In a new official strategy of confrontation against the People’s Republic of China, the Trump administration has announced its intention “to compel Beijing to cease or reduce actions harmful to the United States’ vital, national interests and those of our allies and partners.”
Explains the strategy paper:
Given Beijing’s increasing use of economic leverage to extract political concessions from or exact retribution against other countries, the United States judges that Beijing will attempt to convert [One Belt One Road] projects into undue political influence and military access. Beijing uses a combination of threat and inducement to pressure governments, elites, corporations, think tanks, and others—often in an opaque manner—to toe the CCP line and censor free expression. Beijing has restricted trade and tourism with Australia, Canada, South Korea, Japan, Norway, the Philippines, and others, and has detained Canadian citizens, in an effort to interfere in these countries’ internal political and judicial processes.
All true. But which government pioneered the use of economic resources to reward and punish other nations? Hint: it was not China.
The U.S. has long used foreign aid as walking around money for the secretary of state. Countries with American bases have always gotten more cash, as have nations that have made peace with American allies, such as Egypt and Jordan.
In contrast, governments that have crossed Washington have lost money. In 1956, the Eisenhower administration punished Egypt’s Nasser government by revoking its offer to finance the Aswan High Dam. In 1990, Secretary of State James Baker told Yemen’s UN ambassador, “that was the most expensive no vote you ever cast,” after he voted against the UN Security Council resolution authorizing war against Iraq.
Washington has also used trade barriers to reward and punish other states. The U.S. embargoed Cuba six decades ago, and has since applied secondary sanctions that have hit other nations as well. The use of financial sanctions has become Washington’s modus operandi.
Indeed, the Trump administration has dramatically escalated economic warfare, applying “maximum pressure” to Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, hitting Cuba, Russia, and Syria with multiple new penalties, threatening to sanction Europeans if they try to avoid Iranian restrictions, and targeting Germany’s Nordstream 2 natural gas pipeline to Russia. The White House treats sanctions as the default response to governments that resist Washington’s dictates.
All of these measures were imposed “in an effort to interfere in [other] countries’ internal political and judicial processes.” In fact, despite Washington’s fervent objections to Russian election meddling in 2016, the U.S. has intervened in more than 80 democratic elections in other nations, including the 1986 presidential contest in Russia.
Yet although America remains number one, China’s economic clout is significant, including with important countries such as South Korea. Indeed, without any sense of irony, Matthew Ha of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies recently expressed concern that China was thwarting U.S. pressure on Seoul to follow Washington’s policies. For instance, Beijing “launched an economic warfare campaign that cost South Korean companies operating in China at least $15.6 billion in losses” because the Republic of Korea deployed the THAAD missile defense system.
Complained Ha: “To placate China, Seoul eventually agreed not to deploy further THAAD systems, not to join a U.S.-led regional missile defense architecture, and not to form a trilateral U.S.-Japan-ROK alliance.” Moreover, claimed Ha, “due in part to concerns over Chinese retaliation, Seoul has not completely divested its telecommunications infrastructure from the Chinese company Huawei.” Further, “China’s hand is also evident in Seoul’s aversion to the U.S.-and Japan‐led ‘Free and Open Indo‐Pacific’ (FOIP) initiative,” instead favoring its own policy directed at Southeast Asia.
If all this is due to a $15.6 billion hit, then Washington should take lessons. The Trump administration has caused economic damage to many countries, yet its wrecking‐ball sanctions have so far failed in every case: Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela all have refused to give into U.S. demands.
The president has been reduced to begging Tehran to negotiate, promising a better deal if it surrenders before November 3 to help his reelection prospects. Iran and Venezuela ridiculed Washington’s threats to interdict Tehran’s tankers. The communists still rule Cuba. Despite two summits, North Korea’s Kim Jong‐un is strengthening his country’s nuclear deterrent. No one believes that Russia will give up Crimea.
