With the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China potentially headed into a new cold war that would hurt both countries, American policymakers should remember the importance of gaining friends and allies around the world. And not just governments, but peoples too.
That wasn’t too hard against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Washington made mistakes internationally, but the USSR was dull, gray, threatening, backward, isolated, oppressive, and hostile to what so many people around the world desired: freedom in all its forms, modern commerce and culture, and hope for the future. The regime effectively imprisoned its entire population. Moscow’s most economically successful satellite regime, East Germany, literally walled in its people.
The PRC is threatening and oppressive, but its opening to the West, abandonment of Maoism, acceptance of personal autonomy, and embrace of economic freedom make it radically different than the USSR. China is connected to the world, flush with current culture, and full of economic opportunity. It is a technological leader and place of hope for people just a few decades away from immiserating poverty. Beijing no longer bars its people from traveling, other than those deemed to be politically unreliable.
Which, of course, highlights the fact that the PRC is retrogressing on the freedom front. Unfortunately, President and General Secretary Xi Jinping appears to see himself as the second coming of Mao Zedong and has been moving his country back toward the Chinese Communist Party’s totalitarian past. Doing so is creating plenty of enemies at home—popular dissatisfaction occasionally bursts forth on social media, as it did early in the COVID-19 pandemic after doctors were silenced for expressing their concerns. And Xi will not rule forever. He, like Mao, could be followed by a liberalizer, who would quickly dismantle Xi’s brutal edifice.
Thus, though American soft power remains substantial, the U.S. cannot count on possessing the same superiority in foreign appeal that it enjoyed over the Soviet Union. Moreover, the maladroit Trump administration has done its best to offend virtually every nation on earth, other than a few authoritarians favored by President Donald Trump, such as Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman. Among democratic states with which America would normally cooperate, relations mostly range from strained to abysmal.
In this environment the Trump administration has been working overtime to vilify the PRC. At the recent Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad meeting, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that it “is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s exploitation, corruption, and coercion.” Although there is little love for Beijing among the other Quad members—India, Japan, and Australia—they remain more circumspect in addressing the Chinese challenge. After all, they live in the neighborhood and do not want to make an enemy by acting as Trump administration campaign props. Earlier this year, members of the G-7 rejected an American demand to use the members’ official communique to blame the PRC for the spread of the “Wuhan virus.”
Even more problematic is the administration’s anti-China campaign in Southeast Asia. Observed The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison:
China has steadily built up its economic, diplomatic, and cultural influence throughout the region, and it has strengthened its ties to ethnic Chinese minorities in many of these countries. Today the countries of Southeast Asia want continued economic cooperation with China, and they are not interested in a zero-sum rivalry between the U.S. and China. Many of them are open to cooperation with the U.S., but they have no wish to be used as cannon fodder as part of some great power showdown. If U.S. policy in this part of the world is to have any chance of success in checking Chinese influence, it will have to take account of the varied local conditions that prevail in each country, and it will have to learn to respect their sovereignty and independence.
The administration’s ostentatious attempt to separate the Chinese government and people has been particularly ineffective. A recent study by the John F. Kennedy School’s Ash Center observed: “We find that first, since the start of the survey in 2003, Chinese citizen satisfaction with government has increased virtually across the board. From the impact of broad national policies to the conduct of local town officials, Chinese citizens rate the government as more capable and effective than ever before.” That could change, but not likely as a result of vilification by Washington officials.
The administration’s overreach is unnecessary. Beijing has turned out to be its own worst enemy abroad. For instance, in the early days of COVID-19’s spread, the Xi government attempted to use medical aid to win political points. At the same time, PRC officials engaged in “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, insulting, demanding, and haranguing other governments. These efforts backfired spectacularly, especially after some of the personal protective equipment and other goods proved to be defective. China was accused of attempting to take advantage of a medical crisis which it did much to create.
Beijing’s willingness to essentially take hostages, arresting Westerners on faux evidence when involved in disputes with their governments, also has sullied the PRC’s global reputation. In early September, Chinese security personnel visited two Australian journalists, announcing that they were barred from leaving and would be questioned the next day. Unwilling to risk disappearing into a Chinese prison where people can be held for months or years without charges even being filed, they fled to the protection of Australian diplomats, who negotiated an exit.
