This pandemic ought to prove to Americans and their leaders that we are in an intense strategic competition with China, a superpower contest that Americans at the end of the Cold War agreed must never happen again. What changes in U.S. policy would improve our prospects?
As the United States experiments with easing lockdown restrictions, it is imperative that Americans recognize the Chinese regime’s malfeasance throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. China covered up the initial Wuhan outbreak, silencing public health officials who identified the virus’s global potential and allowing Wuhan’s residents to travel internationally. It underreported infection rates to affect an image of competence, decreasing the accuracy of early modeling.
In the most recent and glaring demonstration of China’s penetration of global institutions, it influenced the World Health Organization (WHO) to downplay initially the pandemic’s severity. Meanwhile, China executed a public relations offensive, blaming the United States for the virus, delivering token supplies — many of them deficient — to needy nations, and calling for global solidarity.
Notwithstanding, many Americans and citizens of other nations economically and socially decimated by COVID-19 grasp China’s culpability. Class-action lawsuits against China have been filed in several U.S. states; Germany’s highest-circulation newspaper, Bild, ran an article calculating the $160 billion worth of damages that China owes Germans. Australian parliamentarians have advocated for repossessing Chinese-owned businesses as debt repayment. Thousands of Thai internet users, Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and Taiwanese have waged a social media campaign against Chinese trolls.
This broad outcry is promising; however, lawsuits and disaggregated reprisals will do little to curtail Chinese power. Indeed, Beijing has viewed the pandemic purely in terms of power — just as it sees every interaction. It views any internal differentiation as a threat to its survival; hence, China conducts the largest ethnically-targeted mass internment campaign since the Holocaust against Uighur Muslims in East Turkestan, suppresses demonstrators in Hong Kong, and even during COVID-19 has threatened Taiwan with an aircraft carrier and fighter jets.
China is implementing a decades-long plan to undermine American power. This strategy is coherent, structured and meticulously planned. It began with Chinese membership in the global trade regime and continued through its purchase of American and Western debt. But since XI Jinping’s accession to leadership in 2012, China has shifted from an economic strategy to a political-military one.
China has used diplomatic and economic tools to coerce regional adversaries while building a military tailored to fighting the United States and its allies. Long-range missiles have the sole purpose of destroying U.S. aircraft carriers while shorter-range weapons saturate Taiwan and U.S. and Japanese bases. China hopes to overwhelm enemy defenses in one massive strike, forcing the U.S. to choose between a grueling, possibly nuclear war to defend strategically compromised allies or surrender and accept Chinese dominance. If victorious, China would subjugate Indians, Taiwanese, Australians, Germans and Brazilians alike. At best, nations would be forced to choose between an unashamedly brutal China and an equally capricious Moscow.
The United States must capitalize upon the current recognition of the threat China poses to any nation hoping to control its own future. By constructing an anti-Chinese coalition, the U.S. can check Chinese expansionism and mitigate the possibility of a widespread war, waged either as a series of campaigns or at once. Under no circumstances can the U.S. allow the pandemic to diminish its efforts to build and project superior military power into the Indo-Pacific; China has not and will not diminish its attempt at regional and global hegemony.
Economic issues will be most salient, post-COVID-19. The drive for “damage payments” lacks coherence and coordination; instead, the U.S. should assemble a coalition of states reliant on Chinese debt-financing; as payment for its negligence, these states should refuse to pay China the foreign debt it holds. The U.S. should include victims of Chinese debt-trap diplomacy in this coalition — Kenya, Djibouti, Zambia, the Republic of the Congo and Egypt in Africa, Ecuador in Latin America, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka in the Asia-Pacific, are all potential partners. By combining a global debt-elimination campaign with a broader economic policy that rehabilitates economies exploited by China, the U.S. can erode China’s growing political-economic network.
Public diplomacy was a critical aspect of America’s Cold War triumph by giving captive populations hope, telling them truths their own rulers hid and creating thousands of activists willing to challenge the Soviet Union, while defending tolerance, liberty and self-governance. The Chinese regime differs in its historical foundations and characteristics from its Soviet predecessor, but totalitarian regimes — Nazi, Soviet or Maoist — share exploitable similarities. They all fear losing internal control and attempt to permeate all facets of human life. By using public diplomacy to expose the Chinese regime’s brutality, the U.S. can spark broader domestic resistance to China’s designs. Radio Free Asia already exists, but the U.S. will benefit significantly by giving it, or a similar enterprise, the funding and strategic direction that made Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America so effective against Soviet tyranny.
By contrast, some public diplomacy efforts have failed. The hope that Chinese students in the West would return home with a desire for freedom was a chimera. Since China’s economic expansion, a growing proportion of regime elites and the affiliated economic aristocracy have sent their children to American and European universities; in the U.S., one in three international students is Chinese. There are more Chinese undergraduates in the United Kingdom than Indians by nearly 100,000, and more Chinese than American students.
While this boosts university income, the security risks are considerable. Rather than returning to China and propagating Western values, a high proportion of these students leave the U.S. increasingly committed to China’s system. Moreover, Chinese intelligence has used student groups as front organizations and, in one case, forcibly recruited an undergraduate, making his scholarship contingent upon intelligence collection. During the Cold War, the U.S. and U.K. did not admit the sons and daughters of politburo members to MIT, Oxford or Yale — for obvious reasons. Facing a similar situation today, Western states, with their world-leading universities, should reconsider the unlimited inclusion of Chinese students in math and science programs, particularly at the graduate level.
Geopolitical competition ultimately will distill into hard military power. This logic defines the U.S.-China confrontation as it did the 20th century’s West-East antagonism or the struggle against Nazism. Without external support, even a coalition of Asian states could not restrain Chinese ambition. Chinese GDP (PPP) is larger than the next seven east and south Asian economies combined. China’s air force and navy would outnumber — and, in most confrontations, outclass — any regional aerial or maritime capabilities.
But Chinese geographical constraints give these smaller states a distinct advantage. Vietnam, for example, threatens Chinese communications in the South China Sea; Taiwan is vulnerable to a Chinese assault but close enough to China to wreak havoc with missile salvos against key military installations.
The road to success is very long and troubled by history, but diplomatic and military outreach could assist in uniting Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and other regional powers into a broader coalition. By forward-deploying U.S. assets in critical allied locations, America can jeopardize China’s ability to conduct a paralyzing first-strike. The U.S. should consider greater military and political engagement in Africa for the same reason; the struggle that China’s rulers envision is not limited to the Indo-Pacific. Chinese firms succeed by offering African leaders stable ownership and credit lines, while Chinese engagement in peacekeeping has increased its military’s reach. A more active U.S.-led coalition role in African security would challenge China’s advantage on the continent.
The 20th century’s honorific as “the American century” resulted from strategic imagination, a stern lesson in the danger of Germany’s first attempt to achieve European hegemony, and a self-confidence unshaken by the Great Depression, WWII, the Korean War and the Cold War. Americans may argue today about the desirability of continued global leadership — but there can be no question about the consequences if China’s rulers prevail.
Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank focusing on U.S. leadership in global affairs, and is director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as an officer in the Navy and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.