The next US president has a tall order: Keeping China in check
No matter who wins the election, the next U.S. president will face an increasingly complex international security environment, highlighted by a powerful China, a revisionist Russia, and a nuclear-armed North Korea (and possibly Iran), as well as transnational threats such as terrorism, narcotics trafficking and cyber hacking and influence operations. These challenges will be compounded by the persistent COVID-19 pandemic and its continued negative impact on the world economy.
Most importantly, while addressing these foreign policy concerns, the president — hopefully aided by the losing candidate — will need to unify our nation following this bitterly partisan election cycle.
U.S. policy toward China will be the most important foreign policy and security issue facing the new administration, with the looming possibility of a Taiwan Strait crisis. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will mark the 100th anniversary of its 1921 founding by striving to reunify with Taiwan. The CCP’s stamping out of the Hong Kong democracy movement has demonstrated what CCP control over Taiwan would mean for Taiwan’s existing freedoms. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s decisive 2020 reelection victory and her efforts to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty are a clear rejection of reunification with China in any form.
A positive trend for Beijing in cross-strait relations is China’s rapidly improving military dwarfing Taiwan’s military capability and endangering U.S. military assets in the Pacific. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) now routinely enters into Taiwan’s claimed Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), forcing the Taiwan Air Force to sortie and intercept PLAAF flights. China’s intrusion into Taiwan airspace likely has the intended effect of wearing down the Taiwan Air Force, as well as collecting intelligence on Taiwan’s air defense network. These sorties and resulting interceptions increase the risk of accidental engagements.
Given societal trends and China’s growing military power, the CCP may calculate that the time is right to try to use military force to compel Taiwan into some form of “reunification.” From the CCP’s perspective, the world appears to be distracted by the pandemic; the U.S. likewise seems mired in the pandemic, divided by partisan politics, and in decline; and China’s significant military advantage over Taiwan could diminish as Taiwan integrates newly purchased U.S. equipment into its force structure. China also appears to be able to conduct targeted operations against Hong Kong activists in Taiwan, suggesting an ability to conduct third-column operations in time of conflict.
To promote peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait — and more broadly in the Asia Pacific region — the next U.S. president should increase U.S. military power in the region. In particular, the U.S. should deploy attack submarines and invest in underwater war-fighting capability to maintain dominance in that battle space. Increasing U.S. military capability in space is another domain needing attention, as China and Russia continue to develop military capabilities to destroy U.S. satellite networks. Development and subsequent deployment of hypersonic weapons and other long-range fire systems would increase U.S. military power in the region and promote deterrence.
It’s important for the U.S. to work with Taiwan to improve its military, training, internal security and intelligence capabilities to thwart China’s ambitions. Yet consideration also should be given to removing “strategic ambiguity” and clearly stating that any Chinese military aggression against Taiwan will result in a U.S. military response. U.S. Navy Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea must continue, in order to reassure U.S. allies in the region and to demonstrate that the U.S. is ready to commit forces if necessary.
Diplomatically, the U.S. should continue to energize its alliances with Japan, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines to more effectively counter China’s power in the Pacific and ensure U.S. military access to these countries in wartime. Supporting India’s and Vietnam’s efforts to resist China’s power is another key task for the next administration. The U.S. also needs to ensure that the Pacific Island Countries (PIC) are firmly in the U.S. orbit, denying their territory for Chinese military bases while ensuring the U.S. military can use them in times of conflict.
Working with NATO allies to counter China’s military and intelligence activities is another important policy avenue to pursue. The CCP has infiltrated international organizations to ensure they will act in accordance with China’s policy wishes. The U.S. must work with like-minded nations to counter China’s efforts and ensure that international organizations select officials who are more in tune with U.S. policy goals.
Economically, the U.S. must ensure that its supply chains of essential goods — medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, electronics and even agricultural components — have safe and reliable suppliers and are not dependent on China. Reducing U.S. corporate tax rates or providing incentives to manufacturers to move operations to the United States may be an effective way to do this. Protecting U.S. intellectual property and technology from Chinese theft is another key responsibility of the next administration. Continuing tariffs on Chinese goods, while building a coalition of other nations to confront China on intellectual property theft, may be an effective policy approach to consider.
In the technology realm, the U.S. needs to heavily invest in technologies and capabilities to thwart adversaries’ cyber attacks and influence operations. If attacked or victimized by a cyber operation, the U.S. must be able to respond in kind to promote cyber deterrence. Continuing to encourage U.S. allies to restrict the use of Chinese companies in 5G telecommunications infrastructure is important, so that Beijing cannot control these networks. Investing in and emphasizing STEM education in U.S. schools will help to keep the U.S. competitive in developing new technologies. Changing immigration laws to provide a quick path to citizenship for foreign graduate students studying in U.S. universities in select technology fields is worth considering, in order to attract and retain talented technologists in the United States.
In dealing with China in the 21st century, America will be facing the most powerful competitor we have encountered in our history. The future of Taiwan is a potential flash point for the U.S. and China. In the near term, to thwart China’s ambitions, the next president would be wise to increase America’s military power in Asia, re-energize our standing alliance structure in the region, and ensure that our economy is not dependent upon China. Taking policy measures on these fronts early in the next administration will help to keep peace in Asia.
David Sauer is a retired CIA officer who served as chief of station and deputy chief of station in multiple overseas command positions in East Asia and South Asia.