A recent Pew poll showed that American views of the People’s Republic of China have turned decisively negative. 66 percent of those surveyed have an unfavorable view of China, up from 47 percent just two years ago. U.S.-China tensions, which had been at a vigorous simmer even before coronavirus, have now boiled over, with Chinese diplomats and propaganda organs openly spreading rumors that the virus is an American bioweapon and U.S. politicians insisting China is due for a “reckoning.”
Greater recognition of the dangers that the PRC poses to the United States is both welcome and necessary. On the other hand, in the midst of a global pandemic costing more than 120,000 American lives, there is a risk that the United States will lose sight of its long-term goals with respect to China and focus on exacting retribution in the here and now, with counterproductive results.
Make no mistake: China threatens key American interests. As the 2017 National Security Strategy aptly described, Beijing presents a multifaceted threat to its Indo-Pacific neighbors, including the United States:
China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda . . . Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there . . . Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.
Nor is that the full story. China has locked up as many as three million Muslims in concentration camps, torn down churches, imprisoned priests and pastors, cracked down on human rights lawyers and dissidents, and begun stripping Hong Kong of the freedoms its people have long enjoyed. Beijing is holding two Canadians hostage and imposing exit bans on American citizens in the country. It has kidnapped foreign citizens overseas and brought them back to China to exact punishment for crossing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The novel coronavirus outbreak has not diverted Beijing from its expansionist course. China is continuing to make inroads in the South China Sea and pressuring Japan in the East China Sea, it is engaging in military provocations in the waters and skies around Taiwan, it has been slow to restructure debt it holds in the developing world amid pandemic-induced economic downturns, and it has just recently put to sea two new ballistic missile submarines.
COVID-19 has muddled our ability to grapple with the “pre-existing conditions” of the China challenge. The domestic outbreak, still unresolved and now compounded by mass protests and racial unrest across America, threatens to distract Washington, forcing us to turn inward. This is not an environment that is conducive to a measured debate about the costs, benefits, and wisdom of various China policy options.
It is more important than ever that America’s policymakers not lose sight of the long-term challenges posed by China, even while they grapple with the unique response to COVID-19. It is important, too, to avoid confrontation for confrontation’s sake. How best to thread that needle?
Do Continue To Compete
In early April, the Asia Society released an open letter, signed by a bipartisan group of foreign policy professionals, calling on China and the United States to cooperate to defeat the coronavirus. As they rightly point out, Chinese factories are churning out urgently needed medical gear and medicines and Chinese clinicians and scientists have useful knowledge and experience to bring to bear.
The signatories err, however, in arguing that “the focus should be on finding the resolve to work together to contain and defeat the virus at home and abroad,” as if that was a viable course of action. As was clear at the time of the letter’s publication, Beijing remains intent on advancing its foreign policy priorities, many of which are inimical to U.S. interests.
“During the height of the Cold War,” the letter explains, “the United States and Soviet Union worked together to vaccinate the entire world against smallpox.” But the emergence of smallpox preceded the Cold War by millennia. Had it instead emerged in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s and then spread globally due to Moscow’s gross negligence and mendacity, it would have affected U.S.-USSR relations in a very different way, serving as a powerful reminder of why communism was considered such a potent threat. Such is the case today. It is exceedingly difficult to approach the coronavirus and strategic competition in parallel because they are, in fact, deeply intertwined.
Don’t Forget Why We Are Competing
Although China’s handling of the coronavirus should remind us that competition is necessary, it may well overshadow the reasons Washington has embraced the competition framework in the first place. In his introduction to the Defense Department’s 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, then-Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan described inter-state strategic competition as “defined by geopolitical rivalry between free and repressive world order visions.” In Asia, the Trump administration calls that free world order vision the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP):
Our vision for a free Indo-Pacific is one in which all nations . . . are able to exercise their sovereignty free from coercion by other countries. At the national-level, this means good governance and the assurance that citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights and liberties. Our vision for an open Indo-Pacific . . . promotes sustainable growth and connectivity in the region. This means all nations enjoy access to international waters, airways, and cyber and space domains, and are able to pursue peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes. On an economic level, this means fair and reciprocal trade, open investment environments, and transparent agreements between nations.
