It’s Official: Pompeo Has Declared Cold War With China
Mike Pompeo declared the start of a new Cold War with China last week. The Secretary of State delivered an extremely hawkish speech on China at the Nixon Presidential Library in which he called for a “new alliance of democracies” to pursue a hostile anti-China policy. Everything about the speech, from the title to the criticism of Nixon’s opening to China, was an attempt to revive early Cold War-era antagonism.
“We can never go back to the past,” Pompeo asserted, at the same time that he was demanding a return to the enmity of the 1950s. The location of the speech seems to have been chosen to attack the idea of engagement with China. The speech was part of an overall shift towards more hard-line policies favored by Pompeo and his advisers, and it came on the heels of the announcement that the U.S. considers all Chinese claims in the South China Sea to be illegal and the recent demand that China must close its consulate in Houston. Bloomberg reported on the views of Pompeo and his advisers in connection with that last decision:
According to one person familiar with internal discussions, Pompeo and his in-house advisers have come to conclude that a capitalist, democratic U.S. and a Communist, unelected leadership in China are fundamentally at odds and cannot coexist.
The U.S. has coexisted with an unelected Communist Party leadership in China for seventy years, so it is beyond absurd for Pompeo and his advisers to suggest that it is no longer possible. Pompeo’s speech was an expression of this unreasonable and unrealistic view, and it is likely to leave most U.S. allies in East Asia and elsewhere cold. Our allies do not wish for deepening antagonism and strife between the U.S. and China, and if push comes to shove Washington may find itself without much support in the region. Calling for a “new alliance” to oppose China when Trump and Pompeo have done such an abysmal job of managing existing alliances in the region just drives home how divorced from reality the speech was.
One of the more misleading parts of Pompeo’s speech was when he summoned Nixon’s ghost to justify undoing Nixon’s legacy. He cited a 1967 Foreign Affairs article that Nixon wrote, but he misrepresented what Nixon said in order to make it seem as if the then-former Vice President would have endorsed Pompeo’s confrontational approach and the reasons for it. Nixon did suggest that the U.S. should seek to “induce change,” but it was a change in China’s external behavior as it related to support for revolutionary groups. Nixon wrote:
The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change. The way to do this is to persuade China that it must change: that it cannot satisfy its imperial ambitions, and that its own national interest requires a turning away from foreign adventuring and a turning inward toward the solution of its own domestic problems.
Pompeo truncated and mangled the quote, and then said, “The kind of engagement we have been pursuing has not brought the kind of change inside of China that President Nixon had hoped to induce.” The Secretary of State distorts what Nixon said to make it seem as if engagement with China was supposed to produce political changes inside of China when Nixon was clearly talking about changes to China’s foreign policy as it concerned support for armed groups in other countries. Nixon wanted China to end its “foreign adventuring,” and following the U.S.-China opening that is what happened. Having misrepresented Nixon’s position, Pompeo then suggests that engagement with China failed because it didn’t deliver changes that Nixon never sought and probably didn’t think the U.S. could bring about in any case.
The Secretary also relied on a familiar mix of simplistic analysis and threat inflation that he has used so often when talking about Iran: “It’s this ideology, it’s this ideology that informs his decades-long desire for global hegemony of Chinese communism.” Pompeo is falling back on two of the stalest talking points from the Cold War. He interprets the behavior of another state primarily in terms of its official ideology rather than its concrete interests, and he attributes to them a goal of “global hegemony” that they are not pursuing to make them seem more dangerous and powerful than they are. China does seek to be the leading state in its own part of the world, but there is no evidence that they aspire to the global domination that Pompeo claims. A hard-line ideologue and hegemonist himself, Pompeo wrongly assumes that the things that motivate him must also drive the actions of others.
This leads Pompeo to make one of the sillier parts of his speech: “President Reagan said that he dealt with the Soviet Union on the basis of “trust but verify. When it comes to the CCP, I say we must distrust and verify.” This is Pompeo’s idea of being clever, but it’s really a nonsense statement. Verification mechanisms are used only after governments have agreed to negotiate something, usually in the area of arms control, and negotiations require some measure of mutual trust if they are to be successful. Actively promoting distrust is the antithesis of responsible great power diplomacy, because it leads both governments towards escalation and avoidable conflict.
In the least credible portion of the speech, Pompeo calls for engaging with the Chinese people while shunning their government: “We must also engage and empower the Chinese people—a dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party.” It is an old hawkish trope to pretend to side with the people of a country that the hawks are vilifying and antagonizing, but the distinction they draw between the people and the regime is never maintained in practice. It usually happens that the policies favored by hard-liners hit the people hardest while doing relatively little or no damage to the regime.
The separation between the people and the regime in another country is also not so great and clear-cut as hard-liners would like it to be. When people see a foreign government railing against and threatening their country, they tend to rally behind their leaders even when those leaders are abusive and authoritarian. The more that U.S. officials preach about “changing” China, the worse it will be for dissenters there and the easier it will be for party leaders to portray any internal criticism as U.S.-backed subversion. The more that our politicians link this “change” rhetoric with aggressive actions towards China, the more hostility towards the U.S. we are likely to generate among the Chinese people. The Chinese government has proven to be very effective in stoking and harnessing nationalist sentiment for its own purposes, and failing to take the role of nationalism in Chinese politics, as Pompeo does, repeats another major error that hawks made during the Cold War.
Most of the people on the receiving end of this “engagement” and “empowerment” will likely resent the condescension and interference from a foreign government in their country’s affairs. Even if we assume that the vast majority of people in China might wish for a radically different government, they are liable to reject U.S. meddling in what they naturally consider to be their business. But, of course, Pompeo isn’t serious about “empowering” the Chinese people, just as he isn’t serious about supporting the people of Iran or Venezuela or any of the other countries on Washington’s list of official foes. We can see from the economic wars that the U.S. has waged on Iran and Venezuela that the administration is only too happy to impoverish and strangle the people they claim to help. Hard-liners feign concern for the people that they then set out to harm in order to make their aggressive and destructive policies look better to a Western audience, but they aren’t fooling anyone these days.
Pompeo’s bombastic, caustic style and his personal lack of credibility make him an unusually poor messenger, and the Trump administration is uniquely ill-suited to rally a group of states in common cause. But the main problem with the policy Pompeo promotes is that an intensifying rivalry with China is not in the American interest. The U.S. has found that it is virtually impossible to change the behavior of adversaries when that behavior concerns what they believe to be their core security interests. Denouncing Chinese claims in the South China Sea as “illegal” will not weaken Chinese determination to secure those claims, but it does put the U.S. on a senseless collision course over territorial disputes that have nothing to do with our security.
Pompeo would have the U.S. pick fights with China over things that matter far more to them on their doorstep. That puts us on a course for a costly and unnecessary conflict with the world’s most populous nation at a time when we can’t even take care of our own internal problems. It is a conflict that could drag on for decades, and it would in all likelihood leave us less free and drained of resources that could have been used to strengthen America at home.