In January, I joined a quasi-diplomatic mission, organized by the American Jewish Committee, to Japan. The mission was sponsored by the Japanese government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, over the course of our eight days in Japan, we met with various high-ranking diplomatic officials from each of the American, Japanese, and Israeli governments. The common theme of the trip was a joint understanding, especially from the perspectives of the U.S. and Japan, that China represents the most acutely distressing geopolitical threat of the 21st century. American and Japanese officials frequently discussed the need to partner, in unison with other allied regional actors such as South Korea, to deter and repel Chinese military, political, and economic ambitions.
Calling China the number one 21st century geopolitical threat to the United States ought to not be a particularly controversial claim. As far back as 2011, The Economist noted that, “[w]ith its rapidly improving military capability … China has the wherewithal to challenge the security status quo in the Pacific as well as potential motives to do so.” That trend has only exacerbated in recent years. In January, for instance, the Pentagon expressly warned about China’s recent “series of ambitious military reforms and acquired new technology.” In March, the Chinese government assertively pronounced an astonishing 7.5% annual rise in military spending — which was actually a mild decrease from the previous year’s military spending increase. Over just the past couple months, China has fortified its military presence in the highly strategic Horn of Africa, and has even made expansionist overtures in the Arctic.
But perhaps less noticed is China’s deeply destructive browbeating and overt cyberwarfare intimidation of Western corporations when those corporations deviate from the Chinese Communist Party’s line vis-à-vis territorial disputes with
Taiwan the Republic of China and Tibet. In January, Ben Weingarten explained at The Federalist:
In January 2018, Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel company, cowered at verbal attacks by Chinese government officials for having set a survey listing Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Macau as distinct from China, and for an employee’s “like” of a tweet endorsing Tibetan independence using a corporate Twitter account.
Later, in November 2018, Marriott disclosed it was the victim of a massive hack of its Starwood reservation database, compromising the sensitive information of up to 383 million guests, including passport numbers, email addresses, and credit card data. According to reports, U.S. investigators believe the hackers were affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of State Security, its sprawling intelligence apparatus. …
Also in 2018, Mercedes-Benz posted an anodyne quote from the Dalai Lama on Instagram: “Look at the situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” The Dalai Lama is a Tibetan leader. So, facing strong criticism from Chinese state media, Mercedes apologized, promising: “no support, assistance, aid or help to anyone who intentionally subverts or attempts to subvert China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The upshot is that everywhere from North Korean denuclearization to the Senkaku Islands territorial sovereignty dispute in the East China Sea to the deeply combative forced technology transfer and intellectual property theft that the Chinese Communist Party claims as an allegedly necessary “cost” of doing business in China, China is a deeply adversarial geopolitical actor. This is a nation with rapidly escalating hard military power, the world’s second largest GDP, a huge landmass, the world’s largest population, ownership of a massive reserve of U.S. sovereign debt, a grossly manipulated currency, an aggressive regional foreign policy that seeks to undermine key U.S. allies, a desire to dictate the rules of trade from a hostile, communist perspective, a reflexive urge to publicly shame and embarrass Western corporations into toeing the Chinese Communist Party line on geographical disputes, and an unhinged zealotry in committing acts of cyberwarfare upon and pilfering the intellectual property of sundry Western corporations.
When Mitt Romney famously called Russia America’s number one geopolitical threat during the 2012 presidential election, he was wrong. Russia is indeed a generally hostile actor that does not have anything remotely resembling America’s best interests at heart. Bu the number one geopolitical threat for America this century is not Russia, but China.
Against this backdrop, the Friday announcement of President Donald Trump’s latest imposition of massive tariffs as a pure tactical cudgel — and not as an economically desirous end in and of itself — is understandable and, indeed, proper. I am as pro-free trade as anyone, but free trade only necessarily works when all parties abide by the same playing rules. Not only does China not abide by the same rules as does the U.S., but it actively thwarts and harms the U.S. at every possible turn. And one-sided “free trade” is not actually free trade.
This is an enemy regime, and it ought to be viewed and treated as such. The U.S. cannot be militarily, politically, or economically bullied by anyone, and the Trump administration’s imposition of purely procedural tariffs — which must be viewed as part of a broader, comprehensive push back against Chinese hegemony — against such a malfeasant actor ought to not be condemned. Hopefully, we eventually get to a state of zero-tariff free trade policy with China. But that day is not today — and it likely will not be anytime soon. In the interim, all options need to be on the table to help rein in this unconstrained, destructive foe.