- - Sunday, August 30, 2015

Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry met with his counterparts from across the Asia-Pacific region in Malaysia, discussing joint trade, security and political efforts. Shortly after his departure from this feel-good gathering, China began to take a series of steps to drastically impact the region. It announced the launch of the largest-ever joint naval exercise with Russia and drastically devalued its currency, sending global financial markets into shock.

The next high-profile diplomatic meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials will occur next month, when Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit President Obama in Washington. Moving forward, our diplomacy with the People’s Republic of China must come with the recognition of China’s unscrupulous pattern of deception, assailment and outright theft in its interactions with foreign partners.

Since World War II, the United States has held three enduring interests in the region: maintenance of a favorable balance of power that prevents the rise of a regional hegemon, continuation of economic access, and the open promotion of universal values. All three are in jeopardy.

Militarily, China has accelerated an arms race to supplant U.S. military superiority in the region and expand upon its ability to coerce regional neighbors. Moreover, despite a 2002 promise to not threaten, use force or build on uninhabited features in the South China Sea, China has systematically harassed ships and aircraft — even sinking fishing trawlers — and has clandestinely raced to build or fortify nearly a dozen bases in the South China Sea (and is pursuing additional bases in the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans).

Economically, China continues to renege on its World Trade Organization commitments to abide by the global rules-based trading system. Instead, it is working to rewrite them. The United States has bumbled its response, with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) bogged down as China advances the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and works to finalize its TPP alternative, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which would link China with 15 other burgeoning Asian economies.

In the business world, China is a country with “rule by law” rather than “rule of law,” in which the government has been adept at using regulatory organs to selectively target foreign companies. As economic growth has slowed, China seems to be redoubling efforts to curtail foreign competition in order to buttress domestic industries.

Crackdowns on foreign competition under the pretext of antitrust investigations have targeted a wide range of foreign-owned firms, such as software company Microsoft, drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline, chip-maker Qualcomm, and automotive companies Audi and Chrysler. Raising the specter of food safety has also become a tactic in China’s anti-competition playbook. OSI Group, an Illinois-based food processing corporation, was targeted in a hit job last year by state-owned media and Shanghai regulators. Six of its employees arrested in August 2014 remain in jail, yet still have not been charged with a crime. The U.S. government response to these shakedowns and rampant cyber-espionage against U.S. companies has been insufficient, which only encourages more of the same.

In terms of values, China has steadily and unceasingly driven a coordinated campaign to criticize at home and abroad so-called western values, tighten Communist Party control, and crush democratic aspirations in Hong Kong. China has even sent secret agents to the United States to illegally pressure expatriates, drawing only a private diplomatic warning from the Obama administration. This erosion of the core values of democracy, freedom of expression and open commerce poses a direct threat to American interests in the Asia-Pacific region. The greatest differentiating factor between the United States and China is not military force or economic strength, but rather the U.S. commitment to universal values and a rules-based international order.

As secretary of state in 2011, Hillary Rodham Clinton called for a rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. Four years later, despite much rhetoric, little has been substantively accomplished.

It is time for the White House and Congress to stand up to the challenge of a rising China. Militarily, the United States must fund the forces necessary to deter conflict through continued military superiority, increase freedom of navigation patrols, and end misguided Sino-American military engagements until China ceases its aggression. Economically, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Commerce must work more aggressively to support U.S. companies engaged in business abroad. Ideologically, the United States should consistently make universal values a core component of its international engagement, not only with adversaries such as China, but also potential partners like Vietnam.

The United States must awaken to the reality of significant competition in the international order. Next month, President Obama and his administration should feel comfortable advancing U.S. interests in light of Chinese aggression — even if it results in meetings more awkward than the latest one in Malaysia.

Timothy A. Walton is a principal of the Alios Consulting Group.

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