President Donald Trump is making a perilous mistake in courting an increasingly illiberal, aggressive, anti-American China striving to displace the U.S. as the dominant power in Asia — the world’s major power center for the 21st century.
On China, the Trump administration has largely perpetuated the errors of President Obama’s ways. The president mistakenly considers China a partner in reining in North Korea rather than seeing Beijing as Pyongyang’s prime enabler. Trump has backed away from his promises to confront China for stealing American intellectual property, practicing unfair trade, manipulating its currency at the expense of American prosperity, and engaging in a relentless military buildup.
This entails bolstering democratic friends in the region while having no illusions about our illiberal, expansionist, anti-American foes.
That buildup is directly aimed at neutralizing the capacity of the U.S. to project power into the Western Pacific — vital to restoring credibility of America’s alliances with like-minded democracies in the region.
Like Obama, Trump has ignored China’s brutal and systematic suppression of human rights and religious freedom, oblivious to the dire implications of these internal trends for Chinese conduct abroad.
The venerable Freedom House ranks China dismally as a six on a scale of one to seven in the category of political freedom. Nor is China a free-market economy by any stretch of the imagination. On the contrary, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controls the key vantage points of the economy. The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal rank China as a six in the category of economic freedom, with seven being least free.
The U.S. and our democratic allies would rest more securely with considerably less enthusiasm about the Chinese dictatorship than President Trump has expressed. China will remain a hegemonic threat menacing its neigbors and its people so long as the CCP runs the regime. Under Xi Jinping, China has intensified its repression at home and aggression abroad. The infamous and ominous Chinese Document Number 9, a confidential memorandum Xi issued to the CCP in 2013, identifies Western freedoms in all its manifestation as an existential threat the Party must stoutly resist.
Worse, China’s deeds correspond to the regime’s hostility toward freedom generally as well as the U.S. as the bulwark of the liberal order CCP ventures to replace. The U.S. cannot tolerate China dominating Asia. Some 3.8 billion people — over half the world’s total population — live in the region.
The area is also the fastest growing in the world economically and militarily. As Princeton scholar Aaron Friedberg observes, “control of East Asia by a potentially hostile power could give it preferred access to, if not full command over, the region’s vast financial, natural, and technical resources. Such an Asian hegemon would inevitably possess the secure and broad base to “project power into other regions.”
The insidious combination of China’s prodigious 20-year military buildup and America’s precipitous military build-down under President Obama has increased the apprehension of America’s traditional democratic allies in Asia and a potentially new one, India under the pro-American, pro-market, anti-Islamist Prime Minister Nahendras Modi. There is a real concern the U.S. may lack the moral and strategic clarity necessary to deter an increasingly powerful, ambitious, arrogant and illiberal Chinese regime from dominating the region.
Despite China’s remarkable economic growth since 1979, the U.S. still retains a healthy lead economically. Harvard and Stanford scholar Josef Joffe argues persuasively that China’s economic growth will level out as “youthful exuberance” gives way to maturity, just as Japan, West Germany, Korea, and Taiwan in the 20th century failed to sustain the rapid pace of the early decades of their economic miracles. The U.S. can remain number one by Joffe’s sound reckoning because of the inherent strength of America’s free market system, healthy demographics, huge reserves of energy, and a vastly superior educational system grounded in freedom of inquiry — all of which an authoritarian, aging China sorely lacks.
Prudence dictates, however, rejecting the notion of inevitability from any quarter. The maintenance of American pre-eminence depends vitally on what we choose to do and not to do. President Trump has done two things already vital to ensuring that the CPP eventually chooses the path of Gorbachev: i.e., reform rather than expansion when the imperatives of sustaining prosperity and the monopoly of the Communist Party inevitably clash. One, Trump will raise subtantially the barriers to Chinese aggression that Obama dangerously lowered by his military buildup, preserving American military power with a generous margin to spare on land, sea, air and space. Two, his market-oriented reforms will boost the American economy, which stagnated under the crushing weight of Obama’s voracious expansion of the regulatory and entitlement state.
These prudent policies will not suffice, however, without President Trump’s displaying a firmer grasp of strategic and moral realities about China under the CCP. Trump must treat China as our greatest rival requiring muscular deterrence rather than engagement. This entails an American-led democratic alliance system, with Japan, South Korea, and India forming its cornerstones. This entails trading with China when possible but denying the regime outlets for expansion and subversion that would perpetuate the monopoly of the CCP — the wellspring of Beijing’s insatiable ambitions.
This entails bolstering democratic friends in the region while having no illusions about our illiberal, expansionist, anti-American foes. The U.S. will achieve neither peace nor honor in search of counterfeit cooperation with Xi Jinping’s China. The sooner President Trump realizes that, the better for America and its allies.
Robert G. Kaufman is a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America.”