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America Can’t Afford Naivete on China
Beware calls for accommodation with Beijing
Chinese dictator Xi Jinping’s state visit to Moscow comes at an awkward time for the campaign against the Biden administration’s China policy that’s emerged in recent weeks. Though the summit appears to have yielded little of substance, the visit itself represented a strong show of support from Xi for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war against Ukraine.
Xi’s sojourn to the Kremlin comes after a rash of opinion pieces in prominent U.S. outlets that have issued dark, foreboding warnings against the alleged groupthink that’s seized hold of America’s policy toward China. This approach, they argue, will lead to a new Cold War between the United States and China—if not a real shooting war over Taiwan. Critical primarily of U.S. policy and often couched in vague, negative terms, these voices regularly invoke the specters of strategic disasters like Vietnam and Iraq to buttress their argument. When it comes to substance, though, they merely advocate more dialogue with a ruling Chinese Communist Party that’s demonstrated a repeated lack of interest in talking with the United States in recent years.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these voices see the United States as the party primarily responsible for the poor state of the bilateral relationship, and therefore the party most responsible for repairing it. If only the United States were to sit down with China, they assume, the two sides could hammer out their difference, or at least manage them better than they seem to do today. In some cases, moreover, there’s the implication that any attempt by any American presidential administration to check Beijing’s power and influence will only fuel racism against Americans of East Asian descent at home. The resulting policy sentiment, rarely fully and clearly articulated, is that the United States should seek an accommodation with Beijing that effectively turns the clock back to the early 2010s—if not the halcyon days of the 2000s when American officials optimistically hoped China would become a “responsible stakeholder” in the global system.
But America can’t afford to be naïve about the Chinese Communist Party that holds power in Beijing. Our interests and values simply diverge in fundamental ways that make normal relations impossible, at least for the present and the foreseeable future. For far too long, America has been under-reacting to the Chinese Communist Party’s aggression and coercion, its export of repression and censorship to free and open societies, and its flagrant abuse of global trade rules. It’s well past time America’s policy toward China takes this reality into proper account.
Bursting the Balloon
Nothing sparked concern so among those counseling accommodation with Beijing much as the Biden administration’s decision to shoot down the Chinese government's spy balloon that floated over the United States at the end of January and beginning of February.
These voices characterized the shoot-down (along with the cancellation of a planned visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Blinken) as a panicked over-reaction to an essentially mild provocation. That’s true enough as far as some of the political reactions to the balloon went; Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), for instance, attacked the Biden administration for “telegraphed weakness” because it patiently waited until the balloon reached the Atlantic Ocean to shoot it down.
But where other episodes of high-altitude espionage might have been swept under the rug, it proved impossible for the Biden administration to ignore the presence of an enormous spy balloon visible to anyone and everyone on the ground with a pair of functioning eyeballs. Canceling a planned visit by the secretary of state and shooting down the balloon after collecting our own intelligence on it are eminently reasonable reactions to such an absurdly obvious violation of America’s own airspace. Beijing has only itself to blame for getting caught and then transparently lying about its activities—making it extraordinarily difficult for the United States to handle this episode discreetly.
It Takes Two to Talk
The balloon episode proved salutary in one other respect: it illustrated that talks and dialogue can’t accomplish much of anything if one party refuses to pick up the phone. That’s exactly what happened when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin attempted to connect with his Chinese counterpart after the U.S. Air Force downed the spy balloon, with the Chinese Ministry of Defense refusing to put Austin through. It’s something of a pattern with Beijing in military crisis scenarios; during one 2009 incident, a Rand Corporation researcher recalled, the Chinese military simply let the phone ring rather than take a call from the Pentagon.
Crisis hotlines aside, though, it’s not as if the United States and China have not been talking in recent months. Indeed, American and Chinese officials have spoken repeatedly about economic issues and the post-COVID debt crisis facing developing nations in particular. Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen met with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in Zurich last January, for instance, to discuss a variety of global economic issues. Those talks have not moved forward in the weeks and months since the Zurich meeting, but Secretary Yellen has made clear her hope that they can resume “at an appropriate time.”
Likewise, the United States and China have been talking with one another in the context of multilateral negotiations on post-COVID debts. Both countries participated in the first sovereign debt roundtable in mid-February, a virtual conclave sponsored by the International Monetary Fund that included G7 nations and China as well as major sovereign lenders like Saudi Arabia. American and Chinese officials also discussed the issue during last month’s meeting of G20 finance ministers. Here as on other issues, however, Beijing remains the primary roadblock to progress, refusing to take a so-called “haircut” on its bad loans to poor nations and effectively demanding the United States and international financial institutions like the World Bank bail Beijing out.
