In his Independence Day-eve address at Mount Rushmore, US President Donald Trump paid tribute to each of the four political giants of US history whose images grace the mountain. He also lauded national heroes from the worlds of science, entertainment, sports and the military.
US presidents have unique opportunities to affect not only the lives of contemporary Americans, but also the course of human history. All face the challenges of their time, but this US president holds office at a moment in history that might prove comparable with either the beginning of World War II or the end of the Cold War.
The existential danger and historic opportunity emanate primarily from the People’s Republic of China, established and ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The peoples and economies of the world are deeply mired in a global COVID-19 pandemic that originated in Wuhan, China, and was disseminated internationally not by the random, innocent mistakes of local officials, but by the deliberately deceptive actions of the CCP — the same pattern of behavior that disserved the world in earlier epidemics and pandemics.
With nations distracted, Beijing is vigorously at work consolidating and spreading an even more deadly virus — that of communist totalitarianism. The immediate victims of the subjugation are Muslim Uighurs, Buddhist Tibetans, Christians, spiritualist Falun Gong, and political dissidents and independent thinkers.
Radiating out from China, the targets of Beijing’s ideological and military aggression are Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Western world appears united in condemning Beijing’s blatant attempt to impose its dictatorship on Hong Kongers.
The US Congress has risen to the challenge: The House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously passed legislation to impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in crushing Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy.
US Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican who cosponsored the legislation with US Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, explained its larger significance: “It’s a message that the United States and the free world are no longer willing to look past some of the worst behavior that’s been occurring. It’s a message that our patience has run out.”
The legislation places mandatory penalties on Chinese officials, police units that suppress the protesters and banks that finance China’s crackdown. The bill awaits the US president’s signature, providing him an opportunity to accept the leadership role that the rest of the world eagerly looks to as they try to cope with Beijing’s latest outrage.
Only the US can stand up to the mounting CCP threat, but others appear ready to follow the US’ lead — especially since the international response does not involve going to war over Hong Kong but, rather, taking administrative and financial actions against Beijing.
The US president should begin to enforce the sanctions that Congress mandated in the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, which he recently signed into law. Once again, this reflects a bipartisan consensus that a major economic power such as China — having benefited so immensely from Western trade, investment and transfers of intellectual property — cannot be allowed to continue breaching international norms with impunity.
Trump should also follow through on his prudent action to limit China’s access to US securities and financial markets. By executive order last month, he stopped the US Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board from switching a federal government pension fund to an index that might invest in Chinese companies that help the communist government suppress its population, and build weapons to attack Taiwan and the US Seventh Fleet.
The Pentagon — finally complying with an act of Congress that was ignored for 21 years — has released a list of 20 Chinese companies affiliated with the Chinese government’s military-industrial complex that do business in the US. The US president has the executive power to end that malign activity and should do so forthwith, despite Wall Street’s self-interested objections.
There will be internal resistance. Beijing presents the Western world with an array of security and economic challenges.
Responding to any one of them could be seen as undermining potential progress on other fronts. In the past, this has resulted in political and policy paralysis.
The Trump administration has substantially broken that mold, but not entirely. For decades, Beijing played the North Korea card to induce US inaction on trade, Taiwan, maritime aggression in the South and East China seas, and human rights. Now the script has flipped and trade is the leverage point.
However, the trade deal cannot be allowed to reduce US resistance to Chinese pressure in other problem areas. While bloodless, the needed punitive measures are not without cost. They will inflict added economic pain on an international community reeling from the vast disruptive consequences of the pandemic. Trump, who showed political courage in igniting the trade dispute in the first place, can ill afford more economic damage to his base.
Yet, the ability of the Western world to finally act in a unified fashion against China’s rapidly increasing threat, with revived US moral and political leadership, would demonstrate a resolute will that Beijing for too long has found missing among its democratic adversaries.
Trump should seize the opportunity to show that, whatever his earlier reservations, making America great again necessarily involves a global leadership role that must not be forfeited to the CCP, whose actions have been so devastating to countries around the world.
The Trump administration is also responding to China’s security challenge, with more to be done. In a welcome policy change, the US Navy is doing its part to confront communist expansionism in the waters of the western Pacific.
Still, a declaration of Washington’s commitment to defend Taiwan would be a stronger US deterrence against Chinese adventurism and potentially obviate the need for an increase in naval operations. If Beijing knew with certainty that war with Taiwan means war with the US, it would see the danger and futility of a continued arms buildup, and threatening operations. US strategic clarity would fortify Chinese moderates and weaken ambitious, but not suicidal, hardliners.
Ultimately, the West must conclude that the long-term prospect for a peaceful world with an aggressive, communist China is not achievable. For that outcome, as then-US president Richard Nixon said in 1972: “China must change.” Given the abysmal failure of engagement policies, the international community must instead work with Chinese to change the regime from within.
An invigorated information campaign would serve a pre-emptive and defensive purpose, and direct Beijing’s attention to domestic concerns instead of foreign adventures. Otherwise, the inevitability of another world conflict between democracy and tyranny would need to change the regime from without, but at a tragically greater cost to all. Better a cold war than a world war.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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