Some of the phrasing notwithstanding—the Trumpian emphasis on “sovereignty” and the reference to “fair and reciprocal trade”—these are long-standing American interests. China threatens them all. Whereas the United States wants a free and open Indo-Pacific, China seeks something akin to the opposite. In an “unfree and closed” Indo-Pacific, states will be beholden to Beijing, might will make right, trade rules will be prejudicial to China’s enrichment, and international rules and norms will be remade to China’s liking. In such a world, American prosperity will depend ever more on the whims of the CCP, while China’s capacity to threaten the American homeland may be much enhanced. The United States competes with China today to forestall such a vision.
The battle over Hong Kong’s future is a microcosm of that competition. In effectively tearing up the Sino-British Joint Declaration, China is rejecting an international order in which Beijing is bound by its own promises. In seeking to quash a freedom-loving people, Beijing is assaulting the liberal principles that Americans see as undergirding their place in the world. It is little surprise that Washington refuses to sit idly by. On May 27, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicized his finding that Hong Kong no longer “maintains a high degree of autonomy from China” and, days later, President Trump directed the administration “to begin the process of eliminating policy exemptions that give Hong Kong different and special treatment.”
Hong Kong is one piece of the larger strategic competition puzzle. But not every bilateral disagreement is a puzzle piece. Policymakers should recognize that the imperative to pursue long-term U.S. interests is not necessarily coincident with the desire to hold China to account for its COVID-19 malfeasance. As Washington considers responses to the pandemic, it should be asking whether or not those responses help advance its own vision for the Indo-Pacific.
Do Hold China Accountable
In late March, Seth Moulton, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, withdrew his support, following pressure from within his caucus, for a House of Representatives resolution on holding China accountable for COVID-19. Moulton was an original sponsor and the only Democrat to support the resolution, which matter-of-factly described China’s handling of the outbreak. That was apparently too much for House Democrats, who claimed the resolution was being used to stoke xenophobia against people of Asian descent and who refused to see the resolution for what it was—an opportunity for the House to speak with one voice on China’s culpability in the global outbreak.
It is undoubtedly appropriate to hold China accountable for its mishandling of the coronavirus—the CCP got the United States into this mess. Unfortunately, the American president ensured it would be a greater mess, which means parsing blame is a difficult game. Even so, the Party has from the outset prioritized controlling people and information over controlling the virus. That instinct all but guaranteed that the disease would spread within China and cross borders, imperiling lives and livelihoods across the globe.
But how to hold China to account? On May 19, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution instructing the World Health Organization’s (WHO) director-general to “initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment . . . a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation . . . to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19.” This is a far cry from the Australian and American calls for an independent investigation into how the virus originated and spread. Congress should step in.
In particular, Congress should establish an independent commission, staffed with an international group of scientists, medical professionals, and Sinologists, to conduct an inquiry and prepare a public report. With China continuing to muddy the waters surrounding the virus, Beijing is unlikely to welcome any fact-finding mission over which it does not exert control. But if leading scientific minds participate in the effort, its findings will be valuable, even without Chinese cooperation. There will be value, as well, in the world watching China strive to stifle the investigation, should it choose to do so.
Holding China to account—establishing its culpability—is a strategic priority. Done right, such an effort can further complicate Beijing’s public relations crisis, undercut its insistence that Chinese autocracy is the system best suited to tackling a viral outbreak, and rally others to counter China’s “repressive world order vision.”
Don’t Play Silly Games
Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is not doing it right. To pin the blame on China, the Administration has resorted to playing games with the disease’s name and, at one point, put far too much stock in the theory that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab.
In mid-March, President Donald Trump began referring to the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” a direct response to Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s suggestion that the virus originated with the U.S. military. Suddenly, the argument in the United States was not about CCP malpractice, but about whether using the “Chinese virus” moniker was a good idea.
