Two Goliaths with Frayed Tempers

Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping joined President Obama in a high-profile state visit that, although lacking the star power of Pope Francis’s address, was infinitely more important to America’s future. Among the issues discussed were climate change, for which Xi has announced a cap-and-trade program that coincides with other recent efforts by China to cut emissions. This effort, part of a bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and China to reduce the emissions of the world’s two largest polluters, represents possibly the only bright spot of Xi’s trip to Washington.

More pressing to the U.S. agenda and more shrilly articulated in the recent Republican debate are Chinese threats to cyber security. This issue is obviously prominent in the wake of a major hack of U.S. federal databases that compromised millions of classified files and fingerprints, for which blame goes to hackers supported by the Chinese government. Even though an agreement on cyber issues was reached a few weeks ago, our nations still have sizable disagreements revolving around security, economics, and China’s aggressive island-building actions in the South China Sea.

Yet areas of cooperation are more numerous and important than many would have you believe. Republican candidates during the recent debate argued only over who could act most vehemently against China, from cancelling Xi’s state dinner to using “offensive tactics” in countering Chinese cyber warfare. Sure, that may be a great attitude for an avowed enemy, but China doesn’t fit this model. For example, China is our second largest trade partner, largest importer, and the largest foreign holder of U.S. securities. Our deep economic interdependence represents a central and vital area of cooperation between our countries. In addition, China’s economic muscle increasingly complements its foreign standing, as we saw when the U.S. attempt to stop support of a Chinese-led alternative to Western infrastructure banks failed. Thus, the U.S. must be wary of China’s growing financial clout without ham-fisted attempts at suppression.

This is not to trivialize China’s influence on the loss of American manufacturing jobs, which was inevitable with China’s huge supply of cheap labor, and China’s devaluation of its currency to strengthen its trade imbalance, which we cannot counter. But accusations by people like Donald Trump, who say, “China is stealing all our money,” or “China is fleecing us,” shows a treatment of facts so liberally that if placed on the political spectrum they would sing the Internationale. The fact of the matter is that we owe China money because they buy our debt, and we ship each other billions of dollars in products, which is a win-win situation.

Regarding the field of climate change, which many Republicans either deny flatly or of which they feign ignorance, even the Pope weighed in during his trip to Congress. When the non-partisan leader of a religious institution says, “I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play” to “avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” it highlights a call to action. Moreover, while much of Congress disregards scientific consensus towards climate change, not even Chinese politicians question that humans have caused this phenomenon. Ludicrously awful pollution in major Chinese cities, major industrial accidents like the one in Tianjin, and other environmental concerns have been the sources of major discontent within Chinese society. In the old “social contract” of China, the population granted the Communist Party allegiance in return for economic growth. Now the pollution caused by excessive fossil fuel-driven industry has modified the contract to include a healthier environment. China is our natural ally on environmental issues, because action on climate change is a political win for them. The president’s continued will to cooperate with China despite our differences on many other issues should be applauded.

The US must resist Chinese military adventurism by supporting its allies and upholding the freedom of navigation that China has put under threat. China’s recent island building off its shores threatens its neighbors who often hold competing claims on those territories. We must defend our allies in the region against Chinese aggression without provoking the Chinese into escalated conflict. The attempt by Chinese authorities to claim sovereignty over this large sea region gifts China with potentially huge amounts of natural resources beneath the surface and threatens the important trade routes that run through there. These actions also attack the practice of open waterways practiced on the high seas, with potentially huge consequences for both precedent and trade in the region. While we should vigorously defend our interests in the region and oppose any Chinese attempt to encroach on our allies and our military, cooperation where possible averts risks of conflict and helps avoid confrontation with a powerful military.

These are extremely serious issues away from which we must not shrink, even at the risk of angering China’s government. But to talk exclusively of being “tough” on China is to dangerously ignore the ways we can and should cooperate, and only further increases the risk of that rising power becoming more hostile. A great Atlantic article discussed the rise of China in the context of rising powers in history, in which only a quarter of sixteen interactions avoided war. It is vital that we take a measured and complex view of China given these risks, and ignore the populist demagogues of the right. To keep America strong and prosperous we must work together with others for a better world and keep our ears open to those who can help us in that goal. Many catastrophes await if we do not.

Joseph Cifrino