Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 8, No. 4, April 2020
By Anders Corr, Ph.D.
Publisher of the Journal of Political Risk
Since 1989, when China massacred thousands of its own people in Tiananmen Square to stop a pro-democracy protest, the country has arguably grown into the world’s most powerful and centralized state. China’s GDP by purchasing power parity (PPP) is approximately $25.4 trillion, while the U.S. GDP PPP is only about $20.5 trillion. One man, Chinese President Xi Jinping, has almost total control of China’s economy and a leadership position for life. China’s authoritarian system, most recently, allowed the COVID-19 virus to become a pandemic. By the time it is controlled, it may have killed up to millions of people.
Compared to Xi Jinping, political leaders in democracies have comparatively little economic power. U.S. President Donald Trump, for example, has only partial control of the smaller (by purchasing power parity when compared to China) U.S. economy, and must be reelected in 2020 to continue his tenure for a maximum of an additional four years.
China’s accelerating economy has fueled its military spending, which increased approximately three-fold since 2008 to $177.5 billion in 2019, not including substantial programs hidden from public sight. Military and political analysts estimate that in the South China Sea and environs, China’s military capabilities already match or exceed those of the United States in many respects, as does China’s diplomatic influence. This puts pressure on the U.S. military to withdraw from the region, claimed as territory by Beijing. Over the next 30 years, China’s global military capabilities could exceed those of the United States, which would make it difficult for the U.S. to pose a credible threat against China’s already ongoing territorial expansion. Europe and Japan are similarly militarily weak when compared with their near competitors, Russia and China respectively. 
China’s actions are now indistinguishable from those that would serve a goal of China’s global rule in perpetuity. Hopes for engagement as a strategy to turn China into a democracy have now been dashed. Instead of us changing them, they are changing us through influencing our own political and economic leadership. There is a danger that as China ascends to the world’s most powerful nation, other nations will follow its lead through bandwagoning. The dual and increasing danger of bandwagoning and China’s influence means that a shift in strategy is needed.
Engagement should give way to a more aggressive strategy against China in order to defend freedom, democracy and human rights globally, and to incentivize allies and potential allies to declare themselves on the right side of the dispute before they enter the gravitational field of China’s economic influence.
As argued below, this should include labeling China as not just a competitor, which would imply that all play by the same rules, but as an adversary or even an enemy. Strategies must be calibrated accordingly to defeat the country, and more specifically, its guiding organization, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
There are at least five interrelated and overlapping strategies required to defeat the CCP: 1) Defend, 2) Ally, 3) Contain, 4) Divide, and 5) Democratize. Many of these strategies are overlapping, and have been proposed previously by a range of authors, cited here. They are all underway to some extent in various countries, however they are not being implemented at the scale and intensity needed to win. That should change now, or we risk continued relative weakening against the enemy.
These strategies were originally written from the perspective of the U.S., as one of the only countries capable of beating China alone. But they also apply to other countries that support freedom, democracy, and human rights, and that should adopt the strategies as part of a broad-based balancing coalition against China. The five strategies are detailed below.
Defensively, we need to protect our democratic processes from Chinese national influence (for example, U.S. corporations that do business in China and that lobby the President and other decision-makers by donating to campaigns or offering business revenues, including to family members, before and after their term in office). Our defense industrial base and most critical of supply chains should be protected from too great a dependence on overseas, and especially Chinese national, sources. The pandemic has revealed the inability of the deindustrialized democracies to supply themselves with even simple technologies like N95 facemasks and ventilators for life support. We need to double our defense budget, and ask our allies to double their defense budgets, to reverse the trend of our eroding competitive advantage against China, and pay for the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines necessary to protect America while forcing China to back down or surrender.