It was not. When the President started using the phrase, the country had already seen an uptick in incidents targeting people of Asian descent in the preceding weeks. Using the phrase “Chinese virus”—or worse, “kung flu,” as the President recently did at his Tulsa rally—could only serve to further stigmatize.
Using such phrases has foreign policy implications, too. When American officials say “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prefers, they inadvertently help the CCP make the case that it is the great defender of the Chinese diaspora. Beijing is happy to have this argument. What’s more, the Trump Administration has previously made an admirable effort to distinguish the CCP from the Chinese people (see, for example, Vice President Mike Pence’s October 2018 speech at the Hudson Institute). Speaking of the “Chinese virus” is thus both inconsistent with previous policy and counterproductive—particularly given that the virus’s first victims were Chinese, and that many Chinese people had good reason to be angry regarding the Party’s handling of the crisis.
The Trump Administration invested so much energy into the naming issue that it has sparked disagreements with allies. When the G7 gathered virtually in March to discuss the pandemic, the grouping failed to issue a joint statement. The reason? Secretary Pompeo insisted on using “Wuhan virus” in the document, a demand to which the other G7 foreign ministers refused to accede. The lack of a joint statement is unlikely to have materially impacted efforts to combat the virus, but it is never a good thing for the United States to look petty on the global stage.
The Administration has likewise bet heavily on the lab leak hypothesis proving true. Both the President and Secretary of State have publicly speculated that the virus escaped from a lab. They have since backed off these claims, perhaps fearing that they could well end up with egg on their faces. In any case, the repeated floating of the theory created an unnecessary point of contention with Beijing. Whether the virus emerged from nature or escaped from a lab, China is culpable because of the nature of its system and the response to which that system inevitably led.
The argument that Washington should be having with Beijing is about the failure—indeed, the inability—of the CCP to ensure the health and well-being of the Chinese people and to act with a semblance of responsibility to the world beyond its borders. To let up the pressure on that front by squabbling over an unproven and likely un-provable theory was an own goal for the United States.
Do Impose Costs
Following a congressionally mandated investigation—and assuming its findings are in line with what we now know regarding the virus’s origins and the CCP’s containment failures—the U.S. government must turn to the question of imposing costs on China. Done right, this policy may also serve to further weaken Xi Jinping’s standing in the CCP, an outcome the United State should welcome, albeit cautiously (a weakened Xi could lash out). Imposing costs can also help keep Beijing from advancing its own interests while the United States is weakened.
First, the Trump Administration should target Party leaders. Refusal of all visas for family members of the Party elite would be a good place to start. If an individual presides over a system that prioritizes prolonging repressive Party rule over all else, that person’s spouse, children, parents, and cousins should not be able to come to the United States—whether for business, pleasure, or study.
The intelligence community (IC) could also begin publishing unclassified reports on the wealth of senior leaders and their families. The CCP considers such information highly sensitive as its airing might undermine the Party’s rule. The IC could first issue reports on lower-ranking Central Committee members, making clear that other tranches may follow. When it comes to dossiers on Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee members, the Administration should hold those in reserve, keeping its powder dry for another day.
Finally, it is far past time for the Trump Administration and likeminded partners to have a serious discussion about the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, to be held in Beijing. The Olympics should have been used as leverage to attempt to secure human rights improvements in China, but the time to do so has grown short. Given ongoing human rights abuses in China, given the Party’s culpability in the hundreds of thousands of deaths due to COVID-19, and given the Party’s obvious inability to guarantee the safety and well-being of Olympic athletes, an international effort to move, cancel, or boycott the Beijing games is in order.
Beijing 2022 will be a grand propaganda spectacle, meant to signal to the Chinese people that Xi Jinping’s “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is rapidly progressing and that he has the respect of the world at large. Denying him that spectacle would be a significant embarrassment—on the world stage, within the Party, and before the Chinese people.
