For the last 30 years, America’s policy with respect to China has been wrong. This is not the fault of any particular person or group of people. Rather, it is the shared and terrible failure of Republicans and Democrats, hawks and doves, businesses and think tanks.
In the wake of the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square (remember that?), America was compelled to pick an approach to the rising China. The foreign policy apparatus, then as now, routinely called upon recent history to inform their judgment.
The most relevant recent history in this instance was the successful containment of Russia. In 1989, the wisdom of that was becoming obvious, as America both won the Cold War and managed its unbloody denouement. The soft quarantine of Russian ambition, combined with economic and other inducements, worked to avoid a direct conflict until communist Russia collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.
American decisions in the wake of Tiananmen were also informed by the stark failure of international containment in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Then, Europe and the United States could not or would not wisely and fairly integrate Germany into the world order. That failure led directly to the deaths of 85 million people in World War II and rightly haunted foreign policy elites for 50 years.
Americans, therefore, concluded that the model of Russian containment — focused primarily on economic integration with a sidecar of military restraint — was the right answer and directly applicable to China. The theory was simple: If we trade enough with China, they will eventually incorporate our values into their society.
Unfortunately, that theory has proven to be wrong. China is no less ruthless, no less acquisitive, no less totalitarian, no less dangerous than it was a generation ago. In fact, all the last 30 years have done is made China stronger and the United States weaker and whetted China’s appetite for even more power.
What went wrong? Unlike Russia, China shares little of the West’s history or, consequently, its values. Before Lenin, Russia had about 1,300 years of fervent Christianity, with its troublesome emphasis on the sovereignty of individual conscience. It is hard to swim against that sort of embedded tide. The Chinese communists have no such problem. Collectivism and autocracy are native species in much of China.
There is no blame that attaches to our mistake. But it would be blameworthy if we did not take steps to remedy the situation. The American people are ahead of their leaders on this. In a survey conducted by Morning Consult in May, 65% of Republicans and 53% of Democrats identified China as more of an enemy than an ally.
Some in the Trump administration seem to be pointed in the right direction. Some don’t. Similarly, there are halting, disorganized efforts in Congress from both the left and right to address the China problem.
To have an organized, meaningful, effective national response, though, we need to start by acknowledging we made a mistake in our original efforts. We need clarity about the threat posed by China, whether it is the theft of intellectual property, the poaching of international territory, the manipulation of American financial markets, our dependence on supply chains that run through China, the effort to seize control of international organizations (and Hong Kong), or the risk posed by China’s control of 5G.
We need to avoid being ridiculous and worrying about things like TikTok, which aren’t actual threats, while ignoring issues such as concentration camps, predatory lending practices in the developing world, and the fact that most Apple phones are made or assembled in China.
Just a few days ago, 54 scientists were fired or resigned as part of a probe by the National Institutes of Health into scientists allegedly failing to disclose financial ties to foreign countries, primarily China. That received almost no media attention.
We need to do better.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.
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