Commentary: What Pompeo gets right — and wrong — about China

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the Nixon Presidential Library last week to proclaim the American opening to China a grand failure. “What do the American people have to show now 50 years on from engagement with China?” Pompeo asked. His answer: not much.

China, the secretary of state intoned, had become a menacing tyranny that had succeeded economically only by robbing America of its jobs and its ideas and now threatened its freedom. Instead of continuing “the old paradigm of blind engagement with China,” Pompeo called for unrelenting pressure to force Beijing to change its ways.

While clear-eyed about the challenges China now poses, Pompeo’s critique of the past is misplaced, and his strategy for the future is missing key elements necessary for its success.

None of Trump’s predecessors pursued a policy of “blind engagement” — least of all Richard Nixon, whose opening to China was perhaps his proudest presidential achievement. Nixon’s goal was not to transform the country into a capitalist democracy, but to use it as a bulwark against the Soviet Union to help win the Cold War. In that, it succeeded.

Every president since Nixon has sought to shape China’s behavior through a mixture of economic engagement, political dialogue and military hedging. Some were more successful than others. But none were blind to the challenges of engaging China.

Pompeo is right, however, that China today is different from the China many had hoped would emerge after decades of steady engagement. China’s politics didn’t liberalize, its economy didn’t open up and its foreign policy didn’t moderate.

Instead of liberalizing, China under Xi Jinping has become increasingly autocratic. Beijing has repressed its Uighur population by putting millions in detention camps, crushed dissent by establishing an electronic surveillance state and curtailed political freedoms in Hong Kong by imposing a new national security law.

Rather than opening up its economy and offering a level playing field, China has sought to steal a march on its competitors by stealing intellectual property, forcing technology transfers, closing its markets to outside competitors and subsidizing its industries.

And as its military has grown in capability, size and reach, China has sought to intimidate its neighbors. It’s sent warships into Japanese waters near the Senkaku Islands, rammed fishing vessels and staked illegal claims on rocks and reefs across the South China Sea, seized disputed lands held by India and sailed an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Straits. In each case, the message is clear: China is laying claim on lands that belong to others.

All of these developments are deeply disturbing. They’re also not terribly surprising. A powerful China is no longer content to bide its time. Nor will it continue to live by the rules drawn up by others. Like all big powers, Beijing will use its economic weight and military might to try and shape the international environment in ways that suit its own interests.

But China will succeed in that effort only if we let it. We still have the power to shape China’s choices, especially if we work together with our allies and partners to stand in Beijing’s way.

We could lead an effort among our friends and in international bodies to condemn Beijing’s repression of Uighurs and its flagrant violation of Hong Kong’s political independence, and levy coordinated sanctions to increase the costs on China for its unacceptable behavior.

We could work with our partners to reform the World Trade Organization and develop new standards on issues such as state-owned enterprises and digital trade and revive the arbitration panel to enforce new and old rules alike.

We could marshal the military forces of our allies in Asia, and also in Europe, to enforce freedom of navigation on the high seas and deny China its ability to intimidate weaker neighbors. China’s military has grown, but it is still no match for the combined might of the American and allied armed forces.

Pompeo, in his Nixon Library speech, paid lip service to working with our friends and allies in countering China. But to most of them that call sounds hollow after three-plus years of being treated more as trade rivals and security paymasters than as real partners in a common cause.

Rather than leading the world in opposing China’s human rights violations, according to John Bolton, President Donald Trump told Xi that building camps “was exactly the right thing to do.” Rather than working to reform the WTO, Washington undermined it by blocking its arbitration functions. Rather than strengthening our alliances, the administration has withdrawn troops from Germany and told Asian allies to pay more if they wanted American forces to stay.

Pompeo is right to see China’s rise as a clear and present danger, but the administration’s dismissal of allies and alliances has severely undermined the most effective response to that danger.



Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.


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