America Needs to Stop Losing to China

Carrier-Based Multirole Fighter J-15. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Garudtejas7

A firm and clear across-the-board stance against an increasingly aggressive Beijing is long overdue.

“America doesn't win anymore.” That was a constant Donald Trump campaign theme and a situation he pledged to reverse.

But before we start winning again we need to stop losing — especially with China, which candidate Trump named as the prime exploiter of America's diplomatic naiveté. While he focused on trade and currency issues, we have been losing to Beijing even more dangerously on national security issues.

North Korea, the South China Sea and Taiwan are three Asian flashpoints where China's interests are inimical to American interests and values—any one of which could suddenly bring the United States and China into military conflict.  

The president-elect has been getting offers of advice from various sources on how to ease U.S.-China relations. Unfortunately, under the rubric of “realism,” all carry the faint whiff of defeatism: forego trade sanctions; concede some of China’s extravagant claims in the South China Sea; abandon Taiwan; set up a G-2 or U.S.-China condominium.

A genuinely realistic assessment would conclude that decades of engagement have failed to whet China’s ambitions or mitigate its underlying hostility toward the United States. Instead of more unilateral or unenforceable bilateral concessions, what is long overdue is a firm and clear across-the-board stance against an increasingly aggressive Beijing.

Even the seasoned James Woolsey, a former C.I.A. Director, has weighed in with a proposal that is somewhat surprising given his past hardline positions. His ideas bear examining because he is now a Trump foreign policy adviser and could be reflecting the President-elect’s own thinking—or perhaps that of Henry Kissinger, with whom Trump has also been consulting.

Woolsey outlined the chimera of a deal in a recent South China Morning Post article:  “[A] grand bargain in which the US accepts China’s political and social structure and commits not to disrupt it in any way in exchange for China’s commitment not to challenge the status quo in Asia.”

The proposal contains three basic flaws.

First, “the status quo in Asia includes North Korea and its nuclear and missile programs. We want China to use its unique leverage to challenge that dangerous part of the status quo.

Second, there is a virtual certainty that Beijing would not honor such an agreement as it applies to the rest of Asia, just as it has reneged on its commitments on North Korea, the various United Nations covenants it has signed on human and political rights, and its promise to grant greater freedom in exchange for award of the 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing.

As long as the People’s Republic believes it can get away with challenging the U.S.-led, rules-based order in Asia without paying a meaningful price, it will continue to do so. Taking advantage of what it sees as a weak-willed West is simply in the ideological nature of a Marxist-Leninist regime, especially one growing increasingly powerful economically and militarily.

Third and most importantly in the long run, the “grand bargain” would mean abandoning America's core commitment to the cause of universal human rights. That is a moral, philosophical and practical nonstarter — something the West never gave the Soviet Union even during the halcyon days of detente.

Nor would ending Washington's condemnations of China's human rights record, such as in the Congressionally-mandated annual reports, assuage the Chinese Communist Party’s ingrained paranoia toward the West. That existed long before publication of those reports because the PRC has never stopped seeing the United States as its mortal enemy.

America's very existence as a successful, powerful, democratic world model is an ongoing threat to the legitimacy of CCP rule.

So the Woolsey formula for peaceful coexistence ultimately would not resolve the inherent tension between the world's foremost exponent of democracy and human rights and the world's most determined supporter of authoritarianism.  

As was done with the Soviet Union, America must continue to work for China’s peaceful evolution away from Communist dictatorship. While maintaining a credible policy of deterrence against Soviet expansionism, Washington entered into a different version of a grand bargain back in the 1970s.

The Helsinki Accords negotiated during the Ford administration offer some parallels, and some contrasts, to the Woolsey proposal to avoid U.S.-China conflict. The purpose then, like now, was to remove a major source of Cold War friction that threatened a military confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers.

For its part, the United States finally agreed to a monumental concession that Moscow had long sought: formal Western acceptance of the tragic legacy of World War II—Soviet domination over Eastern Europe.

In exchange, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics formally committed itself to respect fundamental principles of human rights that were then being suppressed, such as freedom of movement and expression.

The Helsinki Final Act was widely attacked by American conservatives, Cold War liberals, and dissidents behind the Iron Curtain for ratifying Soviet aggression and occupation. At the same time, it was opposed by hardliners in Moscow who could not tolerate even a symbolic bow to human rights.