Written by Joseph Bosco.
To prevent the Communist Party of China from interfering in America’s November election the way it did with Taiwan in January, President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, should present a united front on U.S.-China policy.
Beijing’s anti-U.S. propaganda campaign long has been under way, with the usual accusations of “hegemonism,“ “containment” and “keeping China down” — all intended to put policymakers and opinion leaders on the defensive by invoking China’s “century of humiliation” at the hands of the West. The campaign has two other purposes.
First, it seeks to further exacerbate political divisions in American society and to destabilize and enervate governmental institutions. The second objective is to affect U.S. national security policymaking in ways that advance the strategic interests of Beijing and Moscow at the expense of the United States and its security allies and partners.
Now the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has arrived conveniently in time to stall the U.S. economy and deepen partisan divisions over the cause of the outbreak and the government’s response. It also has opened a whole new disinformation front, with Beijing sources accusing the United States Army of releasing the disease, denying its Chinese origins, and labeling U.S. officials as racist and xenophobic.
The presidential candidates will have the pandemic and a host of other domestic and foreign policy issues to debate between now and November. But the one issue they need to remove from partisan contention is America’s single most important national security challenge: the existential threat posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Given their respective histories on China, they should be able to present a united front and eliminate Beijing’s efforts to further inflame American society and debilitate the U.S. government and military establishment.
They should start by fully embracing the core U.S. national security reality embodied in the National Defense Strategy, which says that “China … seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony … and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence.” Put more bluntly, since the PRC under Mao Zedong gained political power “out of the barrel of a gun,” it has seen the United States as the implacable enemy standing in the way of its goal of world domination.
The “anti-imperialist” campaign started with Mao’s “wars of national liberation” throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. Then China joined with North Korea in the invasion of South Korea, pitting their combined communist forces against the United States. That ended in a stalemate, with the war against the non-communist South defeated but with the aggressors in Beijing and Pyongyang still in power to fight another day. A decade later, China was again in the business of killing Americans, this time in Vietnam. It succeeded in helping communist North Vietnam invade and conquer the anti-communist government and people of South Vietnam after their American allies abandoned them, despite 15 years of sacrifice.
While Mao was busy engaging in foreign adventurism, his Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward at home caused the deaths of up to 50 million Chinese and the physical and mental enslavement of the rest. By 1972, President Nixon was determined to alter the geopolitical dynamic. “China must change. The world cannot be safe until China changes,” he vowed. He and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, offered China U.S. protection from the Soviet Union, eventual diplomatic recognition, and abandonment of Taiwan.
Beijing was asked only to become a more cooperative member of “the family of nations” and to start by persuading Ho Chi Minh to allow a face-saving U.S withdrawal from Vietnam. Instead, China collected the diplomatic, economic and security benefits of Nixon’s opening, watched with satisfaction America’s dying agony in Vietnam, and resumed pursuit of the next step in its expansionist program — retaking Taiwan through coercion or by force.
When President Carter shifted diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, an outraged Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) to state America’s strong interest in Taiwan’s security and its transition from dictatorship to democracy. After firing missiles toward Taiwan in 1995, Chinese military officials asked how the U.S would respond if China carried its attack further. Joseph Nye, the State Department’s Asia official, did not invoke the TRA, saying instead, “We don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances.” That message of strategic ambiguity has not deterred China from preparing an arsenal of attack submarines and anti-ship missiles to keep the U.S. Navy from intervening against a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Beijing continues a relentless pressure-campaign to gain Taiwan’s submission by repeatedly threatening force and often finds sympathetic voices in the West — Kissinger warned Taiwan that “China will not wait forever.” But Beijing’s program of disinformation and disunity goes beyond Taiwan. As the Defense Department’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report states, “The Chinese Communist Party undermines the international system from within by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order.”
One way of doing that is to sow distrust in the integrity of Western political institutions. Candidates Trump and, presumably, Biden can dissuade Beijing from meddling in the November election by committing to implement the China policies articulated in the cited strategic documents. That means continuing and expanding the freedom of navigation operations the Navy is conducting in the South and East China Seas and elsewhere. It means deepening America’s security commitment to Taiwan and removing the ambiguity that keeps Beijing planning when and how to strike. It means maintaining the economic pressures of tariffs to induce fair PRC trade practices and sanctions to stop it from undermining maximum pressure on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. And it means decoupling China from America’s vital communications systems and pharmaceutical supply lines. A recent Foreign Affairs article cited a Chinese source as warning “the United States could be ‘plunged into the mighty sea of coronavirus’ if China imposed controls on the export of basic pharmaceutical ingredients and face masks.”
There seems to be not much that is beyond the pale for a Chinese Communist Party system that herds a million Uighurs into brutal concentration camps, harvests organs from Falun Gong members, allows the deadly flood of opioids into the United States and, with reckless disregard, unleashes a pandemic on the world.
Trump and Biden surely can agree on that threat and the urgent need to confront and defeat it.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.