The U.S. chance was clear: It began with the growing global resentment of China’s enabling of the coronavirus. Asian governments were alarmed by an escalation of Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea; European leaders have fumed over the “wolf warrior” diplomacy of Chinese ambassadors. India saw 20 of its soldiers killed by Chinese troops in the most serious border skirmish in decades.
To be sure, Trump and the administration’s anti-Beijing faction tried to take advantage. Since June, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has coordinated four major speeches by senior administration officials making a case against China, accompanied by a flurry of U.S. punitive measures, including the closing of the Chinese consulate in Houston.
So far, however, the administration offensive has manifestly failed to win international support — and for good reason. Let’s start with the rhetoric. Pompeo and his crew could have focused on Xi, who during nearly eight years in power has crushed his domestic civil society, committed epic crimes against Muslims in the west and escalated China’s foreign aggressions. Instead, they peddle a picture of China’s government as a Communist monolith bent on world domination — and the 40-year history of Western engagement with it as a disastrous mistake.
The speeches delivered by Pompeo, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien, Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray are laden with early-Cold War red-scare rhetoric. “America, under President Trump’s leadership, has finally awoken to the threat the Communist Party’s actions . . . pose to our very way of life,” O’Brien declared in the first of the speeches. Xi, he said, “sees himself as Joseph Stalin’s successor.” “If there’s one thing I learned” from the Cold War, said Pompeo, it’s that “communists almost always lie.”
Stalin employed genocide in creating a socialist command economy in the Soviet Union. Xi presides over one of the most dynamic capitalist economies, home to 373 billionaires. The Chinese leader is a dedicated autocrat and ardent nationalist, but few China experts describe him as a communist ideologue. No matter: “In China,” claimed O’Brien, communist “ideas remain as fundamental . . . as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights do to us as Americans.”
Describing communism as China’s defining feature is fundamental to Pompeo’s most extreme argument, which is that the West’s error was not its response to the emergence of Xi’s hard-line regime but its opening to China in 1972. Twisting history, Pompeo claimed that the goal of U.S. diplomatic and economic relations with Beijing was to turn it into a democracy — and that it’s time to recognize the effort failed. “President Nixon once said he feared he has created a ‘Frankenstein’ by opening the world to the CCP,” Pompeo said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party, “and here we are.”
Many in the West now agree that the Xi regime is a menace. But few will accept Pompeo’s thesis that China’s integration into the global economy should be regretted, much less reversed. This is rhetoric designed to win over red-state Republicans in an election year, not audiences in Europe or key Asian states, such as “Communist” Vietnam. No wonder German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and even Indian leader Narendra Modi have carefully distanced themselves from the Trumpians’ new Cold War. Merkel has resisted U.S. pressure to boycott Chinese telecommunications champion Huawei; Abe declined to join the U.S. denunciation of Xi’s crackdown on Hong Kong. Modi responded to the border clash by upgrading military relations with . . . Australia.
In truth, Trump has made it all but impossible for these nations to join in the “new alliance of democracies” that Pompeo proposes. Trump just withdrew 12,000 of the 34,500 U.S. troops stationed in Germany, while falsely claiming that Merkel’s government was “delinquent” in paying its “fees” to NATO. He is threatening to pull U.S. forces out of Japan and South Korea unless they dramatically increase their subsidies. He is threatening tariff wars against all three countries, while banking on his trade deal with Xi to boost Midwestern farm exports before the election.
If that election brings about a new U.S. administration under Joe Biden, a first order of foreign policy business will be a China reset. Only the fixing will need to be done not so much with Beijing, but with the would-be alliance against it that Trump has done his best to sabotage.