Trump and Pompeo are ratcheting up tensions with China, but have no way to back up their threats.
If you have any doubt that the Trump administration has embarked on a Cold War policy against China every bit as hostile as the U.S. stance toward the Soviet Union at the height of that showdown, check out Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Thursday speech at the Richard Nixon Library.
Redolent of the sort of speeches that Nixon himself gave in the 1950s (during his red-hunting days, before the opening to Beijing), it calls for ending engagement with China, rolling back its fledgling empire, and rallying the Chinese people to overthrow their regime.
Combined with other recent speeches by Trump officials and a number of actions by Trump himself, it amounts to a cry for war. But it is a senseless cry—implausible, infeasible, and heedless of the damage that further escalation will inflict on our own country and its allies.
Portions of Pompeo’s speech, detailing the rising dangers posed by the Chinese Communist Party, are spot on. Under Xi Jinping’s rule, the CCP has steadily taken control of every national institution, suppressed dissent, imprisoned a million Uighur Muslims, militarized the South China Sea beyond its internationally recognized borders, exploited trade arrangements, stolen intellectual property, and infiltrated the West with industrial spies.
But what should we do about this? Pompeo says there’s nothing to do except cut China off. Engagement with China, sought by every president beginning with Nixon, has been a “failure,” he says. The CCP hasn’t changed its stripes since the days of Mao Zedong. The clash isn’t just America vs. China but freedom vs. totalitarianism. The solution is to egg on the forces of freedom—the oppressed people—inside China, and to call on other nations to do the same.
This is a fantasy, and a dangerous one, on several levels.
First, neither Trump nor Pompeo is in a strong position to take a moral high ground. Nothing Trump has done to American citizens comes close to the oppression that Xi has inflicted on Uighurs or in Hong Kong, but Trump hasn’t said much about Hong Kong, and, according to John Bolton’s tell-all, he gave Xi a thumbs-up on sticking the Uighurs in concentration camps. In any case, the world shows no interest in following the moral dictates of an administration that puts migrant children in cages or fires tear gas at the mothers of peaceful protesters. The legendary diplomat George Kennan, architect of America’s Cold War containment policy, once said, “It is primarily by example, never by precept, that a country such as ours exerts its most useful influence beyond its borders.” By that standard, Trump fails the test; no one, in China or elsewhere, will take his or Pompeo’s finger-wagging seriously.
Second, Trump and Pompeo don’t hold high strategic ground either. It’s not a good idea for America’s top diplomat to hurl existential threats against a nation that holds $1 trillion of our debt and serves as the prime—in some cases, the sole—source of so many consumer goods, including medical products. The latter might be particularly useful during a pandemic, which will probably be defeated, if at all, through a global effort. Certainly, over the years, U.S. politicians and businesses leapt too eagerly into the Chinese market to take advantage of its cheap labor (for imports) and massive growth (for exports), and we’ve become too dependent as a result. The COVID-19 lockdowns heightened awareness of this problem, and in response many manufacturers are diversifying their supply chains to the extent possible. This is a good thing, both to reduce our vulnerability to trade wars and to rebalance the geopolitical scales. But there is no way to cut China off from our economy altogether.
Third, Pompeo’s remarks will not aid the advance of Chinese democracy. To the contrary, Xi will probably invoke the speech to lambaste—and further persecute—dissidents and democratic activists in mainland China and Hong Kong as American-backed saboteurs.
Most Chinese people might even believe the charge, as Trump’s harsh rhetoric and trade war have already inflamed anti-American sentiment.
Fourth, Pompeo displays no real understanding of what’s been happening in China the past 50 years. He claims that engagement has failed and that the CCP hasn’t changed since the time of Mao. This is just absurd. Yes, China has stretched or broken some of the rules that it agreed to follow when the West let it in to the World Trade Organization and other institutions. But it has also adopted many of those rules. It altered hundreds of practices in order to join the WTO. Its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which it set up as an alternative to the World Bank, follows global financial standards. The CCP itself is no longer a party of purely Communist ideology, as it was under Mao, but rather a nation-building tool. True, Xi has used the party to enhance his own power, but Pompeo is wrong to say that it propagates “a bankrupt totalitarian ideology.” Millions of Chinese citizens who rose from abject poverty—as well as the leaders of many developing countries, seeking a model to emulate—look at today’s China as a success story.
Which leads to the final problem with Pompeo’s speech: He offers no ideas for how to stave off China’s challenge to the West—and it is a challenge. He mentions possibly rallying NATO allies to the cause but offers no reasons why they should join in. (Several allies did follow Trump’s lead in banning Huawei software from their 5G systems, but that was because the U.S. and western Europe intelligence agencies—which still have strong ties—agreed that Huawei gear posed national security threats.) Following his speech, during a Q&A period moderated by conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt, Pompeo hailed Russia as a great potential ally against China, saying nothing about Vladimir Putin’s own indulgence in the same sins—violating human rights and threatening American democracy—for which he condemns the CCP. Again, no one will take this talk seriously; the next time Putin and Xi talk, they might giggle about it.
China is making inroads in the world, in large part because the United States is offering no attractive alternative. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Barack Obama signed with 11 other heads of state, might have posed a potent bulwark against China’s expansive trade policies, but Trump pulled out of the deal. (The other countries put together their own trade deal, minus the US; it has had some effect, but not nearly as much as the larger version would have.) Trump has sent aircraft carriers into the South China Sea to challenge Xi’s territorial claims, but what will he do if Xi pushes back? What will he do if Xi doesn’t push back? Our Asian allies want American leadership. Many heads of state who have signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative chafe at its harsh terms; they’d rather sign something with us, but Trump has nothing to give them.
Trump seems to have given up on any engagement with China, even though the two countries do share an array of common interests. He hasn’t talked for quite a while about going beyond Phase 1 of the trade deal that was once a big talking point in his reelection campaign, until he pivoted toward blaming China for all his ailments. In the past month, before Pompeo’s talk, three other administration officials—national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Attorney General William Barr, and FBI Director Christopher Wray—have delivered speeches about the China threat, each outdoing the others in its harsh rhetoric. This week, Trump shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston, calling it a nest of spies (which it may be, as many consulates of many countries are)—prompting China to close down the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, which had allowed American diplomats some range in Sichuah, Yunan and Guizhou provinces, as well as in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The net gain for U.S. interests? Zero, possibly negative.
“I don’t see any strategy,” Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said when asked about Pompeo’s speech and Trump’s policy toward China generally. “It is slash and burn at this point … just punishment for the sake of punishment.”
China is not going away, nor is the CCP about to disband, and nothing Trump or any other Western leader does is going to change that. As other presidents have recognized, U.S. policy toward today’s China must contain some mix of engagement and containment. The trick is figuring out the right mix. Trump has given up the game, and growling lectures like Pompeo’s won’t work any magic.