We are currently engaged in a high-profile negotiation that may or may not succeed in getting the Chinese to buy more of our stuff.
This is a fine goal as far as it goes, although that isn’t very far. It doesn’t matter if China is a mercantilist, revisionist power that buys $14 billion of our soybeans or $25 billion of our soybeans — it is still a mercantilist, revisionist power representing a significant geopolitical challenge.
President Donald Trump came into office promising a more cleareyed approach to China than his predecessors. That would be a welcome change, although the sum total of it can’t be Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin wringing dubious pledges from Beijing to reduce its trade deficit with the U.S.
China isn’t just a commercial but a strategic competitor with the United States. It seeks to restore its former national glory, establish hegemony in East Asia and unravel Pax Americana. President Xi Jinping champions a national revival (“The Chinese Dream”) that flies in the face of the expectations that economic growth would soften China. Elizabeth C. Economy notes in her new book “The Third Revolution” that the Chinese leadership seeks “to reverse many of the political, social, and economic changes that emerged from thirty years of liberalizing reform.”
China uses its economic clout to back self-interested investments around the world and has poured resources into a decadeslong military buildup. As it has grown in strength, it has become increasingly assertive in making maritime claims in the region. It harasses its neighbors it wants to cow into submission, as we are shouldered aside.
We have long failed to grapple with the Chinese threat because we have believed that rising per capita income would do our work for us by inevitably democratizing China; because corporate America covets the Chinese market; and because, as Miles Maochun Yu of the Naval Academy points out, we are always “playing the China card” in pursuit of some other strategic objective — currently, the denuclearization of North Korea — rather than focusing on China in its own right.
At the moment, we are in the midst of a collective national freakout about Russia, a second-rate power, although an illiberal and aggressive one. China’s economy is eight times bigger than Russia’s. While Russia is associated with the weapons of the 20th century, China is heavily investing in high-tech weapons — cyberwarfare capabilities, hypersonic rockets, anti-satellite missiles and the like. “The United States cannot assume,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned last year, “it will have an enduring advantage in developing next frontier military technology.”
The comprehensive challenge of China deserves a comprehensive response. Diplomatically, we need to strengthen relations with all those countries on China’s periphery that feel threatened by it, Taiwan and Japan in particular.
Militarily, we need to spend more on research and development and on building up our Navy. Simply providing our forces relief from the readiness crisis, as the so-called omnibus spending bill approved earlier this year did, is not nearly enough. And we need to make it clear to China, through robust patrolling, that we are committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in the region.
Economically, we need a long-term approach to China’s mercantilism that is more sustainable and targeted than blustery threats of tariffs. This will require allies, which means that we should return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The pact was designed to lock China out of creating trade norms in the region, but Trump abandoned it in a perversely self-defeating protectionist gesture.
The Chinese flatter themselves that they have a long view that unstable American democracy lacks. When dealing with Steve Mnuchin, apparently desperate for any agreement he can wave around as a victory in the much-advertised looming trade war, they must feel confirmed in their belief. We need a strategy to convince them otherwise, and it will be the work of decades.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.