The deteriorating relationship between the world’s two superpowers—the United States and China—is now entering a period of grave danger. An emboldened Chinese Communist Party is now on the move in Asia and globally. Increasingly, its behavior constitutes a threat to peace and security in Asia and the core national interests of the United States. Whether the United States and its allies exhibit the strategy and resolve to meet this threat will be the single most important determinant of world order in the coming decade.
Over social media and through its multi-billion-dollar global propaganda machine, the PRC now spreads the message in multiple languages, 24-7, that democracy is an inferior system of government to China’s efficient dictatorship; that China is a peaceful, selfless, and generous rising power, seeking merely to “help a world in need”; and that the U.S. epitomizes the inability of democracies to cope effectively with the virus—even though the CCP’s negligence helped unleash it on the world. But the image of “benevolence” and “harmony” that the Chinese Communist Party-State is trying to promote through its overt and covert global media operations is belied by its brutal subjugation of its Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang—a crime against humanity; by its assault on civil liberties and the rule of law in Hong Kong; by “sharp power” tactics to penetrate, corrupt, and coopt democratic institutions around the world; by its neocolonial exploitation of debt diplomacy and political corruption to swindle developing countries out of their critical infrastructure and natural resources; by the breathtaking pace of its military expansion and modernization, aided by the most audacious, comprehensive and sustained campaign of technology theft in global history; and by its increasing military adventurism and belligerence in Asia, particularly in the South China Sea.
We have arrived at a critical juncture in world history. In 2013, the Financial Times’ David Pilling observed, “Deng Xiaoping was fond of quoting the ancient Chinese proverb ‘Tao guang yang hui’, which is generally rendered: ‘Hide your brightness, bide your time.’” For two generations of American scholars and policymakers, the hopeful interpretation of this phrase was that China would have a peaceful rise to great-power status, becoming what former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick termed “a responsible stakeholder” in global affairs. But as Orville Schell, one of America’s premier China watchers, concluded in a recent magisterial survey of nearly half a century of America’s “engagement policy” with China, it “died tragically in 2020 due to neglect.” There were plenty of mistakes on the American side, but the key cause of death was that it no longer served the interests of China’s Communist Party-State, and of its leader, Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. And this is not simply because Xi is a more domestically ruthless and globally ambitious leader than any other of the post-Mao era. It is also because engagement—which, as Schell notes, never delivered equivalence and reciprocity from the Chinese side—had outlived its usefulness. In his prescient essay seven years ago, Pilling added about Deng’s phrase, “The idea was to keep China’s capabilities secret until the moment was right to reveal them.” Now, Chinese leaders seem to believe that moment has arrived.
Recent developments signal a new authoritarian bravado and belligerence on the part of the PRC. The three most worrisome aspects of this are the betrayal of Beijing’s commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy; the escalating pace of PRC militarization and muscle-flexing in the South China Sea; and the growing existential challenge to the freedom and security of Asia’s most liberal democracy, Taiwan.
On June 30, the PRC finally lowered the boom on Hong Kong, adopting the draconian national security law that it had announced but not detailed the previous month. The new law gives the government in Beijing carte blanche to arrest anyone in Hong Kong it claims is committing acts of “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism,” or “collusion with foreign powers.” The language is so broad it can apply to anyone (even abroad) advocating for the civil and political rights of Hong Kongers, as guaranteed both in international charters and in the 1984 Sino-British Declaration. Procedurally, this delivers the death knell to the rule of law in Hong Kong, since it will be enforced by a secretive committee, dominated by the Beijing authorities, whose decisions “shall not be amenable to judicial review.” And just so the people of Hong Kong do not misjudge what they are up against if they continue to try to exercise what were once their rights of free expression, penalties for violating the law can include life in prison. The day after the law went into effect, 10 Hong Kongers were arrested under its provisions (including a 15-year-old girl), and another 360 were taken into custody as new protests erupted.
Fear now stalks what has been one of Asia’s most civically vibrant cities. The police no longer need search warrants to monitor suspects or seize their assets. Activists are deleting their Twitter accounts and writers their posted articles from news sites. Booksellers confess to being “paranoid” that their customers could be government spies. And, the New York Times reports, “A museum that commemorates the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is rushing to digitize its archives, afraid its artifacts could be seized.”
To be sure, Hong Kong’s brave democrats are not simply bowing in the face of Beijing’s bullying. Over 600,000 people turned out last weekend for a remarkably disciplined and well-staged primary election organized by the pro-democracy camp to choose its candidates for the September Legislative Council elections. The vote took place in defiance of official warnings that it might violate the new national security law. Protests continue, and pro-democracy activists vow to carry on the struggle at the ballot box and on the streets. But tactics must now be more creative and oblique (blank posters now sometimes stand in place of explicit statements of resistance). A few opposition figures have already left, and as the vise tightens, more people will emigrate. Beijing’s strategy is to instill fear, demoralize opposition, compel submission, coopt the wavering, and gradually increase repression until Hong Kong’s robust society realizes that resistance is futile. But this is not simply Beijing’s strategy for Hong Kong, it is the means by which it seeks to secure dominance over all of Asia.
