It’s Time to Offer Washington Innovative Solutions for Dealing with China

Washington is awash with people and organizations that do research on China. 

In fact, in the seemingly elusive search for strategies to handle the U.S.-China relationship to the advantage of the United States and her allies, Washington has seen a proliferation of organizations that report to the White House, Congress and the extended U.S. government and military establishment on how to deal with China. Indeed, there are hundreds running into the thousands of think tanks, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government-funded organizations, universities, associations and other non-profits whose sole purpose it is to research and report to the public and the U.S. government on an astonishing range of issues. Washington being Washington, it is not surprising that a major focus of this research activity is foreign policy, and that China in turn generally comes in at the top of the agenda.

The raison d’etre of all of this research, and the accumulated money and brain power that feeds into it, is ostensibly to give those who legislate, develop and execute the overall behavior of the U.S. toward China very specific tools to protect and advance U.S. and allied interests in the face of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive and ambitious foreign policy.

All too often, however, ably researched and written reports most of which describe and detail China’s increasing instances of bad-actor, bad-faith behavior fall short of making dynamic, action-point based recommendations to directly counter, confront, and if necessary, condemn egregious Chinese Communist Party (CCP) behavior that flouts international norms and rules, and infringes on individual rights. 

In other words, much of the research offers a diagnosis but fails to deliver a prescription. 

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Cases in point can be found among some of the testimony recently delivered to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC). USCC is a worthy, 20-year-old congressionally-established organization with a mandate “to review the national security implications of trade and economic ties between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.”

That mandate requires the USCC to “monitor, investigate, and report to Congress on the national security implications of the bilateral trade and economic relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.” As such, the 12-member commission holds hearings and brings in mostly academic experts to testify on every aspect of China’s engagement with the world, often going well beyond the narrowly-defined language of the “bilateral trade and economic relationship” requirement to look into other aspects of China’s global behavior.

Sometimes, however, the depth and substance of research is at variance with the corresponding recommendations on how to counter China’s escalating influence. 

In his testimony earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Saich of Harvard’s Kennedy School laid out a compelling in-depth panorama of China’s current state of affairs, including the “social contract” between Chinese citizens and the CCP, “forms of legitimacy [that] underpin societal perceptions of the CCP,” and the sense of security that Chinese leaders express in the job they are doing to run the country. 

He also looked at domestic policy and its impact on external policy, and the question of whether or not 2020 is an “inflection point” for Chinese leaders. 

Saich didn’t flinch from the realities of the Chinese regime’s behavior. In fact, in describing the Chinese leadership, he used the word “regime,” which, with its negative overtones, is not a choice in favor with some China analysts. He talked in clear-eyed terms about the plight of the Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang, the challenges for Tibet, corruption, China’s violations in the South China Sea, and the imposition of the draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong. 

Yet when asked for his recommendations for Congressional action related to the topics of his testimony, Saich responded, “It is highly unlikely that any policy measures adopted in the U.S. will change the nature of governance in the People’s Republic at the present time.” 

Saich does outline two principles which may help U.S. policy become more effective in influencing China: reciprocity, and acting in concert with other nations, “as this is what China fears most.” 

Maddeningly, though, Saich does not give specifics on how the U.S. could influence potential points of leverage, nor on the concrete steps the U.S. can take to forge an international consensus, and confront China with it. 

Turning to Taiwan, Roger Cliff gave a comprehensive overview of the potential new danger that Taiwan is likely to face on two fronts over the next two years. 

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The first is that any idea of a promise from the CCP to Taiwan to allow it to keep its own form of government and laws under a reunification agreement based on “One Country, Two Systems” has now been firmly planted on the scrapheap. China promised similar freedoms for Hong Kong, but the recent imposition of a National Security Law on Hong Kong is a clear violation of the Basic Law that was meant to allow the city to keep its legal and other institutions for 50 years after handover back to Chinese sovereignty. Adherence lasted for less than half of that time.  

Second, Cliff also argued that Xi Jinping, approaching in 2022 what had previously been a limit of ten years that he could hold the presidency, is in a precarious political position despite the fact that he engineered a change in China’s constitution that now allows Chinese presidents to stay in their position indefinitely indeed, for life if they and the CCP’s kingmakers so desire. 

That precipice is reunification with Taiwan. The problem for Xi, Cliff reasoned, is that he has said that the situation cannot be passed on from one generation to another, effectively painting himself into a corner from which he can extricate himself only if he takes decisive and successful action to bring Taiwan back into the fold.

Cliff outlined in detail the military situations on both sides which could ensue if China tries to take Taiwan by force. But his prescription for countering that dangerous eventuality was one-dimensional. 

“I suggest that the Commission recommend to Congress that it request the IC and DoD to, if they do not already, provide Congress with regular updates on military activities in China, particularly any indications that China may be preparing for a use of force against Taiwan.” 

Cliff goes on to recommend that the Defense Department provide “an annual assessment of its capability to defeat a Chinese use of force against Taiwan and to identify any capability shortfalls it is currently experiencing or anticipates in the next five years. For its part Congress needs to ensure that it is providing the funds needed to address those shortfalls and that it is prioritizing the resourcing of capabilities needed to ensure continuing U.S. military dominance over China.”  

Notwithstanding the fact that budget requests come from the White House before they are taken up by the House, Cliff’s recommendations rely on traditional defense solutions to solve a problem that is much more complex than just its military component.

There is room, here, however, to read this USCC testimony, and to offer additional and alternative recommendations to Congress.

Here are a few: Focus on the 14 countries which have borders with China, and enhance U.S. soft and hard power in all of them. Fund U.S. educational, cultural and religious activities, particularly in border regions. Educate children on democracy and a free press. It works. The U.S. already has some of these programs; build them up, and focus on countering the messages they are getting from China. 

Solicit the insights and experience of the battalion of American and other foreign nationals who permeate the intersection of Chinese and foreign business, education and daily life in China. These are nimble and embedded resources who interact daily with the very people and political party that researchers thousands of miles away study from afar. Get their prima facie evidence from within. 

These human resources, far more than embassy personnel who are constrained by diplomatic protocols and who are also kept much more closely under surveillance, are keen observers of their environment. They also have more natural and open relationships with their Chinese co-workers and stakeholders, unconstrained by the parameters of an official relationship.  

These professionals know the Chinese business landscape, and are a wealth of information about their Chinese customers, suppliers and supply chains. Many of them are working in IT, engineering and other key technologies on which China competes with the U.S. and its allies. 

Thankfully, the USCC itself is not short of in-depth, concrete, highly specific and substantial recommendations to Congress that it includes in each year’s annual report. Perhaps this year’s report, however, will include a recommendation to hear the testimony of those who are closest to China on a daily and professional basis. Strong commitments to the ring of nations surrounding China would be a welcome and timely addition.

The author wishes to thank Roland Evans for his insights on enhancing the American profile in China’s neighboring nations.

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