The Biden administration’s recent engagement efforts and search for “guardrails” in the U.S.-China relationship have too many costs relative to hypothetical benefits.
Dangerous illusions buy China time and cover for the execution of President Xi Jinping’s multi-faceted plan for global domination. China has already made such progress; the China threat is now so great that the Free World cannot afford dalliance, wishful thinking, or repose. U.S. efforts to keep communication channels with Chinese leaders open make sense, but optimism regarding the fruits of engagement and diplomacy with China is not warranted.
China’s expansionist drive and bullying of neighbors; subjection of Hong Kong and Tibet and scheme for overtaking Taiwan; extreme human rights violations and techno-totalitarian control; relentless espionage and interference campaigns in democracies; collusion with Russia, Iran and bad actors across the globe; tremendous influence and anti-American positions in international forums; massive military build-up and preparation for war; and recent aggressive moves against U.S. planes and ships in the South China Sea, simply must give U.S. policymakers and negotiators pause.
Rather than hold on to fading hope that engagement and diplomacy will appreciably soften China’s stance, the United States must rise to the current challenge. Only by facing the hard truths about Chinese revisionism can America form principled and wise China policy.
Before believing that China, unlike Russia, is amenable to reasonable relations with democratic states, consider the China-Russia relationship. At their February 2022 meeting in Beijing, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin announced an “unlimited partnership,” which they said was aimed at countering U.S. influence. As he departed their March 2023 summit in Moscow, Xi told Putin, “Right now there are changes, the likes of which we haven’t seen for one hundred years.” Echoing that note, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said any Ukraine peace talks should discuss “the principles on which the new world order will be based.”
Such statements sent a chill down many a foreign policy analyst’s spine because a new world order, or even a major war, no longer seems entirely out of the realm of possibility. This juncture calls for a conscious rejection of complacency.
Shortly after the Moscow summit, which expanded China and Russia’s economic and strategic ties, Chinese defense minister General Li Shangfu announced that China and Russia would increase military and military-technical cooperation and arms trade. Although China doesn’t overtly supply Russia weaponry for use in Ukraine, China provides dual-use rifles, body armor, drones, and financial support for Russia’s ferocious assault. Trade between China and Russia rose to $190 billion last year, and China’s imports of Russian energy have increased to $88 billion since February 2022. The only “peace” China wants in Ukraine will advantage Russia and increase Chinese influence over Europe.
The Pentagon has warned that Russia and China are producing space weapons to attack U.S. satellites and to evade U.S. missile defense systems and that Russia is providing highly enriched uranium for China’s nuclear program. China’s space, cyber, and bio-weapons capabilities, dramatic nuclear weapons ramp-up, and intercontinental and submarine ballistic missile production paint an alarming picture. Alerts by Microsoft confirmed by U.S. officials that a Chinese-sponsored hacking group targeted critical infrastructure in the United States, including Navy telecommunications systems in Guam that are key to Pacific defense, highlight China’s likely instigation of cyber war as part of a move on Taiwan.
Optimism in certain circles that China can become a responsible member of the international community if only the West keeps pursuing economic and diplomatic compromise is refuted by China’s cultural genocide of the Uyghur minority, violations of treaties and international norms, and close strategic and military ties with North Korea, a fanatical totalitarian state that relies on severe, omnipresent repression and nuclear proliferation and brinkmanship.
When weighing China’s real intentions, consider China, Russia, and Iran’s anti-Western front. The three countries capitalize on instances of American retreat, back each other in the UN, and engage in the subversion of democracies. They benefit from expansive trade, weapons, technology transfers, joint military exercises, and mutual sanctions breaches. They recently participated in their third trilateral military drill in the Gulf of Oman and the North Arabian Sea.
There is no mistaking China’s dramatically enhanced position in the Middle East. Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has announced that Iran’s “comprehensive strategic accord” with China is in effect. China provides technology for the repression of Iranian protestors and civilian life in general. Another dismal indicator of freedom’s trajectory came when Xi Jinping and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman met in December and agreed on major energy, defense, infrastructure, and technology deals. Especially bad for human rights, Saudi-led Arab League states agreed to a statement endorsing China’s “efforts” and “position” in Hong Kong and “rejecting Taiwan’s independence in all its forms.” Subsequently, China managed to negotiate a détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
For China, these developments constitute steps forward in replacing the U.S.-oriented world order. China’s trade with the Middle East now exceeds that of the United States.
China’s tremendous success in making Western countries dependent on Chinese goods and supply chains and its principal commercial agreements and loans on every continent have greatly augmented China’s power. Moreover, China has benefited from decades of aggressive espionage, influence campaigns, and intellectual property theft, especially in the United States. In addition to corporate and political infiltration, China altered American universities via Confucius Institutes, sinology programs, and joint scientific research, which served China’s ideological and military-strategic priorities. So too, in Europe, as China made significant infrastructure, energy, and telecommunications investments, it worked hard to steer media narratives and capture European academic, business, and policy elites.
