allies, America First, Barack Obama, China, deterrence, East Asia, globalism, industrial policy, Marco Rubio, national security, North Korea, nuclear deterrence, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, South Korea, Trade, tripwire, Trump
Something’s been bothering me for some time about the way that the national debate over dealing with China has been evolving.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s been great to see the major shift in the conventional wisdom since President Trump took office toward genuine recognition that the People’s Republic poses major economic and national security threats to the United States, that many of these threats are closely related, and that they have to be dealt with both on the economic and national security policy fronts.
That’s tremendous progress from the pre-Trump – and globalist – consensus that greater U.S. economic engagement with China was promoting more economic and political freedom in China, and more peaceful international behavior (or definitely would in some indefinite future), and that any dangers emanating from Beijing in the national security sphere are best coped with by increasing America’s military presence in East Asia (e.g., former President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” largely rhetorical though it was), cooperating more closely with the country’s allies in the region, or some combination of the two.
You don’t have to be an avid follower of world affairs to realize that the sharp distinction drawn by this globalist consensus between China economic and China national security policy was already producing a mind blowingly idiotic result: Washington was still resolving to resist any expansionist ambitions of Beijing’s in East Asia while continuing to help send China’s way floods of money and defense-relevant technology bound to turn into formidable military equipment that U.S. and other allied forces would face if conflict broke out.
Further, as I began pointing out years ago, because of the impressive progress made by both China and North Korea in developing intercontinental-range nuclear weapons, the globalist approach was exposing the American homeland to an ever increasing threat of nuclear attack – and mainly because even the U.S.’s wealthiest regional allies refused to field the (admittedly) expensive conventional military forces that could repel aggression from Beijing or Pyongyang without American help.
So everyone should be encouraged by the growing, bipartisan support for limiting the flow of U.S. resources and technology to China – even though many allegedly converted globalists continue hoping in vain that this goal can be achieved without setting limits (like tariffs) on trade and investment between the two economies.
My problem? Many of the new China hawks (and the leading example here is Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who deserves considerable credit for his out-front role waking up other conservatives to the need for changing course on China) apparently believe that new U.S. trade, investment, and technology transfer curbs are mainly needed to shore up America’s decades-long position as the national security kingpin of East Asia. In other words, they’re hoping that America First-type China economic and technology policies can buttress globalist East Asia policies.
Maybe they’re right. And if they succeed, it will at least become less likely that American troops will be killed in battle by Chinese weapons developed with dollars and knowhow from the United States.
Unfortunately, too much of the nuclear danger to the United States will remain in place – because the free-riding instincts of America’s East Asian allies inevitably will be reinforced. That is, the more confident they stay in America’s determination to protect them, the less military effort they’ll feel the need to make, and the longer U.S. military forces in places like South Korea will be needed to play tripwire roles – deterring aggression due to their vulnerability to attack and the chances that their imminent destruction will pressure a U.S. President to save them with nuclear weapons use that could trigger a similar retaliatory strike on the United States.
As I’ve written repeatedly, because taking every step possible to prevent a nuclear weapon from landing on American soil should be a much higher priority for Washington than protecting free-riding allies, it’s best for the United States to pull its troops back from the front-lines in East Asia and force its allies to defend themselves. And if this means okaying their own decisions to build nuclear forces, fine with me. I’d also sell them any conventional weapons they’re seeking – which would achieve the added benefit of improving American economic growth and employment.
Does this mean that an America First China policy would or should lack any national security dimension? Not at all. For as I first explained in this recent interview, staying ahead of China technologically will stay imperative for the United States to protect itself from the kinds of cyber-attacks Beijing is already capable of waging and has probably been sponsoring. And the threat is hardly limited to the hacking of U.S. government agencies or private businesses that originates from China. The more Americans (including individual Americans possessing valuable knowledge) use Chinese technology products because these goods have become the world’s best or cheapest, the more their privacy will be vulnerable to Chinese surveillance and ultimately blackmail. The advanced telecommunications equipment produced by Huawei is of course the most important example so far.
There’s another technology-based national security issue that purist America First-ers of my ilk need to deal with as well, and one that I haven’t sufficiently thought through. Nothing’s changed my mind about the United States being a big net loser from trade with East Asia, or about how it can retain the clout if needs in the solely from its role as a final consumption market these export-dependent economies will desperately need.
But thanks largely to failed globalist trade policies, most of the world’s semiconductor manufacturing capacity and capability is now located in East Asia – particularly in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. It may be tempting to believe that these countries will become more resistant to China’s power if the United States withdraws militarily from the region. But prudence counsels against simply assuming the best.
So as America First leaders start and keep offering these countries all the military hardware they need to rebuff Chinese advances, they will also need greatly to step up efforts to restore U.S. self-sufficiency in these key building blocks not only of high tech industry, but increasingly of all high value manufacturing and services. (To their credit, Rubio and some other new China realists also understand the need for redoubled American industrial policy efforts to achieve these goals.)
Attempts to reorient U.S. foreign and trade policies in America First directions are still at such an early stage that concern about these differing emphases might look premature. But events have a way of forcing major decisions much earlier than expected – either because crises erupt sooner, or because lead-times to implement new strategies can be longer, than is convenient. So all America First-ers should agree at least agree that the earlier this potential division in America First ranks is addressed, the better.