China’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis and its heavy-handed actions regarding Hong Kong and the South China Sea have presented the United States with an unprecedented strategic opportunity should the Trump administration decide to exploit it.
From the beginning of the outbreak, China has been opaque and dissembling in its approach to the virus that started within its borders. Its heavy-handed and exploitive attempts at pandemic diplomacy have been embarrassing at best and self-defeating at worst. From trying to pin blame for the outbreak on the U.S. Army to supplying defective protective gear to other nations, the Chinese attempts to deflect blame and gain public relations points have backfired.
Those, combined with exploitive lending policies toward Third World countries, have dragged China’s image in world public opinion to its lowest point since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. China’s descent from rising economic superpower to international bully can be directly tied to the rise of Xi Jinping. Before President Xi, China’s foreign policy approach was cautious, if self-serving. As Mr. Xi faces domestic problems, China has become dangerously aggressive.
China’s actions toward its neighbors in its own region have been particularly egregious. President Xi’s foreign office has threatened to punish Australia for having the temerity to suggest an internal investigation of the sources of the outbreak; and China has insulted neighboring democracies such as Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore by implying that democratic governments are ill-prepared to fight pandemics as opposed to Beijing’s authoritarian shutdowns.
The reality is that all three states dealt with the outbreak successfully without employing the ruthless measures that China adopted. This is exacerbated by Beijing’s lack of transparency on issues ranging from the source of the virus to actual Chinese casualties.
That, along with Beijing’s renewed attempt to do away with Hong Kong’s autonomous status — thus negating the agreement with the British to decolonize that city — has shown the region and the world that the Xi regime cannot be trusted. Like the imperialists of old, Mr. Xi’s China couches its ambitions in thinly-veiled justifications. Unlike the imperialism of the 19th century, there is an effective great power to oppose imperialist ambitions; that is the United States.
The best way for America to stem this new wave of imperialism is to form a collective shield against it. The Indo-Pacific region will not support a NATO-like alliance; the region’s nations are too competitive and mutually distrustful of each other, but most have formed relationships with the United States.
In the case of Japan and South Korea, these bonds are binding bilateral military alliances. The United States also assures Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam that China will not be allowed to deny freedom of navigation in the South China Sea which it illegally claims to be sovereign territorial waters. Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia have maintained military-to-military training relationships over the years. Virtually all these nations have been bullied by China in some manner.
Without a NATO-like alliance, the best bet for regional security on China’s periphery is a doctrinal declaration that the United States will not allow differences between regional neighbors and China to be settled by force; that would include the autonomy of Taiwan. Whether this is called a Trump or Pompeo doctrine is irrelevant; it would be an anti-Xi doctrine.
Each regional actor has different disagreements with China, but all have issues. The United States should seek bilateral security arrangements with each that would be triggered if Beijing should attempt to resolve the problems by force. In return for American support, these nations would provide temporary military basing in crisis situations that would allow American aircraft and forces to use their soil during times of crisis.
President Trump has not been enthusiastic about some of our traditional alliances, but most of those problems have been over burden sharing issues. However, alliances have shown themselves to be useful in deterring threats and containing aggressive actors during times of peace. A strong combination of American-led economic and military pressure to contain Mr. Xi’s ambitions may well convince China’s leadership elites that Mr. Xi is not worth the risks that he is running in attempting to push the Middle Kingdom into a world leadership role.
The real issue here is not the United States vs. China; it is America and the region’s independent actors vs. Mr. Xi. There does not have to be a new Cold War, but there will be if the rest of the world fails to pressure China’s elites to realize that Mr. Xi’s ambitions are not worth the cost to the nation.
• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.