Will China’s negligence unleashing the coronavirus and mendacity exploiting it catalyze a reckoning with the PRC, comparable in significance to the Czech Coup of 1948? And will it crystallize long-term American determination to contest China’s scheme to supplant the United States as the world’s preeminent power? Or will China ultimately emerge as the winner from the devastation it has wrought because of a deficit of strategic and moral clarity within the United States and among our allies?
The answer to these questions depends considerably on the policies adopted by the next president. Start with the good news. Negative views of China have soared to a record high of 73 percent of Americans, according to a Pew Foundation Poll released in late July 20201. Chinese behavior during and since the coronavirus also has elicited strong negative reactions across the Indo-Pacific, especially in Japan, India, and Australia, where views of China’s ambitions and behavior already trended strongly in a negative direction. Even in Western Europe, long committed to engaging and conciliating rather than confronting China, COVID-19 has generated an anti-China backlash, more muted on the continent but stronger in Britain where British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined President Trump in imposing a complete ban on Chinese 5G vendor Huawei.
Even so, this contingent good news might prove ephemeral rather than enduring if the United States and our allies should waver in the reckoning with China that President Trump deserves credit for initiating. The reelection of President Trump would have offered the best practicable option for building and intensifying the Administration’s first term strategy of contesting China comprehensively and vigorously—a vital condition for bolstering deterrence, or defeating China at the lowest possible cost and risk should deterrence fail. Unlike his predecessor––who “welcomed China’s rise,” who significantly shrank American defense spending while China armed prodigiously, and whose national security statements of 2010 and 2015 omitted naming China or any other great power as an adversary––the Trump Administration designated China from the outset as our number one adversary. The President has not only increased the American defense budget substantially, but invested in threshold technologies such as strategic defense and created an independent Space Force. The President has pushed back hard against China’s implacable economic warfare against us on trade and intellectual property that his predecessors rationalized away. The President’s economic policies before COVID-19 intervened had generated prodigious economic growth on which American military preeminence depends. Trump began, too, the long overdue decoupling of the U.S. economy from China’s, the imperative of which our inordinate dependence on China for essentials such as antibiotics exposed in high relief during this pandemic. President Trump strengthened relationships with a decent democratic India and Japan, vital, value-based allies who share our strategic priorities and alarm about the trajectory of China’s policies at home and abroad—relationships his predecessor, with the support of Vice President Biden, allowed to languish while courting China and other adversaries.
Trump’s recalibration of our China policy that COVID-19 has broadened, deepened, and accelerated is a good start, but only the end of the beginning of what is necessary for the United States and our allies to prevail. For all the considerable merits of President Trump’s approach towards China, the President would enhance the effectiveness of his policies by doing some recalibrating as well. The President’s rhetoric has undervalued the importance of American ideals as well as self-interest in identifying friends, foes, threats, and opportunities. Many Americans who are increasingly alarmed by China rightly advocate calling out China with no pale pastels on human rights, stressing the tyrannical nature of the Chinese regime, while championing the importance of a value-based alliance system of fellow democracies in the Indo-Pacific, grounded firmly in geopolitics. The President’s spokesmen—particularly Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence—have done much better articulating this dimension of the contest with China than the President, whose actual policies on this and many other issues are often better than he makes them sound. A greater emphasis on human right also may elicit greater support for sterner policies towards China from our Western European allies, where resolve—especially in Germany—is fragile at best even now with disillusionment with China running much higher than usual.
A second term Trump presidency also would run the risk of undermining the significant progress the Administration achieved in the first term if the President decided to settle for a deal rather than staying the course. This temptation is not only organic to President Trump’s nature, but would loom large for whoever became president because of the huge budgetary deficits that COVID-19 has compounded. President Trump’s salutary hectoring our allies to do more—yielding impressive results in Europe his predecessor failed to match—also ran the risk of reaching a culminating point counterproductive to forging a muscular strategic consensus that actively counters China’s ambitions.
With President Trump’s defeat, the odds diminish that China loses more than it gains by unleashing and exploiting COVID-19. Granted, the most recent Pew Foundation Poll found that many Democrats as well as even more Republicans advocate tougher policies on toward China on human rights and trade. An increasing number of prominent Democrats have become rhetorically more willing to criticize rather than conciliate China. Even so, President-elect Biden has a long record of advocating engagement with China while downplaying the idea that the PRC has become a serious strategic rival. The leftward lurch of the current Democratic Party also does inspire confident that a Biden Administration will follow through on President Trump’s policy of robust resistance towards China’s predatory behavior. On the contrary, Senator Biden had moved steadily in a more dovish direction on national security even before becoming President Obama’s Vice President and cheerleading for Obama’s Dangerous Doctrine President Trump has repudiated in its entirety. Neither Biden nor his surrogates said much of anything about China at the Democratic convention despite the urgency of addressing the paramount national security threat of our time.
Will a Democratic Party reluctant to condemn the breakdown of law and order in a growing number of municipalities its leaders have governed for decades—a party seriously considering deep cuts in law enforcement amidst the mayhem—pursue the types of muscular national security strategies essential for credibly reassuring our terrified real and prospective allies in the Indo-Pacific that it is safer to stand up to China rather than to capitulate? Will a party committed to a vast expansion of government domestically—with deficits cascading, taxes poised steeply to increase if President Biden has his way—have the resources much less the inclination to spend enough on defense to counter China’s relentless military buildup aimed at driving the United States out of the Western Pacific? Will a Biden Administration also designate China’s grandiose ambitions and predatory behavior as danger number one? Or will the President-elect and his party revert instead to the default position of President Trump’s predecessor, who considered climate change the paramount gathering danger, envisaging China as a partner in fighting it?
Concluding with an optimistic plausible caveat about the consequences of a Biden victory for our struggle with China, history furnishes ample examples of policies confounding expectations. Recall the Truman Administration’s decision to resist North Korea’s June 1950 attack on South Korea just six months after Secretary of State Dean Acheson seemed to exclude South Korea as a vital interest in his speech to the Washington Press Club in January 1950. Recall, the strategic metamorphosis of heretofore isolationist Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan into a stalwart supporter of President Truman’s policy of vigilant containment. In the immortal words of the Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” if a Biden Presidency underwent a similar metamorphosis in this direction. It would be a triumph of hope over experience, however, to count on it. This version of the Democratic party has purged itself of all vestiges of the Truman/Scoop Jackson tradition of muscular Cold War liberalism congenial to the President’s hawkishness on China. The party’s political banishment of Former Senator Joseph Lieberman—the last of the Cold War Democrats—sadly attests to that.
May a Biden Presidency, too, be better than it sounds. Otherwise, the COVID-19 pandemic may turn out to be a strange and stinging defeat for the United States instead of a defeat for its perpetrator.