May 8, 2024 | The Washington Post

The high cost of failing to contain China

May 8, 2024 | The Washington Post

The high cost of failing to contain China

In Fareed Zakaria’s May 5 op-ed, “A hawkish strategy on China is a big mistake,” he argued in response to our recent Foreign Affairs article, “No Substitute for Victory: America’s Competition With China Must Be Won, Not Managed,” that it’s simply too hard to contain America’s primary adversary. But his view that U.S.-China relations are on the upswing is mistaken. And while Mr. Zakaria laid out the risks of countering China, he didn’t tally the costs of failing to act at this crucial juncture.

The heart of our position, as Mr. Zakaria noted, is that the Biden administration’s policy of “managing competition” with Beijing is a rehash of the failed “détente” policies that Washington employed in the 1970s to cope with a militarily resurgent Soviet Union. We argue that this is a dangerous policy because it breeds complacency by the American people and signals weakness to Beijing at a time when Chinese leader Xi Jinping is fostering international chaos and advancing a global vision hostile to democracies.

Recent events have proved our point. Far from Mr. Zakaria’s contention that “tensions have in fact calmed down” recently between Washington and Beijing, the Biden administration’s conciliatory approach has in reality been met with hostility from Beijing. China has sold skyrocketing amounts of crucial materiel to Russia for use in its war in Europe and offered growing diplomatic support for Iran and its terrorist proxies such as Hamas. Xi’s government subsidizes companies supplying the illegal fentanyl trade responsible for the overdoses that are now, as The Post has reported, the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 18 and 49. Secretary of State Antony Blinken even cited new evidence of “attempts to influence and arguably interfere” in U.S. elections.

Mr. Zakaria objected to our vision for a policy of calling out and imposing costs on Beijing for the harm it is doing to the United States and its allies. He argued China’s economy is too big and too well integrated into the world economy for a Ronald Reagan-inspired Cold War policy to work and that U.S. allies would prefer to placate Beijing than confront it. He’s not wrong that this strategy would have challenges, but we believe he overestimated the difficulty — and underestimated the benefits — of succeeding.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the world’s second biggest economy, as China is today. The CIA estimated that the Soviet economy in the mid-1970s reached 57 percent of the size of the U.S. economy, just shy of the International Monetary Fund’s recent estimate that China’s economy is about 65 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. But the United States often overestimated Soviet economic growth during the Cold War, and the same is almost certainly true with respect to China’s economy today.

It is true that China and the United States do vastly greater bilateral trade than the United States ever did with the Soviet Union and that China (unlike the Soviet Union) has a “mixture of private and public sector” companies, as Mr. Zakaria noted. But the Soviet economy traded more heavily with other parts of the world than many people recall. And China’s semiprivate, ruling-party-led, autarkic economic model shouldn’t deter us from pursuing a hard-nosed policy any more than the eerily similar economic model of 1930s Germany should have intimidated us into paralysis back then.

As for the argument that some of our allies are reluctant to contain our primary adversary: What else is new? Reagan was deeply frustrated that some Western European countries — West Germany in particular — increased their dependency on Russian energy exports in the 1980s. This didn’t dissuade Reagan. In the end, European countries followed Washington’s lead and leveraged Soviet reliance on their markets to their advantage — much the way industrialized democracies can make China’s overreliance on access to our markets today a liability for Beijing.

In addition to these substantive disagreements, much of the rest of Mr. Zakaria’s column caricatured our article as advocating something like a regime change strategy toward China. That is an unfortunate diversion, especially because we explicitly disavowed such a policy.

We hope Mr. Zakaria does not object to our first goal of dissuading China’s leaders from trying to prevail in a hot or cold conflict with the United States and its friends, given that Beijing is providing decisive material support to Russia’s war in Europe, serving up diplomatic and propaganda support for Iran’s proxy wars in the Middle East, and moving to seize territory in the South China Sea administered by the Philippines, a U.S. ally.

And we question why he should find it “reckless” and “dangerous” for us — or for any American — to express hope that Chinese citizens will someday find inspiration to explore new models of development and governance that don’t rely on repression at home and compulsive hostility abroad, as we did in Foreign Affairs. That has been the goal of most U.S. presidents since Woodrow Wilson — and with good reason. It’s an essential American idea.

Mr. Gallagher is a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin and served as chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party. Mr. Pottinger is chairman of the China program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of the forthcoming book “The Boiling Moat: Urgent Steps to Defend Taiwan.”


China Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy