The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the China challenge into fuller view. A new Pew Research poll shows 66 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable view of the communist country, the highest percentage since Pew began tracking in 2005. President Donald Trump should give a major national address and outline the breadth of the challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and outline his administration’s efforts to galvanize domestic and global support with the ultimate goal of winning that challenge.
Since the pandemic began, there has been a renewed sense of urgency to strengthen U.S. sovereignty and end its dependence on China. Some of those efforts include moving critical supply chains to American soil, ending dependence on China for rare earth minerals used for manufacturing everything from missiles and munitions to batteries and motors, and barring Chinese telecom giant Huawei and its suppliers from using American technology and software. Elected officials are urging greater scrutiny of Chinese student visas, as U.S. prosecutors aggressively work to crack down on Chinese spying and intellectual property theft in our academic and scientific institutions.
President Trump has mostly left straight talk about China to his deputies. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “the Chinese Communist Party is a Marxist-Leninist Party focused on struggle and international domination.” Attorney General William Barr warned that, “as a dictatorship, China can marshal an all-of-country approach” as it seeks to dominate other nations and destroy capitalism. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “They have said that by 2035, the [People’s Republic of China] intends to complete its military modernization and, by 2049, it seeks to dominate Asia as the preeminent global military power.”
In contrast, Trump’s rhetoric about China and its president, Xi Jinping has, until very recently, been more mixed. The president has tried to leave open the possibility that flattery of Xi might leave a diplomatic opening. Three years in, we now know that it won’t. Now, more than ever, the president must clearly and unequivocally state the truth.
And the truth is that the CCP seeks to replace the United States as the preeminent global power. It is, at root, an authoritarian regime, and its policies and treatment of other nations will reflect the brutish character that it has so carefully cultivated.
Well known are China’s domestic gross abuses of its people in the form of the re-education camps of Uighur Muslims, persecution of Christians, population control, censorship and arrests without the pretense of due process.
But China seeks to control well beyond even its immediate neighbors. It is exporting its facial recognition software and systems, which underpin the surveillance state it uses to intimidate and control speech and behavior. In Australia and New Zealand, and even right under our noses in American universities, China targets higher education in the West to steal intellectual property and chill speech.
While China exploits open societies and enriches itself off the American consumer and investors, it is amassing thousands of missiles to sink American ships, down American warplanes, destroy American planes and runways in Guam and in Japan and take out American satellites. Beijing has invested in a navy with more ships than ours (though our ships are still more capable), in an advanced nuclear weapons program and has been exploiting outer space for military purposes long before the Space Force was a twinkle in Mike Pence’s eye.
Inside the Pentagon, some admit with trepidation that it isn’t a given that America would win a war in the Indo-Pacific—or, alternatively, they admit that the cost of winning that war would be so high as to be merely Pyrrhic. It is hard to overstate how damaging this would be to the United States. The reality is that America has nothing short of its preeminent power status riding on its ability and will to make good on its security commitments—and the CCP knows it.
The strategic mission of the United States must be to persuade China that any act of aggression against U.S. allies or forces will not be worth the cost. Such persuasion would deter war and preserve peace. The Pentagon has begun to strengthen deterrence by improving our military posture, but more must be done—and faster. Some of the weapons needed to provide this deterrent are relatively cheap: ground-based missiles in theater, which we are free to deploy since President Trump thankfully withdrew the United States from the INF Treaty. But some of the needs are more expensive: modernizing and adapting the U.S. nuclear triad and developing and deploying a robust space sensor architecture, including a missile tracking layer to track enemies’ hypersonic weapons.
Some in Congress, always opportunistically looking to cut defense spending, will undoubtedly seek to trim the military budget to pay for “pandemic-related” health care initiatives. But this would be a grave mistake. American military preeminence protects Americans, empowers our diplomats and stabilizes markets. All are made better by an American military that is the global standard.
Finally, we must strengthen alliances that are indispensable in this new era of major power competition. This will entail giving diplomatic support to those who demonstrate the will and ability to fight back against shared threats. It certainly means greater ties and collaborative effort with Australia, Japan, and India. But it also means supporting countries like Taiwan and Vietnam, which punch far above their weight.
It also means the president’s public bickering with our traditional allies on trade and defense spending, however useful it initially may have been to disrupt the status quo, should now come to an end. This does not mean he should expect less from our allies—but we can insist respectfully, resolutely and, when truly necessary, privately. It’s time to unify against the Chinese threat and publicly support those standing firm in defense of national sovereignty, the rule of law, fairness, reciprocity and peace. It’s time to rally the American people on surmounting the China challenge.
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