Another day, another story of rising tensions with China. On Thursday, it was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blithely announcing the Trump administration’s rejection of half a century of engagement with Beijing begun by President Richard Nixon.
Pompeo characterized the U.S. role in that engagement from Nixon’s time until today as “fealty,” “flattery” and “acquiescence,” and he envisioned a more aggressive posture toward China, grounded in ideological opposition to communism, for the United States moving forward. He rejected the notion that the U.S. was engaging in a new Cold War, but, remarkably, did so by suggesting China could pose a greater threat than the Soviet Union ever did.
Instead of argument, we find President Donald Trump and the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and their respective parties glibly competing for the title of “biggest China hawk.”
This heightened rhetoric is being matched by actions, which makes it all the more dangerous. In a dramatic diplomatic break this past week, the countries each called for one of the other’s consulates to be closed. The State Department suddenly ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston to “cease all operations and events” immediately. Short on details, Pompeo alleged the facility was a “hub of spying and intellectual property theft.” Chinese consulate staff were reportedly seen burning documents in preparation for a hasty evacuation.
The anticipated retaliation — China’s demand that the U.S. close its Chengdu consulate — arrived Friday, and the markets promptly plunged. These mutual closures are symbolically significant; consulate shutdowns, though not unheard of, are major statements of hostility, particularly, as in this case, when there is no immediate danger to consulate staff. But they will also have the practical consequence of undermining working-level diplomacy, as consulates are responsible for many day-to-day relations with businesses and educational institutions.
What’s troubling — even frightening — about this cycle of escalation is how few objections are being raised in Washington and among the media. The stock market seems to see a jeopardy to which our government and people are blind.
We are doddering toward conflict with a fellow nuclear power. The Chinese military is not a peer to the Pentagon, but it is the closest thing to it, with well-developed defensive capabilities. War with China would not be like U.S. wars of recent history. We can’t throw our weight around East Asia the way we have in the Middle East. Taking Beijing would not be like taking Baghdad.
How is our ruling class so seemingly oblivious to the danger here, or so nonchalant about the risk posed by escalation with China? In the middle of a pandemic, protests and recession, how is movement toward great-power conflict not met with howls of dissent?
Instead of argument, we find President Donald Trump and the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and their respective parties glibly competing for the title of “biggest China hawk.” U.S.-Chinese relations are already bristling with a trade war, sanctions and mutual accusations of cyberwarfare, yet both sides eagerly endorse planned new sanctions and accuse each other of aggression. Senators from New York Democrat Chuck Schumer to Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton salivate over harsher rhetoric and policies toward Beijing.
This is an alarming and precarious unity, and it will not serve anyone well. A more prudent approach is possible and strongly preferrable. Instead of cutting off points of diplomatic contact or building up the U.S. military presence at China’s doorstep, Washington needs to make a realistic assessment of the nature of the Chinese regime, the capabilities of American power and the incredible risk of further escalation.
That means focusing on diplomacy and self-defense: Keep diplomatic channels active and aims achievable. End the trade war, which hurts ordinary people in both countries. Build up defenses against cyberattacks, while remembering that U.S. conventional and nuclear power already provide a reliable deterrence against a Chinese attack on the United States.
Indeed, U.S. policymakers must finally concede that they cannot remake the world with American military might. Our military is amply equipped to perform its constitutional purpose of defense of the United States. It is not well-suited to regime change and other interventions in the internal affairs of foreign nations.
Two decades of war against troubled states and terrorist groups in the Middle East and North Africa have exacted an enormous cost of lives, dollars and civil liberties, with precious little to show for it. It is madness to pivot from that disastrous record to courting conflict with China with moves against productive diplomacy like these consulate closures.
Still, Washington should not pretend ignorance of Beijing’s brutality, as many countries have done openly and former national security adviser John Bolton alleges Trump did privately. The government of China is a largely unreformed communist regime. Its economy and society have changed enormously over the last half century, but its government is the same one that killed tens of millions of its own people in the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and other programs of genocidal authoritarianism. What Beijing is doing to the Uighur people now — and its lies about the same — is arguably less anomaly than continuity.
We shouldn’t dissemble Beijing’s abuses even if this results in China severing some economic ties. Just because we realistically can't fix a problem doesn't mean we should lie about it or pretend it doesn't exist. Such honesty might well occasion Chinese retaliation, but that’s worth the cost — and accepting this consequence of honesty is not the same as an overt U.S. program of attempted coercion.
We need to acknowledge that the 20th century hope that Chinese economic liberalization would lead to political liberalization did not pan out as anticipated, and the Chinese Communist Party never lost power as did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Expecting China to behave like the democracy it has not become will set us up for failure. Expecting U.S. policy single-handedly to effect that transformation will, too.
Washington needs to make a realistic assessment of the nature of the Chinese regime, the capabilities of American power and the incredible risk of further escalation.
Peaceful U.S.-Chinese coexistence has long been possible without that change, and it is still possible now. In fact, it is to be hoped for, because the risk of that conflict must be fully appreciated. The threat of World War III is a well-worn and therefore easily dismissed trope of American political discourse, but caution is truly warranted here.
We should find unsettling the seeming lack of skepticism in Washington’s conversation about China. It does not bode well for deliberative, well-scrutinized decisions. It certainly does not bode well for the discovery of an off-ramp to peace for the United States or, we must hope, freedom for the Chinese people, for not trying to force a change doesn’t mean denying that change is needed.