Dealing With the China Challenge
Peter Huessy, Stephen Blank
May 12, 2020
In the “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy and her companions are warned to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”, because to do so would have exposed Oz himself as a fraud. Similarly, the worldwide spread of the COVID-19 virus has hopefully revealed the true nature of the multiple unlawful, aggressive, and dangerous policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Take first the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no doubt that this plague began in China, that the CCP suppressed information about its scope and lethality, and when that was exposed it tried to fix the blame on the United States. There is also evidence that Chinese leader Xi Jinping asked the WHO (World Health Organization) to delay transmission of information abroad concerning the scope of the pandemic.
But China’s aggressive policies also go further. China, Russia, and Iran are coordinating a tripartite information war against the United States, where China, apart from conducting its own long-standing cyber and information strikes, is now also emulating Russian IW (information war) tactics.
China has also threatened the EU and Australia with trade wars and sanctions, if they tell the truth about how China has contributed to the global dissemination of COVID-19. State-sponsored hackers from China, Russia, and North Korea have used this opportunity to launch a global campaign, to infect global networks with malware. China’s information and cyber campaign in connection with the pandemic began as early as January, according to a Stanford University report.
But beyond trade wars and information cyber strikes as part of its overall espionage programs, against the United States and its allies, China has repeatedly also shown its military hand in Asian maritime disputes. For example, China regularly threatens Malaysian and Vietnamese vessels searching for new energy deposits in the South China Sea. Chinese sailors also pointed a laser gun at a Philippine ship there. All this has led to counter deterrence moves by new U.S. Naval and air deployments.
Now these Chinese moves come on top of long-standing CCP predatory behavior regarding trade with and investment in China, as well as the theft of intellectual property and technology from the United States.
The United Nations has also just reported that China is complicit, along with Russia, in breaking the U.N. sanctions that they voted for, against North Korea, particularly in regard to oil shipments. Thus, those U.N. sanctions have essentially been nullified by Russia and China acting jointly.
We are confronting a Sino-Russian alliance that works together in Northeast and Southeast Asia, through Chinese support for Russia’s intervention in Syria and for three-sided cooperation with Iran.
How then should we reply to this China challenge? Former World Bank head Robert Zoellick recommends, we simply propose better ideas and put together attractive partnerships, particularly in which China no longer is a bad actor on proliferation, trade or climate change.
To a serious degree, many have argued for decoupling our economies from China, and doing so is in some respects inherently a long-term process. And given the scale of the global economic challenge now confronting us, it will most likely have to be done over time. But in key areas like high-tech, defense industry and technology, and the healthcare sector, we first can immediately begin to reinvigorate our own base for producing the tools and products we need here.
And second, because the challenge is an inherently global one, our response must both be realistic, and to the extent possible involve multiple allies. Now to some degree, American First policies pursued might foster inter-allied resentments, that Beijing and Moscow can then exploit and weaken allied resolve. Now to better counter the encroachments of China and Russia, whose strategy is to strike at allies and peripheries rather than directly at the United States, we might foster a hybrid approach—both standing up for U.S. interests, and doing so, in cooperation with our allies.
Thus, it is that trade wars, or appearing to stand aloof from efforts at international recovery, cause dismay among our European and Asian allies, and raise the specter of those alliances dissolving over time, an outcome that only benefits China and Russia. Warnings about precisely this outcome are now rapidly multiplying, but we should acknowledge U.S. tariff policy did persuade Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and China to ink new trade deals.
The big issue now is “what next?”
Our allies have also been greatly harmed by the Chinese regime’s malign behavior. Thus, they are ready to seek better deals elsewhere especially with the United States. And certainly, it is very true that alliances can be a source of strength for the United States. They can, when not increasing dependency, minimize the costs of global military deployments since we can deploy forces in Japan, South Korea, Australia, and in front-line NATO countries, and those bases can serve to be jumping-off points, for projection into other global crises if necessary.
Alliances also can strengthen our ability to deter China militarily, and compete with China economically, while creating regional communities of interest with sufficient resilience, to resist both Chinese economic blandishments and or threats ,while also protecting U.S. sovereignty and interests. We could further reunite with the EU and Asian allied states, to form regional trade pacts with credible mechanisms, for dispute resolution, and build on the new trade deals with South Korea and Japan.
In the military sphere, alliances like NATO in Europe or our alliances with Japan and South Korea have kept the peace for 75 years. Indeed, it may take an alliance of Asian and interested European states to patrol the South China Sea on a permanent basis to deter China’s aggressive moves there. Securing considerable increases in allied military support—for the Western Pacific and NATO—was a singular achievement of the Trump Administration that moved things in the right direction.
Indeed, China’s suppressing knowledge of the pandemic, its massive and unconscionable repression of its Muslim Uyghur population, its militarily aggressive moves in the South China Sea, and its false news information offensives, to name only a few, are as much a sign of weakness as anything else. Leninist and authoritarian states like Russia and China cannot afford to admit weakness. They are always haunted by the knowledge of their own illegitimacy and corruption. Therefore, they are impelled to behave aggressively in world politics.
But we should also recognize that Xi Jinping’s neo-Maoist leadership may well be actually significantly weakening China’s economy, that clearly suffers from the pandemic more than it will admit. Moreover, its repressions and offensives betray its constant fear of being under attack, and that China’s domestic opposition will exploit any weakness. This ingrained paranoia simultaneously makes such states difficult to deal with, but it also is an inestimable advantage to the United States and its allies who have no such fears.
Therefore, while recognizing the China challenge, we must, at all costs, not lose our nerves. Losing our confidence is precisely China’s main goal. But a strong, confident America can, while standing up for its people’s interests, along with its allies, take advantage of China’s weaknesses and internal instability, as a regenerated American confidence can restore the right balance to U.S. and China relations.
Peter Huessy is the president of Geo-Strategic Analysis of Potomac, Md., a defense and national security consulting firm.
Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.