These probably are the sort of talks that many critics of current U.S. policy have in mind, but they are occurring. Ongoing, regular diplomatic contacts between the United States and China are the sort of engagements advocates for deeper engagement argue for but rarely acknowledge when they happen. Still, on important security issues it’s hard to see how dialogue can begin when one side won’t even pick up the phone in a crisis.
No Room for Naivete on Economic Competition
Over the past few decades, China has abused and undermined the rules of the global economy. It received the benefits of membership in the World Trade Organization, for instance, while refusing to make good on its own obligations. Beijing continues to give its own industries advantages in the global marketplace, whether by restricting access to its own domestic markets or heavily subsidizing industries believed to be strategically important. As the U.S. intelligence community put it in its most recent annual global threat assessment, “Beijing’s willingness to use espionage, subsidies, and trade policy to try to give its firms a competitive advantage represents not just an ongoing challenge for the U.S. economy and its workers, but also advances Beijing's attempts to assume leadership of the world’s technological advancement and standards.”
To put it in stark and simple terms, China has been rewarded for breaking the rules of the global economy while the United States has been punished for attempting, however imperfectly, to abide by them. America has decided it will now play by Beijing’s rules for trade and global economic policy, at least in spirit and in our own messy, democratic way.
It’s still very much a work in progress, but the Biden administration has already laid down two important building blocks:
Industrial policy, to include the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. These measures perhaps could have been better crafted, presented, and implemented, particularly with an eye to their effects on America’s relationships with its allies across the Atlantic and Pacific—the European Union, in particular, still seems to be operating under the assumption that post-Cold War global economic rules still apply—but they’re far from the albatross many critics claim. The next evolution of America’s industrial policy will need to go global and better take foreign policy considerations into account.
Export controls, with an emphasis on semiconductor manufacturing and including an aggressive crackdown on Chinese industrial espionage. Whatever their drawbacks and failings, these measures are necessary to counter Beijing’s own domestic and international economic policies. If they wind up encouraging China to build its own domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry, at least it won’t have been the result of unintended help from the United States or its allies. Further, Americans working on advanced technologies or in strategically important industries need to be prepared for likely advances from Chinese intelligence services—and given the tools needed to deal with them should they occur.
Over the past quarter-century or so, we’ve already gotten a taste of what a world dominated by the Chinese Communist Party would be like—and it ain’t pretty.
An ethos of self-censorship has already taken hold in many otherwise open and free societies, including the United States. Hollywood has only recently begun to tiptoe away from its previous posture of abasement toward Beijing, with movies like Top Gun: Maverick earning boatloads of money at the global box office despite not playing in Chinese theaters. But streaming services like Apple TV+ still work to ensure their shows and movies “avoid portraying China in a negative light.” Beijing has coerced companies ranging from European automaker Mercedes-Benz, U.S. airlines American, Delta, and United, and American sports leagues like the NBA into toeing the Chinese Communist Party line on issues like Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
China has also repeatedly bullied and attempted to coerce nations around the world to do the same. Lithuania came in for Beijing’s ire in 2021 after the Baltic democracy and NATO member sought to forge closer ties with Taiwan, while Australia came in for a concerted campaign of economic coercion beginning in 2020 after Canberra called for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nor is this approach anything new for Beijing: Norway’s share of salmon exports to China dropped by more than two-thirds in the years immediately after the late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
As with global economic policy, moreover, Beijing has taken advantage of asymmetries in international digital policy in ways that harm America’s interests and values at home. American companies like Facebook and Google do not have access to Chinese users, for instance, while Chinese firms like ByteDance, the parent company of wildly popular video app TikTok, are free to operate in the United States—despite their clear ties to the Chinese Communist Party and potential to serve its objectives. As the economist and writer Noah Smith bluntly put it, this digital arrangement “simply ended up making U.S. citizens more subject to the diktats of foreign authoritarians.”
All of this behavior goes to show that the Chinese Communist Party sees democracy and free expression around the world as a mortal threat to its own hold on power at home. Hence its determined efforts to limit the range of acceptable thought about China and key issues like Taiwan and the Uyghurs in the United States and other open, democratic societies. So long as the Chinese Communist Party runs the show, Beijing will see its relationship with the United States—still the world’s strongest and most influential democracy—in an inherently antagonistic light.
That’s the reality America needs to accept moving forward, even as we seek to head off direct military conflict with China.