No doubt, South Korea worries about China’s clout, since the Chinese trade more with them than America and Japan combined. But Beijing is also a good excuse to resist U.S. demands seen as unreasonable, especially given that the current president is Moon Jae‐in, a man of the left who has no natural affinity for President Trump.
China sees THAAD as part of a U.S.-directed containment system. And South Korea is not the only ally less than enthused by the administration’s demand to displace Huawei. These issues are about more than money. China will always be South Korea’s neighbor and has a long memory. The U.S.’s national government effectively bankrupt and beset with manifold other challenges, is not likely to stick around Korea forever.
The point is, contra Washington’s delusions, South Korean officials do not believe that taking part in an anti‐China campaign serves South Korea’s interests. Ha writes: “Beijing’s sway over this key U.S. ally is especially risky amid growing Chinese aggression and competition with the United States. Most recently, Beijing pushed Seoul to bless China’s new national security law designed to crack down on pro‐democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Seeking to avoid conflict, Seoul took a neutral position, thereby undermining the protesters and revealing an alarming inability to support the liberal democratic values that underpin the ROK-U.S. alliance.”
What evidence does Ha have that Seoul wanted to join the complaint? Most of America’s European allies and Asian friends took similarly cautious positions. Even Tokyo ostentatiously refused to join America’s statement on Hong Kong, though the former now says it wants to take the lead on the issue at the next G-7 meeting, to uncertain effect.
Moreover, the U.S. routinely sacrifices other people’s democratic aspirations and human rights for policy ends. Without shame, the administration is assisting the brutally totalitarian and aggressive Saudi dictatorship as it slaughters Yemeni civilians and denies its own people political and religious liberty. Washington stands by as the Egyptian and Bahraini dictatorships brutally crush democracy activists and protesters.
Yet Ha demands action to push—or is that force?—South Korea onto the battlefield against China. He writes: “If its China strategy is to succeed, the Trump administration must counter Beijing’s attempts to undermine U.S. alliances.” Which requires that Washington “assuage ROK concerns about Chinese coercion by committing to proportionately punish China for any attempted coercion and to provide South Korea with immediate economic support to cope with Beijing’s retaliation.”
So Washington, the world’s chief proponent of economic warfare, is going to sanction another country because it organizes a boycott, cuts investment, or restricts trade to another country? And Washington, with a skyrocketing national debt, is going to create a new dole for wealthy countries like South Korea? Imagine the long line of claimants that will develop demanding compensation for following America! But what if Washington’s friends still balk at following U.S. dictates? Will America then sanction them, making them pay for their perfidy?
This bizarre strategy is doomed to fail. Despite Washington’s presumption that it speaks for the world, its allies often disagree. Seoul currently disputes American policy toward North Korea. Unsurprisingly, South Korean policymakers want to preserve peaceful, stable relations with both the U.S. and China.
“If we antagonize China,” observed Moon Chung‐in, an adviser to South Korea’s president, “China can pose a military threat to us. Plus, China can support North Korea. Then, we will really have a new Cold War on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.” Of course, some Americans don’t care about the possibility of war “over there,” as Senator Lindsey Graham famously put it. South Koreans understandably see it very differently.
When I ask South Korean diplomats whether they are prepared to allow the U.S. military to use their bases against China in a war over Taiwan, they blanch. There ain’t no way their country is going to be turned into a battleground and made an enemy of the Chinese at Washington’s command.
Washington has enough problems dealing with China without creating a new battleground with little practical benefit to America. The U.S. already is running a trade war, seeking to force compensation for the COVID-19 outbreak, and threatening Chinese concerns with sanctions tied to Iran and North Korea.
America will be sorely disappointed if it believes it can convince—or compel with money and threats—its allies into following whatever policies it promulgates. Joining an American campaign against China looks suicidal to Seoul. Demanding that South Korea choose between Washington and Beijing could wreck the alliance. Right now, hubris poses a bigger threat than China to U.S. foreign policy.