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Bipartisan strategy for countering China’s challenge to international order

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John Bolton’s new book describes President Trump alternately bashing and begging China’s leadership, all driven by shifting electoral considerations. If Bolton’s description is correct, such an “erratic” policy is particularly ironic because, outside the Oval Office, there is remarkable bipartisan concurrence on at least one key strategy for steadily advancing U.S. long-term interests regarding China.

In contrast to Trump’s announced withdrawal of the U.S. from the World Health Organization (WHO) and decision not to sanction China for its abuses against the Uighurs, key Democratic and Republican experts concur that the U.S. should leverage China’s human rights and other abuses to protect rather than abandon the rules-based international order (IO) and its associated laws and organizations. Given the threat posed by China, and the absence of bipartisanship on nearly anything else these days, this “China IO consensus” is deeply significant.

Trump justified terminating U.S. membership in the WHO by incorrectly asserting that “China has total control over the World Health Organization.” China does seek control over the WHO and various other international governmental organizations, but it is far from achieving that objective. However, China will gain control if Washington leaves the battlefield.

The U.S. should instead implement the several specific steps, already agreed upon by key analysts across the U.S. political spectrum, which are necessary to defeat China’s efforts to hijack the rules-based international order.

The current, rules-based international order was created, thanks to U.S. leadership, in the aftermath of World War II’s devastation. Countries committed to conduct their international activities in accordance with agreed laws, and to work together through international governmental organizations.

During the Cold War, the Soviets aggressively sought to exploit international laws and institutions. The rules-based international order nevertheless helped contain U.S.-Soviet tensions.

After the Cold War ended, America dominated the international order and its organizing institutions. Now, however, continued U.S. dominance of the rules-based international order is once again challenged, this time principally by China.

China has demonstrated an exceptional willingness to undertake international legal obligations when convenient, reap benefits opportunistically, then violate laws when they are inconvenient. At the same time, Beijing is increasingly exploiting international governmental organizations to its advantage. UN officials from China have frequently used their UN authorities and resources to advance Chinese objectives, often to the detriment of the U.S.-led international order.

Credible and serious reports from across the U.S. political spectrum, including from the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP), the middle-ground Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and the right-leaning Heritage Foundation (Heritage), as well as the Trump Administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy (2017 NSS), have all warned of China’s efforts to exploit the rules-based international order. For example, CAP warned that if Beijing achieves its goal of making “the international system more like China. . . the world will be less free, less prosperous, and less safe.” CNAS called international organizations “a key battleground for determining which set of values will shape” the world, and warned that China’s efforts to “change the global governance system from within” could “hasten the export” by China of “corruption, mass surveillance,” and “repression.”

The reports offer remarkably consistent recommendations for a U.S. response.

First, they recommend that the U.S. not withdraw from the rules-based international order, but rather robustly engage and push to reform it where necessary. The 2017 NSS warned that “if the United States cedes leadership of these bodies to adversaries, opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States will be lost.” Heritage urged that the U.S. “focus more effort and resources” on helping preferred candidates win UN leadership elections and press the U.N. to “increase hiring of U.S. nationals,” who have “historically been under-represented.”

The reports also stress that the U.S. should spotlight and condemn the many specific examples of China violating its international legal obligations, including in such areas as human rights, cybercrime, nonproliferation, intellectual property, trade, and corruption. This would hold China accountable for what CAP refers to as a “concerning pattern” whereby China reaps benefits from the U.S. and others abiding by international law while it “flouts laws that go against China’s national interests.” Particularly important is highlighting and deterring China’s currently widespread use of purportedly private actors as proxies, enabling Beijing to evade responsibility for numerous violations.

Finally, the reports call on the U.S. to work with its allies to develop what CAP refers to as a common “democratic vision” and “collective and strategic response” to Beijing on global governance issues.

The current bipartisan consensus on how to counter China’s exploitation of international laws and institutions could power robust U.S. government action that is consistent, strategic and effective. No matter who is elected in November, leading Members of Congress should harness this bipartisan China IO consensus to decisively block and reverse the current abuse of international laws and organizations.

Orde Kittrie is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), law professor at Arizona State University, and author of Lawfare: Law as a Weapon of War.  FDD is a non-partisan think tank focused on national security issues. Follow him on Twitter @Ordefk

Tags China Chinese hackers Chinese human rights abuses Donald Trump Great power competition International order John Bolton Uighur Muslims UN United Nations US foreign policy WHO World Health Organization Xi Jinping

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