Difficult as it is for many to accept, the US and China are emphatically locked in an ideological and existential geostrategic confrontation. Denial is no longer an option.
The long-simmering competition, ignored or dismissed by every administration until US President Donald Trump’s, will produce one of two outcomes: either a fundamental and irreversible diminution of the US’ world status, ie, strategic retreat, or a revolutionary change in communist China’s system of government, ie, regime change.
The third alternative — which can no longer be dismissed as unthinkable given the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) hostile trajectory — is a calamitous war with China.
For decades, the West has acquiesced to Beijing’s exploitation of the rules-based international trading system; its flouting of the maritime rules of the road in the East and South China seas and scornful rejection of the UN tribunal’s ruling against its territorial claims; its undermining of international sanctions against states violating nonproliferation and human rights standards; its own massive abuses of human rights in Tibet and Xinjiang; its abrogation of international agreements on Hong Kong; its aggression against Taiwan; and its blatant subversion of democratic norms and institutions globally.
If China’s attack on the international order is allowed to continue, or to restart where the Trump administration has slowed its momentum, the edifice of Western civilization would be in mortal danger of crumbling.
Alternatively, the US could lead other democratic societies in a combined economic, values-based and security-oriented coalition along the lines that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proposed in July.
The West’s collective efforts, if seriously implemented and sustained, could impose effective pressures on China’s communist regime to halt, or at least substantially modify, its dangerous ambitions.
That strategy would need to be merged with Pompeo’s other appeal — for the Chinese people themselves to press the communist system for internal reforms. They tried once before in massive peaceful demonstrations in 1989 that ended in bloody suppression. The outcome this time could be dramatically different, as the Chinese population no longer would be alone in their struggle.
As Pompeo said, none of this would be easy, and it would mean sacrifices on the part of internal and external participants. Chinese would face at least the kind of punitive measures Beijing is visiting on the population of Hong Kong, and potentially worse — a return to the mass violence unleashed at Tiananmen Square by that “Great Reformer” Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
For its part, the international community, even if it manages to maintain cohesion, would confront a myriad of economic and diplomatic reprisals from Beijing. That would subject Western societies to costs that many would be unwilling to accept without enlightened leadership from governments and political elites.
It would involve a dauntingly concerted international effort, comparable to what the world found itself engaged in during the Cold War — but less catastrophic in human and economic destruction than the apocalyptic costs of World War II.
The stakes could not be higher, and the Trump administration’s recognition of the fraught reality came not a moment too soon. It would be a historic tragedy if the progress it began to generate is stalled by the election result.
The incoming Biden team, and the world it claims to be ready to lead, can ill afford to return to the discredited bipartisan policies of the pre-Trump era.
The ideological nature of the China-US confrontation is ultimately what makes it an existential struggle — because the very self-identity of the two contestants is at stake. It is not just China vs the US vying for temporal geopolitical advantage, but two diametrically opposing worldviews, governing philosophies and value systems in conflict for permanent civilizational supremacy.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) described her country’s role in the titanic moral and strategic struggle: “After Hong Kong, Taiwan stands increasingly on the front lines of freedom and democracy.”
The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, promulgated in December 2017, identified China and Russia as “revisionist powers” determined to “shape a world antithetical to US interests and values.”
Beijing demonstrated the pervasive role of ideology even in a global health emergency. After it released COVID-19 to the world, the Chinese government contrasted its own relatively successful performance, albeit with months of advance notice, to the slow response of the unprepared West it had lulled into complacency. The difference, it argued, demonstrated the superiority of CCP’s governing model.
Serendipitously, it also achieved three other benefits for China: It stopped Trump’s accelerating trade pressures that were inducing economic reform and threatening political reform; it put the burgeoning US economy into a tailspin; and it reversed Trump’s once all-but-certain re-election prospects.
Beijing must have tired of winning so much, because it arrogantly overplayed its hand by acquiring and hoarding personal protective equipment, then “generously” redistributing it.
Posturing as an international savior, it again boasted of its disciplined excellence compared with Western countries’ failure to either halt the virus’ spread or revive their economies.
The communist leaders’ deceit, arrogance and cynicism in the face of global suffering showed a callousness and lack of humanity that coincided with its flagrant crackdown on Hong Kong, its menacing moves on Taiwan, and its genocidal actions in Tibet and Xinjiang.
That conglomeration of cruelty finally proved more than many countries could bear. The Trump administration’s escalating calls for a united Western posture began to find receptive audiences. Newly clear-eyed Asian and European governments aroused their populations to history’s latest threat to Western civilization.
The US’ contentious national election cannot be allowed to dilute the prospects for an effective, unified global response to the common existential danger from an all-but-declared ideological enemy. The Biden administration must take up the Trump cudgel and advance the great unwinding of the Chinese communist empire.
Ultimately, it must mean the liberation of the noble Han Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur, Mongolian and Hong Kong populations, and the defense of the already free people of Taiwan.
If Biden is not ready to adopt the strategic clarity that Trump was moving toward, he can at least follow Trump’s bold lead and set the tone by accepting a congratulatory telephone call from Tsai.
The expectation of US timidity is already increasing the danger of Western backsliding from progress made by this administration. Once it appeared the Trump presidency was ending, Germany returned to the Russian pipeline project that US pressure had halted. That cannot be allowed to be a harbinger of what lies ahead for the Biden administration’s response to the China threat.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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