We need to recognize that China’s actions are consistent with a goal of global hegemony, and therefore that China and its allies Russia, Iran and North Korea are an existential threat to the U.S., Europe, other free nations, and the very ideas of freedom, democracy, and human rights. The CCP seeks to wipe out knowledge of these values wherever it has control, and new territories it might acquire would be no exception. Until China’s actions are consistent with a status quo rather than revisionist power, and until the country makes at least gradual reforms in the direction of democracy and human rights, we need to think of China as an enemy, label it as such publicly, and act accordingly.
To beat China we need strong allies. This is recognized by both the Trump Administration, which includes extensive references to allies in its National Security Strategy, and by Democrats. We should seek to strengthen alliances with both democratic nations like Britain, Japan and Taiwan, but also with autocratic countries like Russia and Vietnam, if we can get them on our side.
In the case of potential autocratic allies, we may need to provisionally accept their practices that diverge from our values in order to cement a winning alliance against China, which is the most powerful threat. We should at the same time ensure that the balance of global autocracy does not worsen, as we attempt to use fire to fight fire. This arguably occurred when we sought to use China to counterbalance the Soviet Union during the Cold War. When the Soviet Union ceased to be an existential threat in the 1990s, we should have turned our attention back to China, but we failed to do so. Through continued economic engagement, China grew into the economic and military threat that it is today.
We need both democratic and autocratic allies to stop sitting on the fence and playing both sides. They must demonstrate their support for our alliance by moving their public position away from China, and towards a NATO-led alliance against China. Countries like India and Indonesia need to publicly give up their non-aligned status if they want U.S. protection. Pakistan and other members of China’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), should quit this defense alliance or face economic sanctions. Countries can demonstrate their alliance intentions by publicly recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty and allowing it into international organizations, including the U.N. Autocratic countries should also demonstrate gradual improvements to democratic and human rights, to prove that they are on our side. They should use the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) as a guide. Countries that de-recognize Taiwan, that engage in military exercises with China, or that join China’s economic development program, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), thereby show their allegiance to China. They should face disincentives, for example decreased trade opportunities and security guarantees, by other alliance members.
We can contain China territorially through, for example, supporting our most responsible allies in Asia (e.g., Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia) to obtain the best military technology, including their own nuclear deterrent in what might be called nuclear containment. If we don’t allow allied democracies to have nuclear weapons, only autocratic enemies will have them, including China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran. That nuclear asymmetry in favor of autocratic nations poses unacceptable risk to the world’s democracies.
We can also contain China and its allies through economic sanctions and tariffs, which even if they don’t achieve their economic or human rights demands, are useful in weakening China economically. The weaker is China economically, the less tax revenue, and the weaker they will be militarily.
We must also contain critical technologies for economic and military development. This means tougher laws against technology transfer, including by decreasing Chinese nationals who study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM disciplines) in our universities, and fewer joint technology development projects with companies from China.
We need to draw red lines, set strategic tripwires through forward deployment of troops, and make security commitments to our most important allies in Asia to contain China where it is territorially aggressive, including against Taiwan, and in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Himalayan territory of India. If China captures any of these territories or buffer states, they can use their economies, resources, and military force against us. Thus, isolationism is a failed strategy, and we should move forces forward to enforce and make credible the red lines that we draw. These defensive measures and security guarantees should only be afforded to proven allies who pay their share. Those who pay less than 2% of GDP for defense, should not be afforded the same alliance guarantees. Those who sit on the fence like India, the Philippines and Vietnam, must first make clear and irreversible diplomatic moves away from China and its allies.
We need to roll back Chinese military bases and ports in Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Greece, and the South China Sea. We need to back our red lines with a willingness to engage in limited militarized disputes. We currently have escalation dominance against China, meaning that we would win if the dispute escalated. But that will not last long as China is building its military more quickly than is the U.S. Drawing red lines and defending them could mean, for example, selling Taiwan nuclear ballistic submarines, and putting a US naval or Coast Guard ship at Scarborough Shoal to ensure that China does not try to build another air base in the South China Sea. The only way to contain China is to accept risk, including of the military and economic variety.
