The China Syndrome

It has been almost 70 years to the day since Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg proclaimed that politics stops at the water’s edge, and eventually supported the Truman administration’s plan for a North Atlantic Treaty to confront Stalin’s threat to Western Europe. It took only two years for politics and partisanship to reassert themselves in a nasty debate over who was responsible for the loss of China to the communists. Now, bipartisanship is re-emerging, and once again it is China that is causing the sea change.

According to a report by the Five Eyes intelligence consortium (US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand), although the virus did not originate in a Wuhan lab, China mounted “an assault on international transparency” that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and, according to Friday’s jobs report, contributed to an unemployment rate crowding at least 15%, closer to 20% if you count the 6.4 million workers who dropped out of the work force and therefore are not counted as unemployed. The communist regime failed to disclose the appearance of a virulent, communicable new coronavirus and to share vital information that might have given other countries an opportunity to ameliorate the virus’ impact. Perhaps even more important, it allowed residents of Wuhan to travel to other countries while at the same time preventing them from traveling to other parts of China lest the spread the disease within the country. “It could have been stopped in China”, claims Trump.

Now, roughly two out of every three Americans has an unfavorable view of China according to Pew Research. Which has the President and Joe Biden competing for the title of being “the baddest man in the whole damn town” of Washington, D.C. when it comes to China policy, to borrow from folk singer Jim Croce.

Which means, write Peter Martin and Daniel Ten Kate for Bloomberg Businessweek, “There’s now a wide bipartisan consensus that China poses a fundamental threat to America’s values – and probably its security,” not to mention its economy. Late last week, a bipartisan congressional group announced support for Australia’s investigation of China’s cover-up of the pandemic. Biden, who once derisively dismissed the idea of China as a competitive threat to America, now says of Xi Jinping, “This is a guy who is a thug”. Biden might have in mind Xi’s promise to President Obama not to militarize the artificial islands he was having built in the South China Sea, islands that now bristle with weaponry.

There is broad agreement that Henry Kissinger, whose trip to Beijing in 1971 opened the door to President Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong two years later, was right when he told the New Economy Forum last November that our two countries are “in the foothills of a Cold War”, perhaps a “new type of cold war,” as the Financial Times reports Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, puts it.

The President was first off the blocks when he surveyed the wreckage of American industries and immiseration of communities resulting from China’s trade practices: subsidies to its industries; market access for American companies only if they surrendered their intellectual property; theft of whatever IP could not be obtained by that restriction. Whether his chosen weapon, tariffs, will prove effective in persuading China to abandon those practices seems unlikely now that Xi Jinping has announced his “Made in China 2025” program of subsidies and barriers to the entry of foreign competitors. But the tariffs remain useful. As Hudson Institute scholar John Lee points out in a recent paper, “80 percent (by value) of the targeted trade with China was in industries identified as ‘patent-intensive’ [read, high-tech] by the Department of Commerce.” And the tariffs do discourage foreign firms from locating in the People’s Republic.

Policies being considered include:

  • prohibiting Chinese technical and engineering students – there are 370,000 Chinese studying in America – from attending American universities to acquire valuable knowledge to put at the service of the regime;
  • barring Chinese companies from acquiring strategic US assets, broadly defined;
  • subsidizing domestic manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, rare earth and other products for which America has become dependent on China;
  • investigating what Republican congressmen call China’s efforts “to turn American college campuses into indoctrination platforms for American students”;
  • restricting access by Chinese firms to American capital markets, and
  • pressing allies who, since the virus, seem more willing to consider banning Huawei products, to do just that, and to restrict China’s access to their technology.

Bipartisanship, however, goes just so far. There is at least one major difference between the parties. Trump has little use for seeking support from what many consider our allies. To him they are unreliable deadbeats willing to hold America’s coat in a fight, but not tender tangible support. When he decided that the World Health Organization is essentially a front for Chinese interests, and withdrew financial support – the US is the largest funder, contributing $400 million per year to the WHO’s $4.8 billion budget – the congressional Democrat, Nita Lowey, called upon him to “stop his petty, counterproductive political games.”

The European Union has not thrown its weight behind Trump’s tariff war, won’t join his call for an investigation into China’s role in the origins of the pandemic, and meekly surrendered to Chinese insistence that it water down a document criticizing the regime’s handling of the outbreak of COVID-19 because, as EU diplomat Lutz Gullner put it, “The Chinese are already threatening with reactions if the report comes out.” Exports to China uber alles.

Biden is more likely to restore amicable relations with our allies, which might make his policies more effective. But it is not certain that he can drag his party from bipartisan, anti-communist China rhetoric to action, persuade it that it is past time to decouple from China. For one thing, any response to China’s threat to American security must rely on a strengthened military to be credible, but Democrats generally resist increasing spending on the military. And the left of the party, which Biden is now wooing, has never been willing to criticize any communist regime. Recall Bernie Sander’s refusal to call Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro a dictator, his praise of the Castros’ “massive literacy program”, and of China because “they’ve done a lot of things for their people.” And a lot of things to their people.

America faces a choice between surrender of our values and strategic interests to a hostile communist power, or willingly bearing the significant costs of a stronger military, supported by a fiscally sound economy with broad public support. Eldridge Colby and A. Wess Mitchell of the Marathon Initiative, writing in The Wall Street Journal, conclude that to protect its interests from an increasingly assertive China “The West must recognize that it will either pay now or pay later to contain China. Paying now is likely to produce a more tolerable bill.”

A decade ago the much-missed Charles Krauthammer wrote, “Nothing is inevitable. Nothing is written. For America … decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice.” True then, true now.