China is an ancient civilization, spurred onward and upward today by lingering anger and resentment caused by centuries of oppression and humiliation. The formation of the PRC 70 years ago inaugurated a new era. Nevertheless, for the first three decades or so, China’s potential was merely theoretical: Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were perpetually at war with their own people. Once Mao passed from the scene in 1976, however, Beijing moved onto a path of growth. To the good, hundreds of millions of people escaped immiserating poverty. To the bad, a still-authoritarian regime gained strength and resources.
The PRC’s sharpest critics have developed a steadily expanding number of grievances on myriad topics: trade practices, North Korea, religious liberty, domestic economic policy, Hong Kong, regional territorial disputes, mistreatment of the Uighurs, other human rights abuses, Chinese overseas investment, intellectual property theft, Taiwan, investment access, discrimination against foreign firms, cyber warfare, and more. The issues are serious and the list is daunting.
Demanding satisfaction on all of them guarantees failure. It is worth considering how Americans would respond to a China that made a similar set of demands, with threats of confrontation, retaliation, and even war. We would not be inclined to compromise, let alone surrender. Beijing’s serious weaknesses, of which there are several, might even increase its intransigence. Washington must set priorities and consider carefully how pursuing too many competing objectives risks failing to achieve any of them.
Economics tops President Donald Trump’s list. Structural reform matters more than his misplaced quest to arbitrarily cut the trade deficit, essentially an accounting fiction. More serious are barriers to access by U.S. firms, discrimination against foreign enterprises, intellectual property theft, organized corporate espionage, and state-backed cyberattacks.
Moreover, attempting to restructure Chinese economic policy, such as subsidies to inefficient but politically sensitive state enterprises, is far more problematic. Economic intervention is significant and varied even in the U.S. and Europe, despite their pretensions as market-oriented systems. Washington and assorted state capitals do much to underwrite their favored interests. The political trade-offs go to basic sovereignty. Compromise will be necessary to win concessions: Beijing is not simply going to accept American dictates.
Hong Kong has gone from a seeming success to a potential disaster in a few months. Over the administration’s objections, Congress is pushing for sanctions. But good policy should seek to change behavior, not highlight outrage, and this requires an understanding of Beijing’s core interests. There is no circumstance under which the PRC will grant full democracy to the special administrative region. None. Nor is there any chance that China will offer Hong Kong independence. Demanding that it do so might generate sanctimonious feelings of self-satisfaction in some legislators, but little more.
In contrast, there is at least some hope that Beijing might continue to respect Hong Kong’s relative autonomy and avoid a violent crackdown. Even in these cases, however, ostentatious threats are likely to prove counterproductive; no rising nationalistic power can afford to be seen as yielding to foreign dictates about its political system. A private yet firm approach by the U.S. backed by friendly Asian and European countries emphasizing the risk to relations with the PRC might offer the best hope of influencing Chinese policy.
Similar is the challenge posed by Taiwan. Its 24 million people have made a nation, but Beijing is no more inclined to accept separation than was Washington willing to tolerate the South’s secession in 1861. Threats of war lack credibility since, as a Chinese general once argued, the U.S. will not risk Los Angeles for Taipei. Nor should it.
Nevertheless, one could imagine some discreet understandings that might help defuse tensions. For instance, the U.S. and Taiwan promising that no American military forces will be stationed on the island; China reducing missile forces directed at Taipei; Taiwan maintaining its ambiguous status rather than claiming independence; and the PRC accepting the land’s continuing autonomy rather than seeking to resolve its claim.
Both the U.S. and China desire the denuclearization of North Korea. However, Beijing also seeks stability—hardly an unreasonable concern, given the potential for national implosion, resulting in loose nuclear weapons, factional war, and mass refugee flows. Imagine Washington’s reaction to a similar prospect in Mexico: today’s ongoing drug violence is bad enough. Moreover, the PRC has good reason not to simply hand over its one military ally to America, advancing Washington’s objective of containing Chinese power. Assurances of U.S. support in dealing with future developments on the peninsula as well as a commitment to withdraw American forces in the event of reunification might encourage greater cooperation by Beijing.
Human rights has also become a matter of great contention. Under President Xi Jinping, the PRC is slouching toward totalitarianism. Xi increasingly looks like a new Mao, dedicated to amassing untrammeled power for himself and the CCP. The abuses are legion and growing: a million Uighurs in reeducation camps, widespread religious persecution, ruthless crackdowns on any hint of dissent, restrictions on academic exchanges, tighter internet censorship, an intrusive “social credit” system, and much more.
Washington should certainly affirm the importance of all governments to respect the lives, dignity, and liberty of their peoples. However, America’s ability to enforce this commitment is extraordinarily limited. The most vital interest of every authoritarian government is preservation of its rule, and when it comes to China, the U.S. has few tools to force change. Sanctions have become Washington’s all-purpose remedy, but the broader the objective—release all political prisoners, create a free press, hold democratic elections—the less credible the effort. Beijing might release a particular prisoner or change a specific process under pressure, but it will not forgo repression or abandon communism. That would require a much more far-reaching internal transformation, as occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Even more contentious are the multiple territorial disputes throughout the South China Sea and other Asia-Pacific waters. Washington has no claim of its own and no direct stake in the controversies. Nevertheless, the U.S. has a strong interest in the peaceful resolution of regional disputes and would prefer that its allies and friends control strategic waters rather than the PRC.
Yet these concerns do not justify war with China, which could result since Beijing has a compelling interest in controlling its surrounding waters. Imagine America’s reaction if a hostile power’s navy routinely sailed down the East Coast, around Florida, and into the Gulf of Mexico. Washington’s strongest interest is in preserving the independence of friendly states—most notably Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand—not in backing their claims to various uninhabited rocks littering contested waters.
It is essential that American policymakers recognize that Washington’s geopolitical dispute with the PRC is over influence, not survival. Yet the usual hawkish suspects rarely make that distinction. Although Chinese leaders might imagine global domination in the distant future, their nation’s current ambitions are much more circumscribed. And whatever their intentions, they almost certainly will lack the capability to challenge America in its neighborhood for a very long time, if ever. The tyranny of distance combined with the high cost of projecting power—which currently hampers U.S. operations in East Asia—would work against Beijing. Washington’s sophisticated nuclear deterrent will long offer the U.S. a final defense.
At issue is America’s continued domination of China along China’s border. However desirable that may be in theory, it is very different than protecting America’s independence, territory, population, liberties, and constitutional system. Moreover, the cost of battling China in its neighborhood would be extraordinarily costly. It is easier for China to sink a carrier than for America to build a new one. The U.S. should spend whatever is necessary to protect the homeland. But to maintain an ability to assault the Chinese mainland? That’s another story.
Finally, these many objectives are sometimes in tension, if not outright conflict. The greater the number of goals, the harder it is to achieve any one of them. Washington has variously threatened sanctions or war over human rights, geopolitical disputes, trade, governance of Hong Kong, Taiwan’s status, economic policy, and North Korean relations. Does anyone realistically imagine that China’s nationalistic leaders will agree to even some of these demands, let alone all of them?
In the coming years, the PRC will pose an ever-tougher challenge to America. Yet the threat is very different than that posed by the USSR during the Cold War. China is far more integrated into the global community. Shifting focus from the Middle East to Asia makes sense. However, though Beijing is a tough competitor, it is not yet an enemy, and Washington should not treat it as one. Neither of us would win a war with the other, hot or cold.