By Aaron Kliegman
Years from now, we’ll look back on the coronavirus pandemic as a pivotal turning point in the second Cold War, the conflict between the US and China for global supremacy.
Before the virus hit, Beijing and Washington were already competing for dominance in virtually every domain, from manufacturing to military power, but the pandemic caused a kind of estrangement that hadn’t existed previously.
The fundamental situation hasn’t changed: China is plotting patiently to surpass the US as the world’s chief arbiter and power broker but knows it still has a long way to go. Therefore, Beijing won’t push the US or its allies too hard. Indeed, there seems to be a point of open hostility that, at least for now, neither side wants to pass. Fear of war and the reality of economic interdependence (among other factors) deter both countries from passing that point.
But the coronavirus has launched a new era in the second Cold War, hardening battle lines like never before.
Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic, which began in China and spread because of Beijing’s lies and mismanagement, has caused the American people to view China more negatively than they ever have. About 66 percent of Americans, for example, have an unfavorable opinion of China, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center. This percentage is higher than at any time since Pew began asking the question in 2005.
Another new survey, this one conducted by McLaughlin, found that Americans don’t trust China, with 70 percent saying that Beijing “knowingly kept coronavirus data from international health care professionals.” The survey also found that, because of China’s handling of the coronavirus, 72 percent of respondents think the US should change its trading relationship with China; the same percentage support American companies “with essential manufacturing and technology” leaving China to help rebuild the American economy; 75 percent believe the US should end its reliance on Chinese medical imports; and 59 percent agree America should “withdraw its manufacturing presence from China.”
Even polling from February, before the virus hit the US hard and put the country on lockdown, found the percentage of Americans who view China favorably had fallen to its lowest level in decades.
Critically, the data makes clear that both Democrats and Republicans — even those who say they disapprove of President Trump — share these negative views of China.
The American elites who make, implement, or influence policy generally share the people’s anti-China sentiments. This was not always so, however. In fact, these elites, Democrats and Republicans alike, argued for decades that trade with China would lead to the evolution of a democratic Chinese government.
“When will China become a democracy?” the late Henry Rowen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, asked in 1996. “The answer is around the year 2015. This prediction is based on China’s impressive economic growth, which in turn fits the way freedom has grown elsewhere in Asia.”
This was the view of countless politicians, analysts, and commentators since at least the 1970s, hitting its apex of popularity during democracy’s unchallenged moment in the 1990s. The idea was that, like Taiwan or South Korea, economic freedoms and more global interdependence in China would lead to economic growth, which in turn would lead the population, especially the new middle class, to demand political freedoms, and eventually there’d be democracy.
The language soon shifted to making China a “stakeholder” in the international order — the idea being that, by having more responsibilities and experiencing the benefits of the global economic system, Beijing would embrace change. This argument is what guided America’s decision to accept the admission of China to the World Trade Organization. Curiously, few people in power seemed to envision the prospect that China would reap the benefits of the system but simply not change.
Of course, the Chinese Communist Party is still in power and, if anything, becoming more authoritarian, despite opening up its economy.
Today, though, American leaders across the political aisle all want to be tough on China, to varying degrees. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) advocate tougher polices to punish China, not just President Trump and his allies. This shift began a few years ago but really materialized because of the Trump administration’s rhetoric and actions toward Beijing. Here the president’s critics can’t take credit away from him.
The coronavirus has pushed lawmakers to go the extra step, introducing legislation to decouple the US from China. For example, many politicians and commentators are now saying the US cannot rely on China at all for medical and pharmaceutical imports. We also see a level of genuine anger and frustration with China from all corners of American politics, not just the usual China hawks. This makes sense: When China is responsible for the pandemic yet blames, and even restricts medical exports to, the US, it’s hard not to be outraged.
Everyone has a complaint with the Chinese government — from military expansion, to stealing intellectual property, to abusing human rights. It seems we’re all China hawks now.
Therefore, now is the perfect time to form a coherent and comprehensive national strategy to counter China’s hostile ambitions in this second Cold War. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the American people and their representatives in Washington united under the banner of “being tough on China,” policymakers have a chance to do something major with broad public support. The US-China estrangement will only get worse, so Americans need to act sooner, not later.
Creating such a strategy is not some academic exercise. In 1946, right at the beginning of the first Cold War, George Kennan, then an American diplomat serving in Moscow, wrote his famous “Long Telegram,” explaining Soviet behavior and outlining the strategy of containment. The idea was to contain and stifle Moscow’s expansion abroad, which in turn would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” This strategy guided American policy right up to the Soviet Union’s collapse. Kennan’s document mattered.
Today, the US needs a new version of the Long Telegram for China, a strategy that explains Chinese behavior and how to win a conflict that will determine whether we live the rest of this century in a world of light and prosperity or one of darkness and oppression. Newt helped start this critical conversation with his recent book, Trump Vs. China: Facing America’s Greatest Threat, discussing what the Chinese threat is and how to thwart it. A vigorous, national debate must grow from there, because like the first Cold War, the US cannot afford to lose its sequel.
Aaron Kliegman is a freelance writer based in Virginia. Previously, he was a staff writer and news editor at the Washington Free Beacon, where he wrote analysis and commentary on foreign policy and national security. Aaron’s work has been published in a range of publications, and he has a master’s degree in international relations. Aaron is now writing regular columns for the Inner Circle as a contributor, and I am excited to have him on the Gingrich 360 team. — Newt
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