What is more, the 2022 Games will take place just a few months before the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Cancellation of the Olympics or a significant boycott—perhaps with parallel “Freedom Games”—might further weaken Xi in ways that make a leadership challenge, however remote that possibility, somewhat more likely. The Trump Administration should state its intention now to see the games moved, cancelled, or boycotted, and begin rallying partners to the cause.
Don’t Shoot Yourself In The Foot
In April, Josh Hawley, the junior senator from Missouri, announced the Justice for Victims of Coronavirus Act. If it were to become law, the act would strip the Chinese government of its sovereign immunity, thus allowing states and individuals to sue Beijing in U.S. courts for coronavirus-related damages. This would be a mistake. First, the United States upholds the principle of sovereign immunity because it is in American interests to do so—if the United States does not grant sovereign immunity to foreign countries here, other countries will not extend it to the United States within their own jurisdictions. If Hawley’s bill were to pass, it would not be long before China followed suit.
Second, even if Americans were to begin successfully suing China in U.S. courts, Beijing would never recognize the validity of a decision requiring it to pay damages. Suddenly, there would exist a new, persistent point of friction in the relationship as Washington sought to secure Chinese payment, exerting diplomatic pressure to do so and perhaps even seizing assets held in the United States (Beijing’s insistence that state-owned enterprises are part of the state, and thus subject to sovereign immunity, could come back to bite it). Washington should not go looking for fights to pick where no differences existed previously, and where there is little payoff to be had in any case.
Other proposals for seeking compensation are equally questionable. In April, the Washington Post reported preliminary discussions within the administration about “having the United States cancel part of its debt obligations to China.” Doing so would both undermine confidence in America’s creditworthiness, making it more expensive for the government to borrow (with possible budgetary implications), and undermine dollar dominance. Also in April, President Trump floated the idea of imposing additional tariffs on Chinese imports to secure remuneration. But tariffs are taxes paid by Americans—making Americans pay for what China supposedly owes would be a strange way to impose costs on Beijing.
Not all proposals for cost imposition have focused on securing payment. The SECURE CAMPUS Act, which Senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn introduced in May, “bars PRC nationals from receiving student or research visas . . . for graduate studies in STEM fields.” As Cotton told Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo, “I think we need to take a very hard look at the visas we give to Chinese nationals to study, especially at the post-graduate level in advanced scientific and technological fields.” Cotton is right to raise the concern. The FBI has warned American universities that some Chinese students and professors “may serve as collectors—wittingly or unwittingly—of economic, scientific, and technological intelligence from U.S. institutions to ultimately benefit Chinese academic institutions and businesses.” And the senator is undoubtedly correct when he claims that some U.S.-educated Chinese nationals return to China to engage in direct competition with American technology companies or to “design weapons and other devices that can be used against the American people.”
But how many science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) PhDs actually return to China after completing their studies? Remco Zwetsloot, of Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, notes that between 85 and 90 percent of Chinese PhDs in most STEM fields plan to stay in the United States and that 91 percent of artificial intelligence doctorates from China were still in the United States five years after completing their degrees. A 2018 paper from researchers at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education found the 10-year stay rate for science and engineering doctorates from China was 86 percent.
In short, keeping Chinese students from pursuing STEM degrees at American institutions will also keep them from innovating in the United States and ensuring that America remains a global leader in high-tech fields. Greater scrutiny of Chinese visa applicants pursuing STEM studies in the United States is certainly warranted, as is the administration’s recent decision to deny visas in cases “where the individual’s academic or research activities are likely to support a PRC entity that implements and supports the [CCP’s] ‘military-civil fusion’ strategy.” Banning STEM students entirely is likely to do more harm than good.
Finally, a number of lawmakers have also focused their sights on decoupling in the wake of COVID-19. Less about imposing costs on Beijing, these efforts are aimed at ensuring that the United States not find itself dependent on China in a future crisis to the extent it has been in recent months. A number of bills in both houses reasonably seek to bring medical device and pharmaceutical supply chains back to the United States from China.