We can divide China by supporting secessionist movements in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. We should recognize the independence and sovereignty of Taiwan, and encourage our allies to follow suit. Taiwan is the only legitimate government of China, based on the fact that it is the only democratic government of China. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), controlled by the CCP and based on force, human rights abuse, and the lack of freedom of assembly and speech, is therefore illegitimate. Those countries that fail to recognize Taiwan’s independence and derecognize the PRC should be subject to economic sanctions by a broad coalition of countries that support democratic values.
The PRC should be removed from the U.N. by a vote of the U.N. General Assembly. If the General Assembly does not so vote, the U.S. should disallow Chinese diplomats to the U.N. to pass U.S. borders, keeping them out of New York City, where the U.N. is headquartered. Exclusion of the PRC from the U.N. is justified to stop China’s territorial aggression and human rights abuse, which are contrary to the founding principles of democracy found in for example ancient Athens and the philosophy of John Locke, including the right to vote in genuine elections.
This right to democratic elections is also found in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). If in reaction to the exclusion of representatives of mainland China from U.N. grounds some countries threaten to quit the U.N., it will reveal which countries truly support the founding principles of the U.N., and those that have allied with totalitarian China. Those that ally with totalitarianism should also be excluded from the U.N., and should then become the target of economic sanctions.
We can democratize China first of all by supporting free access to information in China. “To win this political war against China, the United States must vigorously assert the superiority of its ideology while exposing the falsehood and deceptiveness of China’s,” as Bradley Thayer and Lianchao Han have written. “The best way to do this is to ensure free flow of information into China.” We can also welcome China’s non-STEM students to the U.S., where they have unimpeded access to information. After studying history and politics in U.S. universities, these students will return to China with positive ideas about democracy, where they should be supported to democratize their own country.
While democratizing and dividing China is in no way certain or easy, if we cannot divide and democratize the country, we can at least cause sufficient political support for democratization and regional independence that China reorients some of its defense spending to internal security and so becomes less of an external military threat. Democratization is an ideological battleground with material consequences, on which the U.S. has a strong and global advantage against China. We must use it to effect.
There will be countries, groups, and individuals who oppose these admittedly tough strategies against China, including those who do extensive business with China, and who are ideologically aligned with China, either because they are autocratic, communist, or want impunity for their own violations of human rights. China’s policy of non-interference and reorienting international organizations towards Beijing promises despots such immunity.
Countries that are currently most aligned with China include Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Those at risk of jumping off the fence and into China’s arms are Pakistan, Sudan, and Vietnam. In the U.S., there is a network of billionaires, universities, think tanks and nonprofits that have Chinese national sources of revenue, or that get donations from those who do. This engagement network is subtly influential in U.S., European, Japanese, Australian, and other policy circles. Now that we realize the engagement strategy failed, further engagement with China should be considered a breach of U.S. and allied defenses, through which Chinese national influence can affect our relatively open political system, there promoting paralysis where there should be a spirited defense of values.
These five strategies to beat the CCP entail some military and economic risk, which we must accept as the cost of defending freedom, democracy, and human rights. We have been risk-averse with China, which has led to stop-gap policies of appeasement, which carries its own risks. Our lack of preparedness for the pandemic is a case in point.
Appeasement more broadly has allowed China to revise the status quo in its favor, not only in terms of territory, but in terms of trade and technology, and internally against its own citizens. Wherever possible, economic and trade measures should be preferred over military measures in order to minimize risk. But we cannot shy away from a policy of peace through strength. China’s power is centralizing and expanding. We need to take strong action now to defend the freedoms we love, not only for ourselves, but for the future.
Anders Corr, Ph.D., is the publisher of the Journal of Political Risk. He has a B.A. and M.A. from Yale University in Political Science (2001), a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Government (2008), and five years of experience in military intelligence, including in Asia. This is a revised version from the original, published in Vol. 7, No. 7, July 2019.
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