Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 2, 2021.
If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world—and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.
—President Harry S. Truman, March 12, 1947
For too long the United States clung to the assumption that China, having been welcomed into the international system based on our desire for cooperation and engagement, would play by the rules and, as China prospered, its leaders would liberalize its economy and its form of governance. The 2017 National Security Strategy and the Indo-Pacific Strategy administered a corrective to that false assumption, recognized the need for transparent competition with the aggressive policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and effected what may be the most significant shift in US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
If any doubt lingered concerning the Chinese Communist Party’s intention to extend and tighten its exclusive grip on power internally and achieve “national rejuvenation” at the expense of other nations externally, the party’s actions amid a global pandemic should have removed them.
Communist leaders continued to speak the language of cooperation and global governance while repressing human freedom, exporting their authoritarian-mercantilist model, and subverting international organizations. Chairman Xi Jinping speaks of “rule of law” while he interns millions of people in concentration camps and wages a campaign of cultural genocide against the Uighur population in Xinjiang. He vows carbon neutrality by 2060 while China continues to build scores of coal-fired plants globally per year. Xi gives speeches on free trade while engaging in economic aggression, forced labor, economic coercion, and unfair trade and economic practices. He suggests a “community of common destiny” while fostering servile relationships with countries vulnerable to his military or economic intimidation.
The Chinese Communist Party’s Orwellian reversal of the truth matters to Americans because the party is not only strengthening an internal system that stifles human freedom and extends its authoritarian control; it is also exporting that model and advocating for the development of new rules and a new international order that would make the world less free, less prosperous, and less safe.
Despite an undeniable record of aggression and the dangers that the CCP poses for international security and prosperity, some continue to call for warmer relations with China as an end in itself. Although more countries such as the United Kingdom, Sweden, and India have joined the United States and Australia in specific defensive measures such as banning the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from developing 5G communications networks, others appear unconvinced that it is dangerous to surrender their data to China. As the United States declared the CCP’s attacks on Uighurs a genocide, the European Union agreed in principle to a Comprehensive Agreement on Investments with China that diverted attention away from China’s atrocities in exchange for vague promises to adhere to international standards it has consistently ignored since gaining admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001.
Although the Biden administration did not remove Trump administration–imposed tariffs, it re-entered international organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Human Rights Council without demanding conditions that might have made it more difficult for China to subvert those organizations. The US government acted to prevent investment in Chinese companies connected to the People’s Liberation Army, but Wall Street and other international investors are pouring money into Chinese equities, undaunted by the party’s increasing intervention in the private sector or the fact that the companies in which they are investing must, by law, act as extensions of the party.
Chinese Communist leaders are likely recalling the quotation attributed to Vladimir Lenin as they watch China overtake the United States as the top destination for new foreign direct investment: “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”
Two fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of the high-stakes competition with China have stunted the collective response. It is vital that US diplomatic efforts correct them.
The first misunderstanding is that Chinese aggression is the result of US-China tensions or is a reaction to the Trump administration’s description of China as a rival in the December 2017 National Security Strategy and the Defense Strategy that stemmed from it. This misunderstanding derives from the conceit that the CCP has no volition except in reaction to the United States. But even the most cursory survey of recent actions reveals that the United States did not cause Chinese aggression and that China’s promotion of its authoritarian mercantilist model poses a threat to international security and prosperity.
Consider the party’s deliberate suppression of information about the COVID-19 outbreak, the persecution of doctors and journalists who tried to warn the world, and the subversion of the WHO as it excluded Taiwan from that organization and stifled Taiwan’s instructive example of how to contain the virus. The CCP has added insult to injury by using diplomacy to obscure China’s responsibility for the pandemic and portray its response as superior and magnanimous. The party directed massive cyberattacks globally on medical research facilities amid the pandemic. In an effort to “kill one to warn one hundred,” China inflicted economic punishment on Australia for having the temerity to propose an inquiry into the origins of the virus.
Meanwhile, the party raced to perfect its technologically enabled police state and extend its repression into Hong Kong. Xi even boasted of his intention to expand concentration camps in Xinjiang and extolled the virtues of slave labor. As the party expelled more international reporters and imprisoned more Hong Kong rights activists, Xi announced that he would continue to use hostage taking, such as the unlawful jailing of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, to coerce others to submit to Chinese demands and support the CCP’s worldview and violent self-conception as a one-party nation with no room for ethnic plurality except on its own rigid terms.
Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) bludgeoned Indian soldiers to death along the Himalayan frontier, rammed vessels in the South China Sea, gave its coast guard permission to fire on vessels that do not recognize its baseless claims of control over that strategic maritime area, threatened Japan’s Senkakus, and menaced Taiwan with its aircraft and naval vessels.
It is past time to jettison the narcissistic belief that the United States caused Chinese aggression and recognize the party’s actions as manifestations of its leaders’ fears, aspirations, and ideology. President Biden and his diplomats might make clear to their counterparts abroad that the choice they face is not one between Washington and Beijing. The choice is between sovereignty and servitude.
The second misunderstanding is that competition with China is dangerous or even irresponsible because of a “Thucydides trap,” a term coined to express the likelihood of conflict between a rising power (China) and a status quo power (the United States). The party promotes this false dilemma, portraying efforts to defend against its aggression as simply the United States trying to keep China and its people down. This trope not only provides cover for the party’s aggression but rationalizes the views of those who prefer passive accommodation to competition as they pursue short-term profits.