But Hawley goes a step further, expansively asserting, “if we need it, we should make it,” and calling for federal policy to promote domestic production of unspecified goods. There is undoubtedly a need to address supply chains for critical goods that run through China, but how to define “critical” is a key question. A broad definition and a focus on on-shoring to the exclusion of supplier diversity would threaten to fragment the global economy in ways likely not conducive to American prosperity. Best to proceed with caution.
Do Compete for Influence in International Organizations
On the other hand, the United States should not be hesitant to engage more wholeheartedly with international organizations (IOs). The WHO’s handling of COVID-19 has highlighted China’s growing influence in the United Nations (UN) system. The WHO leadership’s refusal to criticize China at any point during the current crisis, its over-the-top praise of China’s performance, its seeming acceptance of Chinese data at face value, and its treatment of Taiwan all point to an organization thoroughly in thrall to the PRC.
To its credit, the Trump Administration had already identified Chinese influence in the UN as a worrying development. In late January, the State Department appointed an official “to ensure the integrity of multilateral institutions,” including by “countering the malign influences of the PRC and others in the U.N. system.” Such influence can affect standards setting, for instance, with respect to intellectual property, in ways detrimental to U.S. economic interests. But it can also lead to suboptimal responses to global emergencies, as has been the case with the WHO and COVID-19.
A recent test of the U.S. approach came when China put forth a candidate for general secretary of the World Intellectual Property Organization in an election held in early March. Chinese nationals already led four of the UN’s specialized agencies and, given China’s abysmal record on intellectual property protections, the Trump Administration saw Chinese control of WIPO as akin to inviting a fox into the henhouse. Following weeks of active diplomacy and a big showing at the WIPO Coordination Committee meeting—the U.S. delegation included four ambassadors, an undersecretary of commerce, the Counselor of the Department of State, and a number of other State and Commerce officials—the United States’ preferred candidate, Daren Tang of Singapore, handily won the vote.
Securing leadership of international organizations for American nationals or citizens of likeminded countries is important to defending U.S. interests. Although a leader cannot, generally speaking, change an organization’s mission, he or she can take steps to change how that mission is carried out. He can set new precedents, sign memoranda of understanding with member states, and make hires that will outlast his tenure.
Fundamentally, the United States should think of its influence in IOs as directly tied to its sway, as compared to China’s, with individual member states. The lack of support for Taiwan’s invitation to the recent World Health Assembly is an indictment not (primarily) of the WHO, but of Washington’s inability to sway the dozens of countries prepared to vote with China on the issue. Intense bilateral diplomacy—requiring coaxing, cajoling, unseemly horse-trading, and perhaps outright threats—would have been necessary to secure a seat for Taiwan, and that is what will be necessary to see continued successes like Tang’s win at WIPO.
Don’t Ditch the WHO
In the case of the WHO, the Trump Administration briefly attempted to use the power of the purse to secure reform. The President identified what he described as an “alarming lack of independence” from China. He temporarily suspended U.S. funding of the organization on April 14 pending “an investigation . . . of the organization’s failed response to the COVID-19 outbreak,” and later threatened to make the funding freeze permanent and to consider withdrawing from the organization unless the WHO takes quick action to “actually demonstrate independence from China” and to pursue unspecified reforms.
On May 30, in a stunning admission of American defeat, the President announced he was “terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization.” In what the White House described as remarks about “actions against China,” President Trump made clear that in the case of the WHO, Washington had neither the interest nor the wherewithal to compete with Beijing for influence.
Even if entirely justified, to withdraw from the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic makes for terrible public relations. It could also do real harm to the other important work the WHO does—for example, it is on the precipice of eradicating polio. The Trump Administration does not care, and the rest of the world is taking notice.
Do Pursue Interests vis-à-vis Taiwan
The approach to Taiwan, on the other hand, is a bright spot in the Trump Administration’s foreign policy. A strong relationship with Taiwan is in American interests regardless of anything China does or does not do. It is a major U.S. trading partner, for example, and its exemplary response to COVID-19 proves that Taiwan has much to offer the United States. But Taiwan also has an important role to play in America’s strategic competition with China. It occupies key terrain in Asia and its bustling democracy gives the lie to the notion that liberal governance is ill suited to the Chinese-speaking world. If the free world is to win the ideological contest with Beijing, Taiwan’s continued thriving is essential.
