Trump's China Hawks Should Prioritize Helping America, Not Hurting Beijing | Opinion

In a pair of speeches last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri laid out competing visions of world order but similarly combative positions toward China. Both iterations are eminently understandable, given Beijing's gross record of oppression and mishandling of the crucial early hours of the coronavirus pandemic. But the hostile relations Pompeo and Hawley advocate are risky at best, built on a misunderstanding of U.S. interests and more likely to do us harm than good.

Pompeo's comments at his press conference emphasized the authoritarian nature of the regime in Beijing—unreformed by participation in the market economy and liberal institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO)—as well as the Chinese government's culpability in the spread of COVID-19. He would not say how the Trump administration would respond "to the calamity that has befallen the world as a result of the actions of the Chinese Communist Party," declining to disavow President Donald Trump's recent musing about "cut[ting] off the whole [U.S.-China] relationship."

Hawley's Senate floor speech was a Red Scare redux. "The Chinese Communist Party is a menace to all free peoples. It seeks nothing less than domination," he warned, painting Beijing as an imminent threat to the United States. Whereas Pompeo seemed to assume the WTO as a global fixture, Hawley called for U.S. withdrawal from the group as part of a broad strategy of "opposition to Chinese imperialism." Though his primary focus was economic, Hawley peppered his talk with attention to national security.

In each case, desire for retribution will feed a damaging, escalatory cycle for U.S.-China relations. The probable outcome for U.S. foreign policy is some mix of trade protectionism, attempted fines or prosecution, and sanctions, perhaps in the vein of the failed "maximum pressure" policy toward Iran. Military conflict is unlikely, but—given Hawley's mention of Chinese military build-up and Pompeo's citation of Beijing's claim of "more features in the South China Sea's international waters"—not entirely inconceivable, particularly as an unintended consequence of some other antagonism. (Trump's announcement last Wednesday of his approval for an arms deal with Taiwan adds to this risk.)

Such pandemic payback has obvious appeal, but that doesn't make it prudent. Protectionism would amount to tariffs ultimately paid by the American people, hardly defensible in the worst economy we've seen in decades. Legal action would raise Beijing's ire with little prospect of meaningful success. Trying to prosecute or fine China for its pandemic response would therefore blow political capital and leverage and get us nothing substantive in return. Sanctions have a poor record when it comes to actually changing their targets' behavior, and they're likely to do more harm to ordinary Chinese people than to Communist Party leaders.

Mike Pompeo
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends President Donald Trump's Cabinet meeting in the East Room of the White House on May 19 in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty

Military conflict would be worst of all for the United States and China alike. Both are nuclear powers, and American military superiority, though significant, could not prevent grave injury to our country if we went to war against Beijing. Even smaller skirmishes over, say, the South China Sea, should be carefully avoided. Chinese dominance of its near abroad, however undesirable, is not an existential threat to the United States. Realist diplomacy, not war or coercive policies that could well lead to war, is the order of the day in great power relations.

None of this is to suggest China's government simply be let off the hook for any bad behavior, particularly where the pandemic is concerned. But instead of seeking retribution here, Washington should use our grievance to exact achievable benefits for the future rather than dubious or even dangerous punishment for the past. Better transparency for future outbreaks that originate in China is an obvious goal, as is access to any COVID-19 vaccine developed in China. The Chinese Communist Party is responsible for great evil, as Pompeo and Hawley both detailed. It is not a friend, but neither should we make it an active enemy. Our policy toward China should prioritize protecting U.S. interests, not antagonizing Beijing.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.