Difficult as it is for many to accept, the United States 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 Donald Trump’s, will produce one of two outcomes: either a fundamental and irreversible diminution of America’s world status, i.e., strategic retreat, or a revolutionary change in Communist China’s system of government, i.e., regime change. The third alternative – which no longer can 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 Seas and scornful rejection of the United Nations 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 will be in mortal danger of crumbling.
Alternatively, the United States could lead other democratic societies in a combined economic, values-based, and security-oriented coalition along the lines that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proposed in July. The West’s collective efforts, if seriously implemented and sustained, can 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 the massive peaceful demonstrations in 1989 that ended in bloody suppression. The outcome this time could be dramatically different, since the Chinese population no longer would be alone in their struggle.
As Pompeo said, none of this will be easy, and it will mean sacrifices on the part of internal and external participants. The Chinese people will 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.
For its part, the international community, even if it manages to maintain cohesion, will confront a myriad of economic and diplomatic reprisals from Beijing. That will subject Western societies to costs that many will 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-U.S. 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. America vying for temporal geopolitical advantage, but two diametrically opposing worldviews, governing philosophies, and value systems in conflict for permanent civilizational supremacy.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen described her own 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 U.S. interests and values.”
Beijing demonstrated the pervasive role of ideology even in a global health emergency. After it released the coronavirus 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: a) It stopped Trump’s accelerating trade pressures that were inducing economic reform and threatening political reform; b) it stalled the burgeoning U.S. economy into a tailspin; and c) it reversed Trump’s once all-but-certain reelection prospects.
Beijing must have tired of so much winning 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 to Western countries’ failure to either halt the virus’s 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.
America’s 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 at least can follow Trump’s bold lead and set the tone by accepting a congratulatory telephone call from President Tsai.
The expectation of U.S. 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 U.S. 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 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.