The challenges Taiwan faces due to Chinese pressure are substantial, but the COVID-19 crisis has created unexpected opportunities for Washington and Taipei to advance shared goals. For instance, the United States has long supported Taiwan’s expanding “international space”—its ability to engage meaningfully in both bilateral and multilateral settings. The deeper that Taiwan is enmeshed in the global order and the more that other states evince an interest in Taiwan’s fate, the greater the cost to Beijing of taking precipitous action vis-à-vis the country.
Now, Taiwan’s handling of the pandemic has positioned it to expand its global footprint. Donations of medical gear and virtual exchanges to share experiences combating the virus—with both formal diplomatic allies and unofficial partners—are winning Taiwan newfound respect. The United States, meanwhile, is actively promoting the “Taiwan Model,” apparently unconcerned about doing so when America’s own model for pandemic response leaves much to be desired. Smaller countries like New Zealand, Lithuania, and the Netherlands have been publicly supporting Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO or taking steps to deepen ties. Indeed, Taiwan’s response to this crisis could lead to more normal (if still unofficial) relations with a variety of foreign partners, greater engagement with IOs, and perhaps expanded trade ties with a greater diversity of overseas economies.
The United States can boost these efforts by continuing to facilitate Taiwan’s informal diplomatic engagement with new and old partners via the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF). This year’s first workshop, held virtually in April, was on combatting COVID-19 disinformation and involved more than 80 participants from nine countries.
Washington, however, should think bigger. Given Taiwan’s generosity—it is donating millions of masks to the United States—and given Taiwan’s success in combatting the pandemic, two unprecedented steps are in order: President Trump should call President Tsai Ing-wen to thank her personally for coming to America’s aid, and the speaker of the House of Representatives should invite President Tsai, if she is willing, to address a joint session of Congress. Taken together, these steps might create more space for other countries to deepen their own engagement with Taiwan and would give Taiwan’s President an enormous platform on which to make her country’s case not just to Americans but to a global audience.
China’s ongoing military activities in and around the Taiwan Strait also highlight the continuing importance of U.S.-Taiwan defense ties. In her second inaugural address, Tsai’s defense priorities included “accelerating the development of our asymmetrical capabilities” and “reforms to our military reserve and mobilization systems.” The Pentagon, which has been encouraging such prioritization, should accelerate efforts to assist Taiwan with these initiatives, while also ensuring the force as currently designed is well prepared for a fight. In that regard, the Defense Department and Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense should agree to conduct a series of bilateral military exercises over the next year, with an emphasis on surface warfare, air and missile defense, coastal defense, and cyber operations. Expanded cooperation in space may be in order as well.
Don’t Use Taiwan to Poke China in the Eye
Although COVID-19 presents the United States with an opportunity to deepen Taiwan ties and to help Taipei secure greater global engagement, the United States should be careful not to use Taiwan to punish China. Tom Malinowski, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey and a former assistant secretary of state, has advocated precisely that. “I can’t think of a better way of holding the Chinese government accountable and simultaneously indicating that this is a contest between their authoritarian model and democratic values,” he told the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, “than upgrading our relationship with the China that is democratic.”
Malinowski should know better. The United States should not upgrade its relationship with Taiwan in order to hold Beijing accountable. A closer relationship with Taiwan is in America’s interests regardless of Beijing’s COVID-19 sins. What’s more, using Taiwan in this way is potentially harmful to American long-term interests vis-à-vis the Taiwan Strait. Washington would be telegraphing to Beijing that it sees U.S.-Taiwan relations as a chip to be played in the U.S.-China competition. This could lead to a dynamic in which the United States modulates its approach to Taiwan in response to Chinese behavior. Such a dynamic would only lead to greater instability in the Taiwan Strait, given that CCP intentions toward Taiwan would remain constant while U.S. commitment would vary. It would also degrade Taiwan’s confidence in U.S. support, which could lead to further destabilizing decisions (think nukes).