Having finally secured (or so they believe) Hong Kong’s submission, China’s communist leaders now look to the South China Sea as their next conquest. A quick look at the map of China’s “Nine-Dash Line” reveals the absurdity of its claims to sovereignty over 85 percent of these waters—which are rich in fishing and mineral rights, as well as in geopolitical leverage (with an estimated one third of all global shipping passing through). Most of the Nine-Dash Line veers far from Chinese land deep into the proximity of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines—as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague recognized in 2016 when it upheld the case brought by the Philippines against China’s expansive claims. Nevertheless, China has not only spent the last several years militarizing the Sea—in part by creating islands from dredged sand and then converting them into military bases. As Robert Manning and Patrick Cronin have recently observed, China has also been seeking “to coerce its maritime neighbors to abandon their claims and territorial rights under international law and irrevocably alter the status quo.” Increasingly, China harasses fishing boats from the other four countries (sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed waters in April), and it threatens oil and gas projects in waters that lie within the exclusive economic zones of Malaysia and Vietnam. The escalating maritime harassment, Manning and Cronin write, is stoking fears “that China is trying to disrupt and gradually strangle Malaysian and Vietnamese oil and gas operations in the area and erase their territorial claims.” Although the Obama Administration backed the ruling in the Hague as “final and binding,” a more vigorous American posture is needed. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed China’s territorial claims in the region as “completely unlawful,” while two American aircraft carriers sailed with their strike groups into the South China Sea. These are the kinds of actions that are needed—and will be needed more—to deter and contain China’s aggressive intent.
For it is not just Hong Kong and the rich, strategic waters of the South China Sea over which Beijing is determined to extend its dominance. It is also Taiwan, which the PRC leaders have always claimed is a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland. Every Chinese leader since Mao has vowed to achieve this. But in the post-Deng era of “hiding strength and biding time,” no ruler seriously contemplated using force to resolve the question (absent a grave provocation from Taiwan, such as a declaration of independence). That may now be changing for three reasons. First, the era of China’s communist leaders “biding their time” on the global stage is over. Now they seek to upend the postwar liberal order, to remake international institutions and norms, and to restructure the balance of power in Asia and beyond. Second, in contrast to his two predecessors, who left power after the limit of their two five-year presidential terms, Xi has done away with term limits and plans to rule for life. Thus, he can no longer pass the Taiwan “problem” on to his successor, while claiming to have inched the PRC’s prospects forward. For his domestic legitimacy, and to realize his ambitions for China’s global rise, he must “recover” Taiwan. And third, Xi may now realize that United Front tactics of penetration, propaganda, corruption, and cooptation will not pluck Taiwan into the lap of the Party. That scenario looks illusory in the wake of the crushing defeat of the KMT’s Beijing-friendly presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, in Taiwan’s January 2020 presidential election (and then Han’s ignominious recall by the voters from his position as Mayor of Kaohsiung). The CCP must now sense that no amount of money, misinformation, infiltration or coercion is going to lure Taiwan into the political arms of the CCP—and certainly not after the Party has shown “one country, two systems” to be a grotesque fraud.
For these reasons, the coming years will present the greatest challenge to peace and security in Asia since the Vietnam War. Indeed, a more sobering historical analogy may be more warranted. In their important and insightful new Foreign Affairs essay asking, “Is Taiwan the next Hong Kong?” two former NSC Senior Directors for Asia, Michael Green and Evan Medeiros (who served, respectively, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama), warn of the danger of “creeping irredentism.” When “Putin decided to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea in 2014, he was drawing on lessons from his 2008 invasion of Georgia.” The lack of a decisive Western response to the latter “created a permissive environment for the former.” China’s leaders, they warn, will weigh the U.S. response on Hong Kong when they consider “future aggression in Asia.” Already, they have begun dropping the “peaceful” part of “peaceful unification” in some of their public speeches about the future of Taiwan.
There is an even darker historical parallel: Hitler’s seizure of the whole of Czechoslovakia, obliterating the September 1938 Munich Agreement like Xi negated the Sino-British Joint Declaration promising Hong Kong autonomy through 2047. One of America’s most respected China scholars recently told me, “I look at Hong Kong now as Czechoslovakia, and an assault on Taiwan would be the equivalent of Hitler’s invasion of Poland.”
Wishful thinkers thought Hitler would be satisfied with part of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland). And then the whole thing. But then he invaded Poland, and the rest was the history of the most destructive war in human history.
There is a reason why the Munich Agreement has ever since been synonymous with international appeasement and blunder. There is no more important historical lesson than the folly of appeasing an authoritarian aggressor. This is what is at stake now in East Asia. That is why it so important for the United States to stand resolute in support of Hong Kong’s autonomy and democratic rights; why we must impose serious sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong leaders who are responsible for the assault on those rights; why we must work with our allies throughout the Indo-Pacific region to counter Chinese bullying and intimidation and ensure open sea lanes and peaceful resolution of disputes; and why we must leave no doubt in the minds of China’s leaders that we will, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “pay any price” and “bear any burden . . . in order to assure the survival and success of liberty” in this vitally important part of the globe.