The United States is at a crossroads with an increasingly aggressive China, which could define America’s security and the international order for decades to come, Hoover scholar Victor Davis Hanson says.
Hanson, the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, studies military history and the classics. Last year, Hanson won the Edmund Burke Award, which honors people who have made major contributions to the defense of Western civilization. He is the author of the 2019 book The Case for Trump, and 2017's The Second World Wars. He was recently interviewed on US policy toward China:
What is the Trump strategy behind these tariffs, short term and long term?
Hanson: Short term, Trump feels that he can take the hit of reciprocal Chinese tariffs, given that quietly his opposition, the Democrats, have been raging about Chinese cheating for decades, and, second, that the US economy is so huge and diverse that China simply cannot cause serious damage.
Remember the United States is a country one-third the size of China that produces over double China's annual gross domestic product and fields a military far more formidable with far more allies—while enjoying a far more influential global culture and a far more sophisticated system of higher education and technological innovation. China’s Asian neighbors and our own European Union allies quietly are hoping Trump can check and roll back Chinese mercantilism, while publicly and pro forma chiding or even condemning Trump's brinksmanship and his resort to fossilized strategies such as tariffs and loud jawboning.
Long term, Trump believes that if present trends are not reversed, China could in theory catch and surpass the US. And as an authoritarian, anti-democratic superpower, China's global dominance would not be analogous to the American-led postwar order, but would be one in which China follows one set of rules and imposes a quite different set on everyone else—perhaps one day similar to the system imposed on its own people within China.
Is China a more formidable rival now than Russia was during the Cold War, and if so, why?
Hanson: Yes. Its population is five times greater than that of even the old Soviet Empire’s. Its economy is well over twenty times larger, and over a million Chinese students and business people are in European and American universities and colleges and posted abroad with Chinese companies. So, unlike the old Soviet Union, China is integrated within the West, culturally, economically, and politically. The Soviets—like Maoist China—never leased Western ports, or battled Hollywood over unflattering pictures, or posed as credible defenders of Asian values or owned large shares of Western companies or piled up huge trade surpluses with Western nations. Soviet propaganda and espionage were crude compared to current Chinese efforts.
What is China doing in terms of cheating on trade and intellectual property as the Trump administration says, and how can the United States stop this behavior?
Hanson: China does not honor patents and copyright laws. It still exports knock-off and counterfeit products. It steals research and development investment through a vast array of espionage rings. It manipulates its currency.
Its government companies export goods at below the cost of production to grab market share. It requires foreign companies to hand over technology as a price of doing business in China. And, most importantly, it assumes, even demands, that Western nations do not emulate its own international roguery—or else.
The result is a strange paradox in which the United States and Europe assume that China is an international commercial outlaw, but the remedy is deemed worse than the disease. So, many Western firms make enormous profits in China through joint projects, and so many academic institutions depend on China students, and so many financial institutions are invested in China, that to question its mercantilism is to be derided as a quaint nationalist, or a dangerous protectionist, or a veritable racist. China is an astute student of the Western science of victimology and always poses as a target of Western vindictiveness, racism, or puerile jealousy.
Remedies? First, we must give up the 40-year fantasies that the richer China gets, the more Western and liberal it will become; or that the more China becomes familiar with the West, the greater its admiration and respect for Western values; or that China has so many internal problems that it cannot possibly pose a threat to the West; or that Western magnanimity in foreign policy and trade relations will be appreciated and returned in kind. Instead, the better paradigm is imperial Japan between 1930 and 1941, when Tokyo absorbed Asian allies; had sent a quarter-million students and attachés to the West to learn or steal technology and doctrine; rapidly Westernized; declared Western colonial powers and the US as tired and spent, and without any legitimate business in the Pacific; and considered its own authoritarianism a far better partner to free market capitalism than the supposedly messy and clumsy democracies of the West.
How is China able now to leverage its arguably less powerful military to confront the United States globally?
Hanson: Global naval dominance is not in the Chinese near future. Its naval strategy is more reminiscent of the German Kriegsmarine of 1939 to 1941, which sought to deny the vastly superior Royal Navy access at strategic points without matching its global reach. China is carving out areas where shore batteries and coastal fleets can send showers of missiles to take out a multibillion-dollar American carrier. And its leasing of 50 and more strategically located ports might serve in times of global tensions as transit foci for armed merchant ships. But for now they do not have the capabilities of the American carrier or submarine fleet or expeditionary Marine forces—so the point is to deny America reach, not to emulate its extent.
Why are the current administration policies different than those in the past in confronting China on many different fronts and levels?
Hanson: Trump believes that economic power is the key to global influence and clout. Without it, a military wilts on the vine. A country with GDP growth at a 3 percent annual clip, energy independence, full employment, and increasing labor productivity and trade symmetry can renegotiate Chinese mercantilism and reassure China’s Asian neighbors that they need not appease its aggression. Past administrations might have agreed that China violated copyright and patent laws, dumped subsidized goods, appropriated technology, and ran a massive global espionage apparatus, but they considered remedies either impossible or dangerous and so essentially negotiated a slowing of the supposed predestined Chinese global hegemony. Trump was willing to confront China to achieve fair rather than free trade and take the ensuing heat that he was some sort of tariff-slapping Neanderthal.
Any other thoughts?
Hanson: I think Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s State Department is the first to openly question the idea that China will eventually rule the world and has offered a strategic plan to check its trade and political agendas. In this regard, a number of Hoover Institution scholars, currently working with Hoover fellow Kiron Skinner, director of policy planning at the US Department of State, are offering alternatives to orthodox American approaches of the past, with the caveat that the most dangerous era in interstate relations is the transition from de facto appeasement to symmetry—given that the abnormalities of the past had become considered “normal,” and the quite normal efforts of a nation to recalibrate to a balanced relationship are damned as dangerously “abnormal.”
Victor Davis Hanson is also the chairman of the Role of Military History in Contemporary Conflict Working Group at the Hoover Institution.
Clifton B. Parker, Hoover Institution: (650) 498-5204, cbparker [at] stanford.edu