China on the Ballot

One of the most important questions that we face in this presidential election cannot be decided by us alone: does CCP-led China view itself as our business partner and/or as an implacable enemy of the ideals our system of governance embodies – and of our nation insofar as Xi believes that we stand in the way of his ‘China Dream’?

All we have the power to decide is how we see that great nation and what that implies about how whoever we elect as president should handle our mutual trading relationship, our alliances with other countries and our military needs. China may not be on our ballot, but the candidates who are embody starkly different perceptions of, and approaches to, the dragon.

China’s government has made no secret of the fact that it prefers Biden over Trump – and no wonder. Biden has held himself out as a friend of China for decades, he played important roles in negotiating trade deals during the Obama years and his son is presumably an enormous beneficiary of the $1.5 billion with which Chinese investors seeded his (and John Kerry’s stepson’s) private equity firm. America’s military capabilities were allowed to shrink during the Obama years – and could be expected to do so again under Biden, since his program clearly stresses the need for increased domestic spending rather than sustained military outlays.

Trump’s presidency, on the other hand, has made life more difficult for the Chinese. Trying to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US, Trump has repeatedly engaged in brinkmanship with China over trade; his Justice Department has aggressively gone after Chinese spies and IP theft from US companies and universities; he is restricting the sale of state-of-the-art microchips to companies controlled by the Chinese government; and he has prioritized military spending and increased freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile, the four most militarily important, democratically-governed nations in China’s region – the US, Japan, India and Australia – are drawing (and being drawn by China’s actions) into a more meaningful military and diplomatic alliance (https://strategypage.com/on_point/2020100622010.aspx). In short, Trump is a disaster for China’s stated goals of regional, and eventually global, dominance.

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Biden’s perspective on China’s ‘peaceful rise’ being all to the good was the consensus among America’s foreign policy and business elites from the time of Nixon’s visit until Trump’s election. The thinking was, and for many still is, that China’s increasing prosperity would smooth the rougher edges of its behavior by causing the Chinese people to demand more democratic rights and focus more on their own opportunities than on ideological or nationalistic dreams. For the reasons I set forth in http://civilhorizon.com/2020/07/22/business-with-china/ and http://civilhorizon.com/2020/08/01/a-pro-regulation-post/, America’s business elites still devoutly hold to the view that we should see the Chinese as business partners rather than as strategic rivals or, God forbid, actual enemies. Trump’s rocking of the China boat is one of the biggest reasons big business – traditionally Republican in orientation – is vehemently anti-Trump.

More recently, though, China’s overt aggressiveness externally, and its human rights violations internally (added to the ‘hollowing out’ of US manufacturing through trade imbalances that was the initial focus of Trump’s concern) has caused many Americans to question the wisdom of the pre-Trump consensus among America’s policy-makers.

In just the last few years, China has: built military islands in the South China Sea to claim (and, more to the point, control) territory properly belonging to the Philippines, Viet Nam and Indonesia, reneged on its deal to leave Hong Kong’s freedoms alone, attacked Indian troops over disputed and theoretically demilitarized territory and threatened to invade Taiwan and seize islands controlled by Japan since time immemorial.   

Internally, not only has China’s government not adopted more democratic norms as a result of its people’s increasing prosperity, it seems to have become more tyrannical than it was during the post-Mao opening under Deng. Xi has effectively declared himself Emperor-for-life, his government has instituted a truly Orwellian ‘social credit system’ that is designed to control its citizenry through the use of technology (much of it invented here, alas); it is also doing what it can to crush the Uyghurs, with over a million allegedly imprisoned in ‘re-education’ camps, and apparently now also has shipped something like 15% of Tibet’s population to prison-like camps (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-54260732).     

China’s relentless efforts to stifle criticism abroad are global in nature, extending even to criticism from within American sports and through Hollywood. The whole world knows that China’s government tried to suppress news of the emergence of Covid-19 in Wuhan late last year – prioritizing its image over control of the virus, which escaped and caused worldwide misery. And we know that China’s technology thefts from American companies and universities have been pervasive.

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What explains China’s present aggressiveness? Where will it lead?

Many have suggested that China’s rise is reminiscent to that of Wilhelmine Germany; at worst, 1930s Germany may prove a better parallel: a fanatically nationalist (Han) empire, bullying its neighbors and oppressing all but its chosen citizens, afraid that the free flow of ideas and facts would result in the overthrow of its maximum leader and the system that produced him. Allergic to – and determined to stamp out – the ideals of individual liberty, equality before the law and democratic accountability that are the bedrock values of our nation.

Even if this worst-case understanding of how China’s government sees itself, and might be expected to behave, proves to be true, the result needn’t be war: the end of the Cold War proved that. But it would mean that we should take a very different approach to dealing with China than anything Joe Biden has considered or is ever likely to consider.   

If he’s even capable of it.

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I would love for all of that speculation about China’s aims and expectable behavior to be proven wrong, for the former consensus among Western elites regarding China to be shown to be correct – but only time will tell. Meanwhile, we have to make our own choices – and, as you would no doubt guess, I’ll be voting for the candidate who I believe will do more to protect us against the worst-case scenario.

M.H. Johnston              

One comment to China on the Ballot

  • DCS  says:

    good to read your thoughts again.

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