hong Kong is inconceivable right now, but continued autonomy is a realistic objective. Chinese pressure on Taiwan is inevitable; invasion is not. The independence of the Philippines and Japan is more important than Manila’s claim to Scarborough Shoal and Japan’s control of the Senkaku/​Diaoyu Islands. Different aspects of different issues warrant very different strategies.

However, Washington alone has limited ability to coerce China. Multilateral action, backed by a collective willingness to rupture relations with Beijing and isolate it economically in the worst cases, would better shape its behavior.

Absent a Chinese collapse, U.S. economic threats alone will not force the Xi government to concede fundamental political objectives.

For instance, Congress indiscriminately imposes economic sanctions even on nominal allies, such as Germany. Various forms of so‐​called maximum pressure have failed to change the behavior of a gaggle of administration targets, including Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. China is even less likely to surrender.

Military action is a much worse option. Endless saber‐​rattling and idle threats have come to characterize U.S. diplomacy and aren’t likely to impress Beijing. More important, war cannot be justified absent compelling circumstances not present today.

Notably, the United States—its territory, population, and system of constitutional liberties—is not threatened with attack. At issue is Washington’s continued treatment of East Asia as America’s sphere of interest. Threat‐​mongering is more likely to spur Chinese armament, since no country wants to be vulnerable to U.S. coercion. American policymakers must be willing to accommodate China’s increasing influence while attempting to temper its impact and moderate the underlying nature of the CCP regime.

Nations facing China should take the lead in relations. This means carefully assessing the impact of economic dependence on Beijing, risk of relying on Chinese technologies and firms for critical infrastructure, and need to develop competent even if still modest militaries. Just as the Chinese military is working on anti‐​access/​area denial capabilities to prevent U.S. intervention in the region, China’s neighbors should similarly raise the price of aggression by Beijing. Washington’s role should be limited, backstopping the independence of important friendly states, not guaranteeing their many interests.

Such an approach undoubtedly would trigger screams of “appeasement” by Republican hawks, defined as refusing to bomb, invade, and occupy an antagonist at will. However, in the future it will be easier for China to deter than for the United States to coerce. Given Washington’s extraordinary economic and financial challenges—the annual federal deficit could exceed $4 trillion in 2020 and $2 trillion in 2021—it is unrealistic to expect the United States to forever maintain a military capable of defeating every nation on earth on its home territory.

U.S.-China policy requires a serious, sustained strategy, not something cobbled together in a presidential campaign to save a failing administration. That strategy seems attractive, because public hostility is increasing—nearly a quarter of Americans see China as America’s main enemy, just behind Russia. Even if this approach has the desired political effect, however, the price paid by the United States and other nations is likely to be high. Treating China like an enemy risks turning the Chinese people into one for years to come. Neither Americans nor Chinese can afford a new war, either cold or hot. U.S. policymakers must do better.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.