It has long been a truism in American politics that elections focus almost entirely on issues of domestic policy while foreign policy is barely mentioned. As a result, we elect presidents with hardly a clue as to how they will handle their international portfolio. It is remarkable when you think about it because the United States has long had the largest influence, the heaviest responsibilities (and costs) and the most complex policy agenda of any country in the world. There is an obvious risk associated with putting an unknown quantity in charge of the most powerful foreign/security policy apparatus the world has ever known. For most of our history, one could say we have been lucky — many of the strategic amateurs turned out to be quite capable. In the last election, however, our luck ran out — in spades.
These thoughts come to mind watching the ongoing contest among Democrats seeking their party’s nomination. Once again, domestic issues (health care, income distribution etc.) dominate the campaign and foreign affairs often go unmentioned except in passing. This is more than a little disturbing given the extraordinary and growing challenges that will face this country during the next presidential term. The list of threats (current and potential) is a long one but at the top (with the singular exception of climate change) lies China. Yet, listen to the candidates talk to voters or the press and China is seldom mentioned. A colleague of mine recently asked in exasperation, “I cannot understand why at least one of the candidates has not made China, and what to do about it, a centerpiece of their campaign.”
The reasons for doing just that are legion, but can be summarized by two central concerns.
1.) Over the last four decades, China’s economy has grown faster and on a vaster scale than anyone anticipated. In the process, China has become the world’s factory, dominating the production of everything from plastic toys to the hardware of the internet. This alone would be a source of concern but not a threat. That line is crossed when Chinese companies (with full state support) become predatory and seek not just to compete with market rivals, but to destroy and replace them. If you want to see the final stages of this process, go to Italy and talk to the last remnants of the Italian textile industry — now largely taken over by Chinese manufacturers and workers that have moved into Italy. This behavior crosses a red line between commerce and national security when Chinese companies act as an instrument of Chinese military and intelligence agencies. The current concern about Huawei, the world’s principal supplier of 5G-internet infrastructure, is one prominent example. Let Huawei build your networks and you can be confident that Chinese state actors will be listening in — and exploiting what they learn. The Chinese government’s much trumpeted “Made in China 2025” campaign is explicitly intended to establish China’s leadership (if not monopoly) in the entire range of advanced technologies with the greatest impact on national security/defense — including artificial intelligence, robotics, and numeric control machine tools.
2.) The national security challenge posed by China is most obvious in maritime East Asia, particularly the South China Sea. This large ocean area has been, since time immemorial, international waters plied by fishing boats from the surrounding region and by commercial vessels from clipper ships to supertankers. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy has been the most powerful military presence there — protecting the sea lanes much like the neighborhood cop keeping commerce secure and the region peaceful. [The beneficial effect of all this has been striking as East and Southeast Asia have enjoyed spectacular economic success while escaping any major military conflicts for 30 years — more than that if you discount the civil war in Cambodia in the 1980s].
Against this backdrop, Beijing’s overt determination to assert full ownership and control of the South China Sea is breathtaking in its audacity. China has acted with equal audacity, building artificial islands that serve as military bases out in the South China Sea while rapidly building and deploying the Chinese navy augmented by a large fleet of maritime police and an estimated 20,000 Chinese fishing boats with arms and some training to act as instruments of the Chinese state. China’s assertion of “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea is a direct threat to the interests of every maritime nation that uses those sea-lanes — the world’s busiest. For Japan (an American ally), the Chinese claims come close to threatening national survival since Japan’s economy is utterly dependent on shipping (including oil) that traverses the South China Sea.
The only force standing in the way of China’s territorial ambitions is the U.S. Navy. In a candid conversation with this writer in the early 1990s, a senior Chinese military official made it absolutely clear that China’s strategic intent was to expel American military power from the South China Sea and Western Pacific. The language was blunt, “This belongs to us; you have no business being here and we are going to push you out.”
China’s territorial ambitions are of a piece with a determination to dominate (and effectively control) the economies of Southeast Asia. Along with China, itself, this is the world’s most economically dynamic region. Primacy here will be the cornerstone of global economic preeminence. And, lest we forget, economics is the foundation of national power. When Chinese leaders declare that “the 20th century was America’s century; the 21st belongs to China” they mean every word. It is the sort of thing you might expect to catch the attention of a presidential candidate.