Stronger U.S. measures to restrict Chinese access to the fruits of U.S. research in sensitive areas are also in order. U.S. law should bar individuals likely to share such information with China from working in certain laboratories, businesses or university research projects. The U.S. government should expand the list of American industries and technologies the Chinese government and its front organizations are forbidden from purchasing. The effort to protect America’s position as world technological leader must rise to match China’s effort to overtake that position.
It is essential to avoid encouraging an atmosphere of undue suspicion or persecution of people of Chinese ancestry in America, especially those with American citizenship. If that happens, America loses part of its soul. The adversary is the Chinese Communist Party, not the Chinese ethnicity. If possible, we should preserve the opportunity for America to continue to drain Chinese brainpower. In principle we should welcome the bright Chinese students and immigrants who would use their skills and talents to help America prevail in the competition with China, but avoid excessively empowering those Chinese visitors who would go back to work on behalf of Chinese goals at odds with U.S. interests. A simple if imperfect fix would be to require U.S. citizenship for highly sensitive positions, with additional vetting for some naturalized U.S. citizens.
Beijing has consistently denied government involvement in Chinese economic cyber theft. The Xi-Obama agreement in 2015 on cybercrime was infamously ineffective . Washington should marshal its own cyber warfare capabilities and respond in kind, carrying out a cyber operation that causes China economic damage, signalling that a continuation of this Chinese campaign will bring tangible retaliation.
The Confucian Institutes, Chinese government-funded-and-staffed units embedded in about one hundred U.S. universities that ostensibly teach Chinese language classes and organize Chinese cultural activities, should be shut down. They epitomize the problem of lack of reciprocity. It is inconceivable that one hundred Chinese universities would establish on their campuses a U.S. government-sponsored academic unit that promoted a spin dictated by Washington on sensitive political issues. They also represent a test of whether American organizations—not only universities, as in this case, but also media outlets, corporations, and local governments—will sell off their principles when seduced by Chinese money.
The United States can consider applying indirect pressure to answer unlawful or gray-area hostile Chinese actions. The CCP regime has two glaring weak spots that if struck would threaten Party elites without harming the Chinese public.
The first is Taiwan independence. Even small steps by the U.S. government that appear to signal an upgrade in relations with Taipei cause great consternation in Beijing because they call into question the regime’s promise to eventually bring about China-Taiwan political unification. As small a gesture as President-elect Trump accepting a congratulatory telephone call from Republic of China (Taiwan) President Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016 caused a furor that led to Xi pressing Trump never to do it again without first gaining Xi’s permission. Moves to reduce Washington’s self-imposed restrictions on treating Taiwan as a real country deeply perturb Beijing because they call for a strong Chinese response to save the regime’s face with the Chinese public, yet do not necessarily fit within the regime’s chosen timeline or priorities for dealing with domestic as opposed to international problems. This approach, however, has the downside of potentially endangering a friendly country by using it as a pawn in the larger China-U.S. relationship.
The second CCP weak spot is the exposure of the corruption or incompetence of senior officials. When the New York Times published an expose of the wealth amassed by relatives of then PRC prime minister Wen Jiabao, the regime jerked as if jabbed by a cattle prod. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the report “blackens China's name and has ulterior motives,” and the government attempted to block its people’s access to the report. Signaling a willingness to harness U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities toward publicizing the regime’s embarrassing underside would gain the U.S. government considerable leverage with Beijing. This approach would have the virtue of targeting only the guilty, and might have the constructive second-order effect of encouraging public demand in China for political liberalization.
This is not a call to war, or a Cold War, or a trade war. Bilateral relationships are never simply binary. All fall somewhere on the continuum between absolute cooperation and absolute conflict. U.S. government and society must shift America’s posture toward China closer to the conflict end of the scale, recognizing that this is not business as usual.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. His latest book is Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security .
Image: Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy stand guard in the Spratly Islands, known in China as the Nansha Islands, February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer