Suppose you had a neighbor who beat his wife, abused his children, engaged in violent crimes and routinely burgled your home. Would you invite him for Sunday brunch? Go into business with him? Share a bungalow at the beach? I don’t think so. So why are we still pretending that China is just one trade agreement away from becoming anything other than the nation-state version of the odious character I’ve described above?
Here’s an incomplete list of the nefarious activities undertaken by the ruling Communist Party of China:
Incarcerating Muslim Uighurs in “re-education” camps; colonizing Tibet; organ-harvesting from prisoners of conscience; suppressing the people of Hong Kong in violation of treaty obligations; stealing hundreds of billions of dollars of American intellectual property, including defense secrets year after year; forcing American corporations to kowtow and self-censor; proliferating nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology; pursuing exploitative and neo-imperialist policies in Asia, Africa and Latin America; and building up its military capabilities with the goal of intimidating and ultimately defeating the United States.
America’s China policy — based on engagement and conciliation — traces back to the Nixon administration. To be fair, in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Sino-American detente brought some benefits. But there also was this: Republicans and Democrats alike believed that by helping China get richer, we’d help China to liberalize.
Economic growth, we reasoned, would birth a burgeoning bourgeoisie that would demand political power and increased freedom. Rulers would respond by giving the people what they want — slowly perhaps, but surely. Over time, China would become a responsible member of the “international community.”
It was a lovely theory, but it’s been conclusively disproven by realty. Xi Jinping is the most totalitarian Chinse ruler since Mao Zedong. And China did not become capitalist as has been widely believed. Instead, it developed a mercantilist brand of socialism, substituting state control of the means of production for state ownership of the means of production, while mandating “military-civil fusion.” I think the term is self-explanatory.
Give credit where credit is due: Unlike his predecessors, President Trump recognized the growing menace China’s rulers now pose. Mr. Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS), written when Gen. H.R. McMaster was his national security adviser, states plainly that China is a “revisionist” power that regards the United States as its geopolitical rival, a challenge to which the United States must respond with more than hope for change.
The NSS warns that China uses “implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda,” and is increasingly engaging in “cyber-enabled economic warfare,” a phrase coined by Samantha Ravich, my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Cyber-enabled economic warfare implies the use of high-technology weapons to debilitate America economically in order to cripple America militarily.
Which leads us to two questions. First: Is there a moral case for continuing to intertwine our economy with China’s, for helping the regime prosper? My answer: Clearly not. Second: Would it be easy and painless to decouple the U.S. economy from China’s? My answer to that also would be no.
However, James Rickards, a longtime adviser on international economics and financial threats to the Department of Defense and intelligence community has a different answer: “So what?”
In an email conversation with me, he wrote: “What price do we put on the lives of innocent victims of state torture, murder and thought control? At some point you just have to walk away. If Apple’s earnings per share take a hit, too bad.”
Upon further reflection, he added: “Maybe it won’t be deleterious. If cutting ties means we don’t lose $300 billion per year in intellectual property theft, don’t lose jobs to slave labor, don’t enrich an atheistic Communist elite, don’t cede control of the 21st century, and don’t let China trigger a new global financial crisis, then that seems entirely positive for the U.S. economy. This does not mean we can’t do trade deals, but the deals should be bilateral and drive a hard bargain.”
Policy makers are not the only ones who should be pondering this moral/economic dilemma. Consumers, too, might want to think twice before buying products made in China. And in a New York Times op-ed last week, the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka and Derek Scissors noted: “American financial heavyweights and pension funds have in recent years shunned fossil fuels, guns and other investments on ethical grounds. Yet when it comes to providing capital to Chinese companies — including those directly engaged in surveillance or supporting the People’s Liberation Army — many haven’t resisted investment.”
If the United States were to make clear that China’s access to American consumers and investors is now in jeopardy, might the regime change its behavior? Mr. Rickards contends that while China may appear to be “a monolithic juggernaut,” in reality it is a “fragile construct that could descend into chaos.” Do China’s rulers secretly agree? Were we to start cutting them off, we might find out.
Nevertheless, transforming hostile actors into peaceful, prosperous and cooperative neighbors is no mean feat. Consider Russia, North Korea, Iran, Cuba. What should be less difficult: Recognizing when policies have produced unintended and deleterious consequences, and altering course.
One strategic rule by now should be obvious: Do not enrich thine enemy. Or, to paraphrase a quote attributed to Lenin: Don’t sell your enemy the rope with which to hang you, or let him steal from you the technology for building gallows.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.