Washington’s China and Taiwan policies are, of course, intimately linked. The United States does develop some aspects of its Taiwan policy in direct response to Chinese actions, notably in the defense realm. But deepening ties with Taiwan in the wake of COVID-19 because U.S. public health will benefit, or taking advantage of opportunities COVID-19 offers to pursue long-standing policies, is quite different from upgrading relations with Taiwan to hold China accountable. Taiwan is not a means of cost imposition, but rather a country with which the United States can and should pursue mutually beneficial outcomes.
Do Get Your House In Order
It should go without saying that the most important thing the United States can do to compete effectively with China is to mount an effective response to COVID-19 at home and prevent a prolonged economic downturn. The U.S. performance thus far leaves much to be desired. President Trump downplayed the threat for weeks and, beyond the initial limitations on some travel from China, was slow to act. In Congress, Democrats have sought to use relief bills to push through reforms that have little to do with the current crisis, while Republicans have at times let ideological blinders slow down the legislative process when rapid action is needed.
In the United States, there have now been more than 2 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 120,000 deaths. Foreign partners are looking to the United States for help—the Administration has committed $1 billion in foreign aid to combat the pandemic—but they are not looking to emulate the United States. They have seen that Washington has little interest in exercising effective global leadership. America may well be hemorrhaging soft power and international good will, both of which should be key advantages in its competition with China.
Don’t Mortgage Your Future Ability to Compete
The United States has thus far passed $3 trillion worth of relief bills. With millions out of work, small and large businesses alike on the brink, and an unclear path out of the country’s current economic woes, this spending is necessary. It will, however, have budgetary consequences for years to come.
Pressure is building to cut the defense budget, which was already expected to remain relatively flat in the coming years. On May 19, a group of 29 progressive members of Congress wrote to the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, urging them to reduce spending. “America needs a coronavirus cure, not more war,” the signatories wrote, channeling the energy of a Berkeley student activist from 1967. “We need more testing, not more bombs.” These members have taken an unserious approach to a serious problem.
Other members of Congress recognize that China will continue to present a significant challenge to U.S. national security interests long after the coronavirus ceases to pose an acute threat. In mid-April, HASC ranking member Mac Thornberry proposed an “Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative” (IPDI). The IPDI seeks “to enhance United States presence and positioning, allow for additional exercises, improve infrastructure and logistics, and build allied and partner capacity to deter aggression, strengthen ally and partner interoperability, and demonstrate United States commitment to Indo-Pacific nations.” Thornberry calls for a $6.09 billion commitment to the IPDI in 2021. The idea has bipartisan support. In late May, the chairman and ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee announced their intention “to establish a Pacific Deterrence Initiative in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021.”
Also in mid-April, Senator Cotton introduced the FORCE Act, which would authorize nearly $43 billion “to regain the advantage in the Indo-Pacific region . . . to increase United States capabilities for great power competition with the People’s Republic of China,” to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on the defense industrial base, and “to enhance national resilience and critical infrastructure in the United States.”
The fates of the FORCE Act and of the National Defense Authorization Act are unclear. Tough choices are coming. The defense budget will almost surely take a hit in 2021, but the priorities that Thornberry and Cotton outline are not simply nice-to-haves if the United States wants to maintain an effective defense posture in the Indo-Pacific. Deep spending cuts—or the wrong kinds of cuts—threaten to constrain Washington’s ability to wage strategic competition over the long term and to leave the United States with less wherewithal to shape the security environment across the Pacific.
It was inevitable that, if COVID-19 came to American shores, it would inflame passions, possibly leading to precipitous policy choices. That it hit during a presidential election year has ensured that the China policy debate is veering dangerously toward the irresponsible. It is crucial that, even as Washington grapples with COVID-19 and with China’s failure to contain it, it not lose sight of the long-term challenges that Beijing poses to American interests. Steady, thoughtful, and determined leadership is needed more now than at any time since September 11, 2001. One can’t help but wonder who will provide it.