Upon entering office, President Obama fought a nomenclature battle with the Bush administration over China. “Strategic competitor” became “strategic partner.” The “Strategic Economic Dialogue,” critically, became the “Strategic AND Economic Dialogue.” Despite this lunacy and China’s flagrant disrespect for Obama, our China policy did not change all that much from President Bush’s. Yes, Obama’s fecklessness accelerated the downward trajectory of our position in Asia, but that trajectory was already plunging. Presidents Bush and Obama share the same affliction: muddling our economic and security interests. The muddle results in China’s regional security provocations going unchallenged, and the reasons why are linked.
Firstly, administrations fail to respond to China’s security transgression for fear that it will damage our economics interests. It is a perverse, defensive form of mercantilism. Secondly, we have a bad habit of reaching for economic sanctions as part of our toolkit for responding to security threats.
For both of these reasons, China’s security transgressions should only beget security responses.
Why? Because economic sanctions tend to boomerang back on us and act as a regressive tax on the middle class. We may not like it, but American and Chinese economic interests align more often than not. We and the global economy need a healthy Chinese economy (and vice versa). Most of what we would sanction are things that we buy or need for manufacturing inputs. That spells inflation here and less competitive manufacturing and exports. Imagine Chrysler sales if the Detroit automakers’ vehicles suddenly cost more than a Mercedes. And that is before Chinese retaliation or a move in the value of the dollar.
The other big reason Chinese security violations should be met with a security response is the empty nature of our economic threats. Policy makers usually figure out that economic threats will hurt U.S. consumers and consequently back down. We end up looking feckless, and China’s security challenges go unanswered.
When China tests us, we need a firm response. Failure to do so just invites more antics from Beijing, and we look like, well, Obama.
During his last trip to China the Chinese gratuitously snubbed Obama by making him deplane “from the ass end of the plane.” China likewise set the tone in 2010 in Copenhagen when the they sent a junior official to negotiate with Obama. After making the president wait for hours, Obama met with the waterboy.
China has stolen the files of millions of Americans, including me. Maybe the government passed China a stern note, but as far as I could tell the only administration response was to give me a subscription to an identity monitoring service … as if China using my credit card numbers is the worry.
Similarly, when China established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in November 2013, Obama’s silence was deafening. China made a naked attempt at a territory grab that could restrict trade routes, freedom of navigation, and pit our ally Japan against China. Obama flew one unarmed B52 sortie through the area and then advised U.S. airlines to comply with China’s demands.
So when China began building islands in the South China Sea and claiming new territory, it correctly assumed a weak U.S. response would follow.
Each of these events had an appropriate rejoinder. Obama should have refused the meeting with the junior official in Copenhagen and ignored China’s demands to deplane from the back of Air Force One. Why did he follow small orders from Beijing’s communist leadership? The ADIZ and the South China Sea situations placed China’s credibility in our hands, but we did not use that leverage. We should have regularly sent planes and ships through the territory China claimed. When China did not back up their threats of force (and they would not have), we could have advertised it.
It should trouble us that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump want to lead with an economic and not a security response. They thunder about economic reprisal, but, should they be elected, will almost certainly back down. Clinton has adopted Sen. Schumer, R-N.Y. (F, 2%) and Donald Trump’s currency manipulation hobbyhorse (which, by the way, is wildly inaccurate), and Trump has his trade war threat. Both are terrible ideas, though does anyone doubt that they will get left on the cutting room floor after November? To be sure, both belong on the floor, but we should worry that — in the midst of the flip-flops — we will once again fail to respond to China.
China presents a security challenge for us in Asia, but we must better relearn how to respond. Our reflexive grasp for economic responses creates threats from which we must eventually climb down or, if followed through on, would significantly harm the U.S. economy. The Chinese must be overjoyed at economic threats because they must know we do not mean it. China sees the American presence in the region as limiting its geopolitical rise, but the zero-sum thinking stops there. Economically they need us, and we need them. While no politician, especially Trump and Clinton, will say that in our populist moment, failure to do so merely aids China. (For more from the author of “A Proper American Response to Chinese Aggression and Humiliation” please click HERE)