Foreign Policy Blogs

Competing With China

Competing With China
How Will This Turn Out?

A speech by Secretary of State Pompeo on July 23 gave full official notice of the Trump administration’s China policy.  The speech finalized a process started by an NSC document published in May.  The administration now contests China’s actions across the board, on trade, technology theft, human rights, geopolitics, and a host of other matters.  A flurry of actions duly corroborated this adversarial stance, from a call to ban TikTok to the closing of consulates in late July. 

The administration sets a common direction across all issues, where U.S. efforts on various matters might have worked at cross purposes before.  U.S. priorities have flitted from interest to interest since the Cold War’s end, through administrations of both parties.  We have promoted trade and borrowed from China’s currency reserves.  After Tienanmen we denounced the regime and imposed sanctions, lifting the sanctions a few years later and then inviting China into the WTO.  We have remonstrated over Tibet and Xinjiang and most recently over Hong Kong, and sent carriers through the Taiwan Straits, but also initiated a “strategic and economic” dialogue.  Even the Trans Pacific Partnership, arguably a geopolitical coalition, was a trade pact – and was dropped by all candidates in the 2016 campaign. 

Still, strategist Giselle Donnelly points out that no one has defined “the nature of the contest (or) what victory looks like.”  As Politico commentator Gary Schmitt observes, Pompeo calls for unspecified change from China, and for U.S. engagement with the Chinese people.  Pompeo also objects to China’s Marxism-Leninism.  It is unclear whether the new policy demands some number of concessions on human rights issues, a renunciation of ideology – or regime change.    

America now has an opportunity to align all our policy stances to embody the tenets of our founding.  We can and should contest China’s bad actions, but to fulfill our own core nature, protecting and promoting freedom, and not simply to oppose China.  Donnelly’s article notes how the character of our regime must steer our course in any strategy.  A nation’s deepest national interest is its basis for existence.  For America, both trace back to the nation’s conceiving itself by a principle written down in 1776.  U.S. pursuit of all other national interests, of security, material well-being, rule of law, and international norms and influence, can and should align to that fundamental end. 

The new China stance follows Washington’s current strategic discourse of “great power competition.”  In that discourse too, RAND analyst Ali Wyne sees no clarity in what the competition is over.  In a recent discussion between Donnelly, China hand Derek Scissors, and other strategists, Scissors points out how anti-China rhetoric has not been followed by action, for instance reforms in government finance to support re-armament.  He sees confrontation with China reflecting only a shallow consensus.

China has learned how to play our inconsistency.  Confident that we revert to economic interests, they take our protests over human rights or democracy lightly.  They will buy more soybeans or otherwise show a collaborative face when mutual interest or passing American complaints demand it.  And they cite that face to complain that U.S. support of dissidents, support of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, or opposition to their claims in the South China Sea, are “attempt(s) to obstruct China’s development” .  All, they say, unmasking our interest in “naked hegemony.”  The constant shifting of U.S. concerns has left us without credible counterarguments.

Chinese officials may be losing their skill at this game, growing more baldly irritating to other countries, notably in “wolf warrior” diplomats’ hectoring demands to respect Chinese claims.  American commentator Walter Russell Mead notes that Xi Jinping “has taken a wrong turn” toward his Leninist precepts,  Scissors notes that Xi is helping an American consensus to congeal.  Still, America needs to specify what we are competing over.  Absent that clarity, the current broad U.S. sense of grievance can revert to the old mix of shifting priorities.   

We should now announce that the U.S. will calibrate all aspects of U.S.-China relations, in all policy arenas, to America’s existential core, and that that principle will orient our policies globally.  Whatever past practice may suggest, we will not trade Hong Kong for soybeans, and we will defend democratic Taiwan against forcible takeover.  We will cement alliances with entrenched democracies starting with Japan, South Korea, and Australia.  We will encourage further democratic development, and tighten relations commensurately, with India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  This strategy of alliance based on democratic norms will also apply worldwide.  To that end we will ramp up all our strategic capabilities.  The extent, depth, and make-up of those preparations as they affect China will mirror the level that China chooses, of compatibility with or opposition to our core national interest.

This moral re-basing of policy need not translate to implacable existential confrontation, as the containment of Soviet expansionism turned out to be.  We need not renounce other interests that we might share, though perforce we will be more constrained in our accommodations and less trusting of China’s cooperation.  And although the contest may be turning ideological, improvement in bilateral relations could be conceivable.  While Pompeo and others cite the Leninist doctrine of the Chinese Communist Party, as Mead says, “It’s unclear … how entrenched the country’s latest bout of authoritarianism actually is.”  A body of Chinese academic thought does say that “the survival of the state comes first, and constitutional law must serve this fundamental objective.”  But at least one Chinese scholar, Tongdong Bai envisions a system that, while not fully democratic, would include a Confucian form of consent of the governed.  Even Bai’s idea is extremely far from realization, but America and China are not doomed to intractable enmity. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. need not and must not use democracy as a tool against China.  We know not to reduce our founding principles to a tactical weapon.  Rather, preservation and natural spread of the unalienable rights is our bottom line.  The U.S. can enunciate this core discipline for U.S. priorities and let China decide how compatible they wish to be.  We can align global security arrangements to this end; the Atlantic Council’s Barry Pavel calls for an overall review of U.S. alliances, with a favorable eye on the British suggestion of a “D10” grouping of strong democracies.  A grouping aimed to set a secure ambience for rights need not threaten China as Containment threatened the USSR.  George Kennan foresaw in 1947 that the Soviets could not maintain their regime if adroitly contained.  A coalition of major democracies will be very powerful, but China need not collapse living alongside it.  The members of China’s elite, though, may grow to prefer life in a society ruled by law rather than faction, among people living openly by their choices rather than in furtive calculation of what they are allowed.    

This stance puts America on moral high ground.  Strategy, as attributed to strategist John Boyd, starts on high ground and, following a scheme inspired by Sun Tzu, should “pump up our resolve, drain away our adversary’s resolve, and attract the uncommitted.”  Sun Tzu aimed to undermine opponents’ will to fight.  U.S. diplomacy should take this approach, as our true character defuses anyone’s resolve even to be an opponent.  Claiming the high ground by stating this objective does put pressure on America.  We will have to marshal our resources to support our claim, as Scissors notes the need for financial reform to support rearmament.  But more broadly, our core interest in rights pushes Americans mostly to be better at being America.  Foreign policy would influence domestic practice, but good life at home will also enhance U.S influence abroad, in a virtuous cycle.  Living our best life is the best way to get China to change. 



George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.