But the way to avoid stepping into the trap of destructive war is to gravitate toward neither confrontation nor passive accommodation. Transparent competition as described in the recently declassified Indo-Pacific Strategy is the best way to prevent unnecessary escalation and enable rather than foreclose on cooperation with China.
If American diplomats correct those misunderstandings and US leaders resolve to compete alongside like-minded partners, it is possible to turn what the Chinese Communist Party views as America’s weaknesses (such as democratic governance, freedom of speech, and rule of law) into competitive advantages. It is not just an exercise in altruism to help those abroad who are promoting what Americans regard as unalienable rights and strengthening institutions vital to representative governance. It is one of the best ways to counter China’s strategic ambitions.
There is much room for improvement in the effort to prevent China from using the open nature of free market economies to gain technological advantage, perfect its surveillance police state, and promote its authoritarian capitalist model. The integrated nature of the Chinese Communist Party’s military and economic strategies is what makes it particularly dangerous to the United States and other free and open societies. What is needed is an international commitment to do no harm through research, investment, trade, or other economic relationships with Chinese companies that must act as extensions of the CCP in three areas:
>> Technology: Do not engage in trade or investment relationships that transfer sensitive technology and allow the PLA and the CCP to gain advantage militarily or obtain an unfair advantage in the emerging data-driven global economy.
>> Investment: Do not invest in Chinese companies or do business in China in a way that helps the party stifle human freedom and perfect its technologically enabled police state.
>> Intellectual property: Do not transfer intellectual property and compromise the long-term viability of companies in exchange for short-term profits associated with access to the Chinese market.
The US government will continue to play an important role in this competition, but companies and shareholders must recognize what is at stake and make decisions consistent with long-term interests. Governments can help companies insulate themselves from the coercive power of the CCP. For example, fast-tracking visas for Chinese employees of US companies and their families if they are the object of party coercion would help companies stand up to Beijing while protecting their people. Tougher screening for Chinese firms listed on US, European, and Japanese capital markets as well as scrutiny of US investment in Chinese companies would complement the improved review process for Chinese investment in US companies.
The Biden administration must continue to expand on the important work that the intelligence agencies and Departments of State, Defense, and Justice have done to counter the CCP’s sustained campaign of industrial espionage while recognizing that defensive measures will prove inadequate. Prevailing in the tech competition will require more investment in basic and applied research as well as stronger cooperation across the public and private sectors of like-minded liberal democracies. The private sector should seek new partnerships with countries that share commitments to the free market, representative government, and the rule of law.
Other arenas of competition that require a high degree of international cooperation include China’s effort to control critical supply chains, financial technology, digital currency and electronic payments, and global Internet privacy and data standards. Governments of free market economies must work together and within international organizations to ensure access to critical commodities and products such as rare-earth metals and computer chips, enforce reciprocal trade practices, and demand recompense for China’s unfair advantages such as state support for companies like Huawei.
Security and Education
Transparent competition with China requires a strong defense to convince the Chinese Communist Party and China’s army that they cannot accomplish objectives in the Indo-Pacific region with force. China is using its growing military capability to intimidate countries and restrict access for US forces. It has already embarked on efforts to push American forces out as the first step in establishing hegemonic influence across the Indo-Pacific analogous to the tributary system of the Qing dynasty.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy identified eight critical areas for modernization that remain valid and relevant. Those priorities require sustained, predictable investment. Perhaps most important, it is difficult to overstate the need for forward-positioned joint forces to assure allies and deter adversaries. Both China and Russia have developed anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capabilities to restrict US and allied freedom of movement and action. Forward-positioned, capable joint forces of sufficient size transform what adversaries would like to declare denied space into contested space while ensuring that if conflict should occur, we do not have to pay the high price of readmission.
Competition does not foreclose on cooperation. If the United States and like-minded liberal democracies convince Chinese leaders that their campaign of co-option, coercion, and concealment is not working, Beijing may conclude that it can have enough of its dream without trespassing on the security, sovereignty, and prosperity of other nations’ citizens. But it will be important to avoid compromises based on false promises of cooperation in areas such as climate change or North Korea’s nuclear program. Watching what Beijing does rather than believing what it says is a best practice.
Perhaps most important, the United States must possess the confidence to sustain a foreign policy based on the recognition that American security and prosperity at home depend on engagement abroad. Clearly there is work to do at home to overcome the traumas of a pandemic, an economic recession, social divisions, vitriolic partisanship, and the destructive interaction among identity politics, critical race theory, bigotry, and racism. But our effort to overcome those traumas should not encourage disengagement from challenges abroad. Introspection should help clarify what Americans stand for and what Americans must defend: individual liberty, the rule of law, freedom of expression, democratic governance, tolerance, and opportunity for all. Schools can rekindle in our youth an understanding of our history that includes not only the contradictions and imperfections in our experiment in democracy but also the great promise of America and its role as a force for good in the world. We might remember the philosopher Richard Rorty’s observation that “national pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement.”
Finally, education may create another way to strengthen our national defense and our ability to overcome China’s threat to our security and prosperity. It may be time for an initiative similar to the National Defense Education Act, passed in 1958 in response to the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik. Educated citizens start new businesses, create medical breakthroughs like vaccines, ensure the technological prowess of our armed forces, and solve interconnected problems like climate change and energy, food, and water security. Educated citizens learn languages and connect with other societies, foster strategic empathy, and promote peace.
And educated citizens appreciate the great gifts of our free and open society as well as what we must do together to defend our nation and improve it.