During his Senate confirmation hearing last week to be the next director of national intelligence, Texas Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe emphasized China is this country’s “greatest threat actor,” a status only confirmed by rising acrimony over Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But though tensions are rising in the South China Sea, where U.S. Navy missions challenge China’s unsubstantiated claims of hegemony over the region, an actual war between the two powers appears unlikely.
But are the United States and China on a path to a new Cold War?
The heart of U.S.-China conflict is in the realm of ideas. Democratic principles of liberty, pluralism and freedom are antithetical to China’s autocratic Communist state and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s expanding cult of personality. Through its ubiquitous state surveillance and “Great Firewall” on online dissent, China seeks to deny its citizens freedom of expression and access to the outside world.
Not known for its accuracy, objectivity or independence, Chinese media are subject to constant review by the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. Reaching new heights of servility under Mr. Xi, state-controlled press outlets exist to preserve the regime’s power in China, repress freedom of expression and whitewash China’s increasingly discredited global reputation.
Few things scare Mr. Xi more than the democratic ideals enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights — their application in China would mean that the party was living on borrowed time.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus has exposed the fault lines between democratic nations and China. Deliberately concealing the outbreak and severity of the coronavirus outbreak, China continues to censor criticism and pressure other nations to adhere to its outlandish propaganda claims. China denied the coronavirus began in Wuhan and falsely claimed the U.S. was responsible for the virus, while refusing to share research information such as data on the first person to fall ill.
The coronavirus pandemic fallout is occurring amidst a rising awareness of China’s full-throttled economic, espionage and propaganda attacks on the United States and its allies. China counterfeits American products; steals trade secrets and intellectual property; and, having hacked into the Office of Personnel Management, uses stolen U.S. government employee data to ruthlessly target anyone who has ever worked in the defense and national security sectors.
Just last week, the FBI warned China posed a “significant threat” by deploying hackers to steal U.S. coronavirus vaccine research data.
The Trump administration has argued that Chinese telecommunications company Huawei should be banned from involvement in the next generation of national 5G wireless networks outside of China. Washington’s justifiable concern is that China would use “backdoors” in the equipment to spy and compromise communications in the event of cyber conflict with the United States or our allies.
China’s aspirations for influence extend well beyond competing with the U.S. as a Pacific power. Using its “One Belt, One Road” program as a cover for debt-trap diplomacy, China has set its sights on undermining the independence of nations in South Asia and across the developing world. In Africa, with an eye toward refurbishing its overseas image and paving the way for economic predation, China stepped up anti-U.S. propaganda by disseminating more coronavirus conspiracy theories.
The United States needs to take the lead in holding China accountable and countering Mr. Xi’s strategy.
First, China’s mishandling of the coronavirus demonstrated once again the importance for the U.S. intelligence community in detecting and sounding the alarm on China’s myriad threats.
Second, together with our allies, the Trump administration should shine an even brighter spotlight on China’s human rights violations, economic predation and military aggression.
Democracy protests in Hong Kong have been erupting, albeit in a reduced state since the onset of the coronavirus, for a year. Paraphrasing President Kennedy, we are all Hong Kongers now.
Third, we need to work collaboratively with other nations to counter and deter Chinese threats. Diversifying the supply chain away from China for strategic goods such as medical equipment and high technology is an excellent place to start.
The United States should also counter China’s efforts to use international bodies such as the United Nations and World Health Organization against our interests. Remaining engaged with international institutions and holding them accountable does not mean we are relinquishing our sovereignty, but rather harnessing a powerful force multiplier for achieving our strategic goals.
If we withdraw, China will occupy and pollute the vacant space to the detriment of our national security.
To borrow a phrase from George Kennan, we still have an opportunity to contain China effectively. But failing to challenge each fresh incursion by Beijing only encourages more Chinese aggression and increases the likelihood that this century, like the last, will be dominated by a cold war.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.