But the ensuing crisis has also exposed just how dependent we have become on China in key sectors of our economy. Case in point: In recent days, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua warned that if the Trump administration is not careful, China could ban pharmaceutical exports and plunge the United States “into the hell of a new coronavirus pneumonia epidemic.” The threat is real. China supplies more than 90 percent of antibiotics used here. It also produces many other drugs and biologics that Americans depend on, including heparin, HIV/AIDS medications, chemotherapy drugs, antidepressants, and treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. Rosemary Gibson, author of “China Rx: Exposing the Risks of America’s Dependence on China for Medicine,” told the New York Times this month, “If China shut the door on exports of core components to make our medicines, within months our pharmacy shelves would become bare and our health care system would cease to function.”
We also depend on China for respirators, surgical masks and other protective gear that doctors and nurses need to deal with the coronavirus. Since the pandemic began, China has ramped up production, but the government has taken over factories that make masks for U.S. companies such as 3M and is hoarding the supply, leaving Americans at greater risk.
Our dependence on China is not just for medicine and devices to deal with this pandemic but also for technology that is critical to our long-term economic and security interests. Take the development of next-generation 5G networks, super-fast cellular technology that the Wall Street Journal reports will soon enable “a world of robot-run factories, remote surgery and driverless vehicles to power a ‘fourth industrial revolution.’ ” The market for 5G technology is dominated by Huawei, a company linked to the Chinese Communist Party. In a recent speech, Attorney General William P. Barr warned that China’s dominance of 5G poses “a monumental danger” that could facilitate Chinese espionage or allow Beijing to remotely control or disable devices — giving Beijing a stranglehold on Western economies. So far, we have been unable to persuade allies such as Britain not to use Huawei equipment because we have no alternative to offer; no major U.S. manufacturer produces alternative 5G equipment. “For the first time in history, the United States is not leading the next technology era,” Barr said.
The current pandemic has exposed the fact that we are dependent on China for everything from iPhones and computers to clothing and footwear —supply chains that have been disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak. It’s one thing to depend on China for cheap T-shirts and sneakers. It’s another to depend on a brutal communist dictatorship for life-saving drugs and the communications infrastructure that will undergird the 21st-century economy.
So what is the solution? When it comes to pharmaceuticals, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said, “It’s time to pull America’s supply chains for life-saving medicine out of China,” and he has introduced legislation with Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) to do just that. When it comes to 5G, Barr has suggested that the United States buy a controlling stake in Huawei’s only serious competitors — Nokia, based in Finland, and Ericsson, based in Sweden — and create an alternative to Chinese dominance of 5G.
More broadly, my American Enterprise Institute colleagues Derek Scissors and Dan Blumenthal have recommended that the “United States should change course and begin cutting some of its economic ties with China.” This economic decoupling, they say, “should be limited to areas that are genuinely vital to national security, prosperity and democratic values.” The U.S. government should bar Chinese companies that steal U.S. intellectual property from doing business with U.S. firms, and block access to American capital markets — including listing on American exchanges — of any Chinese company that is tied to espionage, the People’s Liberation Army or internal repression. Such actions may raise costs for U.S. consumers in the short term but are vital to their health and safety in the long term.
The Chinese government’s complicity in the coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for the United States to reevaluate its economic ties to Beijing and develop alternative supply chains for medicines and critical technology. China’s lies about a virus have us hurtling toward a recession. It is time to immunize our economy and national security from our dependence on a deceitful regime.