The two events are very different but together they should spell an end to American hopes of a kinder, gentler China ready to assume a reasonable rule-based role in the legion of nations.
The first was the declaration of abiding authoritarian affectation that Chinese President Xi Jinping signed with Russian President Vladimir Putin in February. The second was the pyrotechnic temper tantrum China threw over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in early August.
That is only the tip of the iceberg. Under Xi, set to consolidate his strong-man rule when he’s ushered in for a third five-year term in October, China has become an aggressive and intimidating regional actor. The dozens of examples in the past six months or so include naval challenges to other nations with their own legitimate claims and interests in the area, as well as a number of dangerous intercepts of Australian aircraft.
All that should prompt this country to adjust both posture and policy toward a regional hegemon that is becoming increasingly more authoritarian and steadily more aggressive.
Taiwan is the locus of US-China tensions for several reasons. The wealthy, democratically governed island of 24 million is far and away the most valuable of China’s contested territories. The notion that it should be part of the People’s Republic of China is deeply rooted in the mainland psyche.
But the United States also has a deep interest in Taiwan, which is currently one of our top 10 trading partners and a particularly important supplier of semiconductors. Further, how this country comports itself in the Taiwan-China dispute may well determine the stance other key regional players take regarding China.
This is not a problem that lends itself to easy solutions. China plays the long game, gauging the strength and commitment of rivals and calibrating its own moves in response.
So must we. The United States should counter China in a firm, matter-of-fact way, but without provocative declarations or actions that China will consider attempts at humiliation. The goal shouldn’t be to dominate China but rather to demonstrate that its best course is not to try to dominate the region.
Much of the recent public debate has focused on whether the United States should stick with its policy of strategic ambiguity — that is, leaving China guessing about what this country would do should it attack Taiwan — or move to strategic clarity, a policy whose advocates believe this country should clearly declare that we will come to Taiwan’s aid.
In fact, President Biden has already done that several times. Yes, aides have promptly tried to modify his remarks, which has raised questions about whether Biden simply went off script (imagine!) or purposefully limned an iron outline in the fog of ambiguity. Either way, leave it at that, said Max Baucus, US Ambassador to China from 2014 to 2017.
“I think it is very dangerous and inadvisable to change,” Baucus said in a Globe interview. For one, explicitly declaring in unified voice that we will defend Taiwan would push the situation closer to conflict. Secondly, “once you publicly have a redline, you are stuck.” The tougher messages to China are best delivered privately, Baucus said.
“The more it is private, the more it is effective — so long as China knows we mean business,” he said. He’s exactly right on that point.
But we have some work to do on that last front. When it comes to Taiwan, said David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, “our language is out ahead of our focus on actually implementing that.” Currently, arming Ukraine is taking up almost the entirety of our defense-industrial base, he noted.
The effort here, then, needs to be to assess what Taiwan needs to defend itself against a Chinese invasion and focus on ensuring it has those weapons.
Senators Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, have introduced legislation that would offer Taiwan so-called foreign military financing — grants and loans to aid in the purchase of weaponry and defense systems produced in the United States — of the sort we offer allies like Israel.
Before we go that route, however, Taiwan needs to appreciably increase its own defense spending. Between 1990 and 2020, the island’s defense appropriations dropped from about 5 percent of GDP to less than 2 percent. This year, Taiwan hiked defense spending by 10 percent, but that still doesn’t bring it close to its former level of outlays. Taiwan doesn’t, of course, have the resources to match China’s military spending, nor does it need to. But it does need to fund a persuasive version of its asymmetrical “porcupine” defense: That is, military capabilities that make it too prickly for China to want to attack. There, Russia’s dismal, dragged-out invasion of Ukraine should be instructive to Xi, particularly if the United States helps Taiwan fortify its defenses with weapons systems well-matched to combat a marine invasion.
Taiwan had hoped to purchase F-35s, the US military’s state-of-the-art stealth fighter jet, though more recently Taipei has backed off that request. The Pentagon worries that espionage, defection by a Taiwanese pilot, or the shooting down of one of those aircraft would give China access to highly sophisticated military technology. However, the US Navy has kept aircraft carriers equipped with F-35s in the Indo-Pacific as a deterrent. That approach is a smart, firm, and less overtly provocative way to signal American resolve.
It’s not only Taiwan whose military capacity should be enhanced, however. Our new AUKUS pact with the United Kingdom and Australia will give Australia nuclear-propelled (though not nuclear-armed) submarines, thereby enhancing their reach in the undersea arena, where China is weak.
During Biden’s May visit, Japan pledged a dramatic increase in its own military spending. At the Cabinet level, there have also been discussions about US use of Japanese military facilities, including the stockpiling of precision-guided weaponry on Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, the westernmost of which is closer to Taiwan than is China. That activity — and the message it sends — obviously hasn’t gone unnoticed in Beijing.
The other obvious tool for influencing China is trade. The domestic success of Xi’s regime rests in no small part on its demonstrated ability to deliver impressive economic gains for the Chinese population. Key to that has been trade with the United States, which, even with Donald Trump’s wide imposition of tariffs, remains China’s biggest single-nation trading partner.
There is now widespread recognition that China has failed to live up to the commitments to economic liberalism it made to join the World Trade Organization more than two decades ago. Given that — and given trade’s centrality to China’s economic success — access to the American market remains a potent lever.
Ideas about what to do with regard to trade abound. One foreign-policy expert suggests a cap-and-trade system on Chinese imports. Some conservatives propose revoking the permanent most favored nation trading status — in formal trading parlance, permanent normal trade relations — that the United States granted China in 2000. Returning to an annual vote on renewing that status would create a yearly opportunity for American policymakers to critique China’s behavior.
Others say President Biden should only roll back Trump’s tariffs, which cover about two-thirds of Chinese exports to the United States, in exchange for an enforceable set of trading rules.
At the very least, the United States should lead a World Trade Organization effort to crack down on China’s various ways of skirting world trade rules, whether by state industrial subsidies, theft of intellectual property, forced labor, or impeded access to its own markets.
Gary Locke, former US commerce secretary and ambassador to China from 2011 to 2014, says, cogently, that this must be done in coordination with other trading partners. Trump’s tariffs, he noted, hurt US consumers by making Chinese goods more expensive. Meanwhile, China’s retaliatory trade levies put US goods at a price disadvantage vis-a-vis exports to China from other western nations.
“Just America imposing tariffs on Chinese goods and the Chinese retaliating with tariffs on American goods makes the America products more expensive than the French, the German, the whatever products,” he said.
Locke recommends a better approach that policymakers should embrace: He says the United States should be able to devise a carrot-and-stick approach whereby we would gradually remove tariffs as China moves to comply with World Trade Organization rules — but with the understanding that we will reimpose selective tariffs, this time in concert with other nations, if China fails to follow through.
No simple solution exists when it comes to China. But by calm but determined deed and word, the United States must leave China without any doubt that we, too, are in this for the long haul.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.