“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.
Both sets of critics were proved right, and wrong, by history. The Soviet Union enjoyed two more decades of repressive Stalinist control over the once-independent countries of Eastern Europe. Having been liberated from the Nazis and Fascists, another generation of East Germans, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, and others were doomed to endure the oppressive, incompetent rule of their Soviet masters.
But the desperate dissident movements in those countries, and in the Soviet Union itself, eagerly seized upon Helsinki’s formal written promises of expanded human freedoms, and with undaunted persistence and growing confidence, demanded their full realization despite Communist betrayal of those commitments. Heroic figures such as Natan Sharansky, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa bravely led the way.
The ensuing erosion of moral and ideological regime legitimacy, together with the economic bankruptcy of the Communist systems, and constant pressure from Western governments invoking the Helsinki commitments, eventually led to the demise of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Eastern Europe. Of course, it helped to have inspirational leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.
The geopolitical quid pro quo embodied in the Woolsey proposal appears on the surface to reflect the Helsinki model, but in reality it falls far short by reversing the mutual territorial and political/moral elements. It would have China, not the West, making the geopolitical concession, and the United States, not China, yielding on the political dimension.
Looked at another way, in Helsinki the West was acceding not only to Soviet geographical sovereignty, but to the system of governance being imposed on those “captive nations.” So, in that sense, it is similar to the Woolsey proposal to “accept China’s political and social structure and commit not to disrupt it in any way.”
But the Woolsey “grand bargain” envisions a permanent arrangement, a never-ending Communist tyranny, whereas Helsinki held out the promise of eventual political reform and expanding human rights. Moreover, the United States never abandoned its open information programs through Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America to bring the truth, and moral support, to those trapped behind the Iron Curtain (something Washington needs to reenergize for China with VOA and Radio Free Asia).
To more faithfully replicate the Helsinki model in the context of today’s China, Washington would declare that it accepts the territorial status quo. That would mean Chinese rule over East Turkestan (now Xinjiang), acquired by coercion in 1949, and Tibet, which China invaded in 1951 during the Korean War. It would also include recognition of Beijing’s external dominion over Hong Kong and Macao, which it acquired by treaties with former colonial rulers United Kingdom and Portugal, respectively. The recognition would be subject to realization of the local political autonomy accorded those two territories in the handovers under “One Country, Two Systems,” and to the special religious, cultural and linguistic autonomy promised Tibet and Xinjiang.
The United States, however, would continue its non-recognition of China’s claim over Taiwan, leaving the island’s future to be determined peacefully through cross-Strait negotiations and with the full participation and consent of the people of Taiwan—backed by a clear U.S. defense commitment against Chinese aggression.
On its side of the deal, China would commit to honoring and beginning to effectuate the promises it made to the Chinese people and the international community when it signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
There are obvious reasons why Beijing would reject such a proposal outright. First, on the surface, it gives China nothing it doesn’t technically already have. Since 1979, Washington has accepted the present geographical boundaries of the People’s Republic.
Second, any substantive affirmation of human and political rights, let alone a commitment actually to start implementing them, would be anathema to Beijing. Chinese leaders know well what happened to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe after Gorbachev began experimenting with glastnost and perestroika. Xi Jinping is moving in precisely the opposite direction in his crackdown on dissenters, lawyers, journalists and even foreign internet companies that enable free expression.
But that would be precisely the point of making such a proposal. It would lay down a marker that there is a new sheriff in town, a savvier dealmaker unwilling to accept previous arrangements that have not been reciprocated and that do not serve the interests of the United States.
It would make a ringing declaration to the world that the new American president recognizes the inextricable link between human rights and international behavior. Governments that treat their own people in violation of international norms usually act that way toward their neighbors and other nations—and they tend to tolerate and support other bad actors that threaten U.S. interests and the international order, like North Korea, Iran, Syria and Russia.
For all his national security inexperience, candidate Trump astutely, almost intuitively, saw something that had escaped foreign policy experts for decades: he correctly identified the North Korea security problem as having been created to a significant degree by China, and he called on Beijing to exercise its unique ability to help resolve it.
A clear declaratory statement by President Trump that he has no intention of tolerating the sterile dialogue with China on North Korea and other issues would have dramatic, and positive, repercussions worldwide. Like Reagan’s labeling of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” the initial shock among diplomats and bureaucrats not accustomed to straight talk would wear off and a new sense of moral clarity would prevail. It would boost the morale of dissidents and democrats everywhere and put the world’s anti-American dictators on notice that their years, if not their days, are numbered.
Realists will insist that China will only act in what it perceives as its national interest, not appeals to higher moral standards or universal (Beijing would say Western) norms. The realists are right. That is why soaring presidential rhetoric requires follow-up action, something that was sorely lacking after President Obama’s sporadic declarations about humanitarian red lines, the responsibility to protect and the arc of history.
Beijing’s cost-risk-benefit calculus must be changed. China must be made to pay a real economic, diplomatic and security price before it will see a need to rein in its aggressive policies in the South and East China Seas, toward Taiwan, and in its veiled enabling of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and atrocious human rights abuses.
Those who argue that U.S. resistance will simply provoke Beijing into retaliatory actions ignore the reality that (a) it is already doing the things it threatens to do more of, and (b) it knows that serious escalation would endanger not only all it has achieved with Western cooperation but also, ultimately undermine its hold on power.
Chastening as it is to those of us who opposed his nomination, President Trump, who prides himself on his dealmaking prowess, is uniquely qualified to make Beijing an offer it can’t refuse. His Friday telephone conversation with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan suggests that a new, more realistic paradigm is about to emerge in U.S. policy toward both Taiwan and China.
Joseph Bosco served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense, 2005-2006 and is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest.
Image: Carrier-Based Multirole Fighter J-15. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Garudtejas7