China has largely brought this problem upon itself by focusing on political priorities. Georgia State University’s Maria Repnikova observed: “The Wolf Warrior diplomacy doesn’t work well in the Western context, but it’s often oriented toward domestic audiences within China because it makes China seem stronger and withstanding Western pressures.”
Overall, the PRC’s image has tumbled badly. According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center:
Views of China have grown more negative in recent years across many advanced economies, and unfavorable opinion has soared over the past year, a new 14-country Pew Research Center survey shows. Today, a majority in each of the surveyed countries has an unfavorable opinion of China. And in Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, South Korea, Spain and Canada, negative views have reached their highest points since the Center began polling on this topic more than a decade ago.
Trust in Xi, too, has plummeted. Reported Pew:
Disapproval of how China has handled the COVID-19 pandemic also colors people’s confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping. A median of 78% say they have not too much or no confidence in him to do the right thing regarding world affairs, including at least seven-in-ten in every country surveyed. This lack of confidence in Xi is at historic highs in every country for which trend data is available except Japan and Spain. In most countries, the percent saying they have not too much or no confidence in him has grown by double digits since last year. For example, in the Netherlands, whereas around half distrusted Xi last year, today 70% say the same—up 17 percentage points.
There is still widespread international respect for the PRC’s considerable economic strength. However, that was not enough to save Beijing’s reputation, which isn’t likely to recover any time soon. Claremont McKenna College’s Minxin Pei cited “four cumbersome albatrosses” dragging down Xi, because of which he could “face an increasingly unified Western coalition threatening the survival of his regime.”
Pei argues that militarizing South China Sea territorial disputes has unified regional opinion against the PRC. The Belt and Road Initiative has turned into financial overreach with political blowback. Repression in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong has badly blackened China’s image. In Pei’s view, “China’s response has turned two manageable problems into public relations disasters that will remain as immovable obstacles to improving ties with the West until there is a policy change.”
Unfortunately, the U.S. is ill-positioned to take advantage of Beijing’s distress. Pew found that other nations had an even more negative view of America’s response to COVID-19. And there was less trust in President Donald Trump. Among foreign leaders Secretary of State Mike Pompeo probably garners no more affection. Europeans openly and regularly reject administration entreaties, such as those to join the maximum-pressure campaign against Iran and confrontational campaign against the PRC.
There are many reasons for this, and not every foreign complaint against the president is valid. Obviously, the Europeans prefer a docile and dutiful America, prepared to forever subsidize their defense and otherwise follow their priorities. Nevertheless, the current administration has indulged in its own form of Wolf Warrior diplomacy.
Since Donald Trump took office as president, the image of the United States has suffered across many regions of the globe. As a new 13-nation Pew Research Center survey illustrates, America’s reputation has declined further over the past year among many key allies and partners. In several countries, the share of the public with a favorable view of the U.S. is as low as it has been at any point since the Center began polling on this topic nearly two decades ago.
Confronting the PRC will remain a challenge, probably the most serious to face America in the coming decades. However, it is imperative to avoid needlessly militarizing their disputes: war would be a disaster, however it turned out on the battlefield. And the first fight likely would not be the last. Even without war a lengthy diplomatic, economic, and social struggle seems inevitable. Winning support from other nations and especially peoples will be critical.
The U.S. begins with major advantages. That edge has grown as China has ostentatiously misused the coronavirus pandemic and made itself an enemy of freedom. However, Washington has stumbled as well. The next administration should begin its China policy with a focus on renewing and reviving the U.S.—better educating the young, further freeing the economy, ending wasteful military misadventures, and addressing friends and allies as friends and allies should be addressed.
With a firmer foundation in place, Americans could build on the benefits of a free society and confidently address the China challenge. Demonizing the PRC and promoting a new cold war are losing strategies in much of the world. Advancing a positive future in which others, including the Chinese people, could join is more likely to be more effective. Americans need to prepare to play a long game in dealing with Beijing in the years and decades ahead.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of a number of books, includingTripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.