By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
JULY/AUGUST 2020— AEI’s Daniel Blumenthal and Nicholas Eberstadt have written a thoughtful essay detailing the causes and consequences of what they call “America’s great China gamble,” which began decades ago by engaging the PRC, trying to integrate the authoritarian PRC into an international system characterized by free government and free markets, hoping trade would liberalize and Westernize the PRC, and ultimately allowing the PRC to become the world’s factory floor and source of virtually every manufactured product. But the PRC’s criminal negligence in response to COVID19 proves the gamble failed, according Eberstadt and Blumenthal. “A long chain of U.S. policy errors and miscalculations” led inevitably to this tragedy, they argue. If there is a silver lining to this made-in-China disaster, it’s that America and its allies have seen the true nature of the PRC—a regime that used COVID19 as an opportunity to weaken its enemies, strengthen itself and expand its malign influence.
The Blumenthal-Eberstadt essay is worth reading, and it serves as an ideal jumping-off point for a discussion on responses Washington can craft to negate—or at least contain—the metastasizing threat posed by Beijing. These can be broadly grouped under soft-power and hard-power responses. This issue explores the former. We will consider hard-power options in the next issue.
Our starting point must be a recognition that the PRC, like the USSR, is an adversary that can challenge the U.S. across multiple domains, in multiple regions and through multiple areas of influence (cultural, economic, military, diplomatic, ideological)—and that China views the U.S., the rule of law, and political and economic liberalism as threats to the regime. As such, China does not want to become part of a U.S.-led liberal international order. Rather, it aims to bend the existing order toward its own goals, or perhaps forge a new international order to rival and supplant what the West began building after World War II.
What I have termed the “trade über alles caucus” (see page 50) has promised us for decades that ever-expanding trade with the PRC would reform its despotic government, shut down its laogai slave labor camps and subdue its imperial inclinations. Those promises never came to fruition. Instead, as Blumenthal an Eberstadt detail, Beijing has expanded its reach and power, while the U.S. and its allies have grown increasingly dependent on and vulnerable to Beijing. Consider what happened as COVID19 breached China’s borders and swept through an unsuspecting world. Blumenthal and Eberstadt note that “China quietly managed to buy up much of the world’s available stockpiles” of anti-epidemic equipment and gear—nearly 2.5 billion pieces of equipment, including 2 billion masks. This thuggish response “temporarily stripped the rest of the world of supplies needed to battle the pandemic and helps explain the otherwise inexplicable shortages other countries faced when their own outbreaks struck.” This response also exposed the true nature of the PRC. While Taiwan, America and Europe tried to help their neighbors—the E.U. and U.S. even sent aid to China early in the crisis—China helped itself.
The American people have taken notice. Seventy-three percent of Americans blame the Chinese government for COVID19 deaths; 66 percent hold a negative view of China; 71 percent distrust Chinese strongman Xi Jinping. These numbers explain the emerging consensus around a tougher China policy. In the wake of Beijing’s illegal island-building efforts, relentless cyber-siege, massive military buildup and criminal mishandling of COVID19, a new coalition is emerging for what increasingly looks like a new cold war. This coalition enfolds national-security hawks, human-rights activists, fair-traders, religious groups, organized labor and an army of jobless Americans—all enraged by what Beijing’s business-suit dictatorship has wrought.
Policymakers are beginning to harness their fury. Dozens of bills in Congress call for punitive action against Beijing. One would“seek reimbursement” from China for the COVID19 catastrophe. Another envisions ways to “quantify the harm…to the health and economic wellbeing of the people of the United States” and proposes “a mechanism for delivering compensation” from China “to all affected nations.” Others would develop avenues for seizing Chinese assets. Several deal with diversifying America’s supply chains away from China. Following Japan’s lead, there are even plans in Washington to create a $25-billion “reshoring fund” to encourage U.S. firms to pull out of China and secure their supply chains.
Supply-chain diversification is prudent for America, and it would be detrimental for Xi’s regime: A weakening Chinese economy could encourage the sort of discontent necessary for political reform in China. China’s post-COVID19 economy has “sharply contracted,” according to a NASDAQ analysis, “for the first time since at least 1992,” with projected year-end GDP growth falling to its lowest level in 40 years. This cratering will increase as U.S., Japanese and other foreign firms pull manufacturing out of China. China’s economy needs to grow at a rapid clip to keep China’s masses content. If Xi fails to deliver the economic goods, his subjects may conclude that the tradeoff they have made with their government—political docility in exchange for rising living standards—is not worth the cost. Washington should push that pressure point.
Beijing’s propaganda is relentless and must be answered relentlessly. Toward that end, Congress should reopen the U.S. Information Agency to harmonize public-diplomacy efforts and go on the offensive against Beijing. In addition, the world’s foremost groupings of democracies—the G7, EU, NATO and D10—should create a Global Endowment for Democracy to counter China’s propaganda offensives; coordinate a PR offensive against the PRC; and help at-risk democracies protect their institutions from PRC subterfuge.
Here at home, Washington should offer moral support to Xi’s opponents. As President Reagan argued, ”A little less détente… and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot armored divisions.” The White House should provide a platform to China’s underground Church, Tibetan independence advocates, Uighur Muslims, popularly elected leaders from Hong Kong and Taiwan, laogai survivors, Charter 08 signatories, political dissidents, families victimized by the one-child policy. Beijing is acutely sensitive to these issues and has no answer to them—except systemic political reform, which would be in America’s interest.
Taiwan and Hong Kong
In response to Beijing’s rollback of Hong Kong’s special independent status, Britain offered some 3 million Hong Kong citizens a pathway to British citizenship. Experts say this could trigger a brain drain from Hong Kong and an exodus of capital—both of which would hurt Beijing. Washington should follow Britain’s lead and encourage that exodus to grow. Already, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators is urging the State Department to offer special refugee status to Hongkongers.
Given that the World Health Organization has been compromised by China—and given that Taiwan has been exemplary in its handling of COVID19—Washington should call for the creation of a global early-warning center for infectious diseases based in Taiwan. No country is so well positioned—functionally and geographically—to play such a role. In stark contrast to Beijing, Taipei shared medical information with the world; carried out nationwide mitigation efforts rapidly; combatted misinformation; and preserved public health without draconian lockdowns. The results speak for themselves. After seven months in the eye of the COVID19 storm, Taiwan (population 24 million) has sustained just 447 cases and seven deaths from the virus. Taiwan did this in the shadow of the PRC, in the face of PRC disinformation and despite being shut out of WHO initiatives by Beijing. In short, the world can learn a lot from Taiwan. Toward that end, Washington could dispatch personnel from the CDC, DHS, FEMA, National Center for Medical Intelligence, and Military Infectious Diseases Research Program to the disease early-warning center in Taipei. This approach would not only help America prevent, prepare for and defend against future pandemics; it would elevate Taiwan’s status and highlight the vast differences between Taiwan and its thuggish neighbor. We will explore more muscular responses to the Xi regime in the next issue.