In South America, China, Russia, and Iran have significantly increased their presence and leverage and support of oppressive anti-American dictatorships. Venezuela even hosted Russian war games, which included China, Iran, Cuba, and others, in 2022. China is establishing airports, seaports, space facilities, and Confucius Institutes in the region. Honduras’s decision to drop diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of China and Brazil’s enthusiasm for deepening ties with China are sobering reminders of China’s sway.
China has spent about $1 trillion on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Despite setbacks, the BRI has advanced China’s imperialistic drive, leading not only to new security agreements and docks for China’s navy but also to the insidious expansion of Chinese information and surveillance technology. Among the deals that actuate Xi’s claim that “the East is rising and the West is declining” is the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, with which China is carving a path to the Indian Ocean, Cambodia’s Ream military base, which is becoming a base for Chinese operations, and China’s massive Pinglu Canal project, with which China seeks closer connectivity with Southeast Asia.
All of the above facilitates the worldwide reach of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) united front system and propaganda, including its quest for technological supremacy and control of the world’s data, rare earth minerals, and energy assets.
In international organizations, China energetically pursues predominance. From corrupting the UN, the WHO, and the World Bank, to realigning the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, to attempting to turn BRICS into an anti-U.S. coalition, China never lets up. Although the United States and ASEAN are enduring partners, it is notable that ASEAN’s Secretary General recently completed a four-day “working visit” to China, meeting many high-level officials, including China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi. When China hosted a summit with Central Asian countries this May, seeking to broaden China’s role in the region’s economies and security, Chinese diplomats derided President Joe Biden’s efforts to smooth relations and the G7’s supposed “bloc confrontation.”
Xi’s redefinition of the world order goes hand in hand with his redefinition of words; he insists China will free the world from U.S. “unilateralism” and lead the progress of “equity” and “justice.” But the mendacity of this rhetoric is revealed by China’s severe human rights violations against Uyghurs and Tibetans and the persecution of Christians, Falun Gong adherents, dissidents, and democracy advocates. U.S. leaders should stress to non-aligned countries the dire implications for their citizens if they align with the CCP. The “National Security Law” stamping out freedom in Hong Kong is the real face of the globalization of the Chinese Communist Party.
Having focused more on mutually profitable economic interaction than on the meteoric rise of China’s hard and soft power, democracies face a China formidable and emboldened enough to parade its ambitions. China is on a trajectory to surpass the United States in military might; U.S. Navy Admiral Philip Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the military balance is becoming unfavorable to the United States and our allies.” In addition to a spy balloon traversing America, brazen provocations and island-building in the South China Sea, territorial encroachments on neighbors, and major military air and sea exercises “encircling Taiwan,” China now issues explicit threats. Xi says China is preparing for war. Foreign Minister Qin Lang warns there will be “conflicts and confrontation” unless the United States stops “containment.”
The Biden administration’s recent engagement efforts and search for “guardrails” in the U.S.-China relationship—which include emphasizing economic relations while downplaying defense and human rights concerns, requests (often rebuffed) for high-level meetings, and pledges to “de-risk” rather than “de-couple”—have too many costs relative to hypothetical benefits. A June 14 letter from House Foreign Affairs chair Michael McCaul (R-TX) to Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted reports that the administration had “held back human rights related sanctions, export controls, and other sensitive actions to try to limit damage to the U.S.-China relationship.” Moreover, the letter complained that the State Department “refuses to provide answers on these issues to Congress as Secretary Blinken prepares to depart for a trip to China.” For his part, after raising concerns about China’s “provocative actions” in the Taiwan Strait, Blinken walked back, offering: “We do not support Taiwan independence.”
Recalling the futility of threatening Russia with major consequences “if” it “invaded” Ukraine, the United States and its allies should prioritize military spending and outline potential sanctions for egregious aggression. They should do all possible to preempt war while at the same time demonstrating a willingness to fight for Taiwan if necessary. A Chinese conquest of Taiwan would put the Indo-Pacific region into vulnerable disarray. The world would see that the Free World cannot prevent China from forcing its will on the Taiwanese people and ending their vibrant democracy.
It should be impossible to downplay China’s drive for global dominance by now. It would be unwise not to craft alliances and deterrence proportionate to China’s military buildup and expansionism. It would be unprincipled not to speak out against and penalize China’s terrible repression and backing of brutal dictatorships. It is both necessary and proper to reduce dependency on Chinese supply chains and sever academic and technological relationships that advance China’s weapons and surveillance systems.
In a world saturated with Chinese and Russian propaganda, America should renovate Voice of America-type programs for the digital age. The United States should step up its game in regional and international trade, organizations, and relationships in a world redefined by China’s economic and geopolitical influence. America should project a generous, reliable, compelling presence in the world.
The scale and reach of the China threat are breathtaking and game-changing. Complacency, wishful thinking, and procrastination in dealing with it are luxuries the United States and its allies cannot afford.