The Hong Kong Crisis and the Future of US-China Relations

The Hong Kong Crisis and the Future of US-China Relations
(AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
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Perhaps it was never the case that the United States held meaningful sway over the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But if there was ever a time when Beijing was anxious to mollify its critics in America, those days are now well and truly over. For years, Chinese leaders have shrugged off criticisms of their human rights abuses, from repression in Tibet and Xinjiang to the Orwellian “social credit” system. Now, Beijing is dismantling democratic life in Hong Kong in full view of the international news media, and despite vocal condemnations from the Trump administration.

Beijing’s decision to impose security legislation upon Hong Kong might well be remembered as a turning point for US-China relations. After this moment, there can be no doubting whether the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views democracy as an existential threat to its grip on power. It does – otherwise Beijing would not be moving to extinguish democracy in Hong Kong in brazen contravention of pledges enshrined in both international and domestic law. Nor can there be any more self-deception that America’s engagement of China is somehow promoting the cause of political liberalization. It is not.

Even so, it would be wrong to listen to “hawks” in the United States who argue that the Hong Kong crisis is yet more evidence that Cold War-style containment of China is warranted. Just because the PRC is undemocratic – and, indeed, profoundly anti-democratic – does not mean that US foreign policy should be conducted in a way that ignores the need for cooperation across a wide range of issue areas. Too many pressing global problems require the world’s first and second largest powers to work together, not least of all the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis, which is ruining the lives of people the world over.

The hawks will argue that the fate of Hong Kong illustrates what happens when America is “weak” on China. If enough power (and willpower) had been brought to bear against the PRC, they will say, then Beijing might have been deterred from crushing an eminently moderate movement for political autonomy. Going forward, only hardnosed economic and military statecraft will be enough to prevent the PRC from exporting authoritarianism beyond its borders. From this view, China cannot be influenced for the better – it can only be stopped.

This analysis gets it exactly wrong.

The United States can aspire to shape Chinese behavior, but it must be realistic about how to approach this difficult task. The key distinction is between constraint and restraint. Those who wish to constrain China imagine that there are external locks that can be applied; that the PRC can be placed in a straitjacket and forced into adopting foreign policies that match America’s interests. In reality, there are no such tools of statecraft available to the United States when it comes to dealing with China.

Restraint, on the other hand, might still be something that the PRC can be encouraged to choose for itself – in some instances, at least, even if not as a comprehensive grand strategy. America can play an important role in encouraging restraint by raising the marginal costs of revisionist behavior and boosting the mutual payoffs from cooperation. The insight here is that the United States is not omnipotent in East Asia, but neither is it irrelevant. On the contrary, America will remain China’s most important peer competitor for some time to come. This presents opportunities for influence.

What would encouraging restraint look like in practice?

Given that the United States will not retrench from East Asia anytime soon, it is reasonable to expect that military deterrence will play some role in shaping China’s behavior. But if the goal is to promote restraint rather than provoke aggression, America’s military policy must be oriented towards upholding the status quo – for example, by limiting US commitments to the existing (stabilizing) alliances with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as America’s unique security relationship with Taiwan.

But it would be a mistake to believe that more US commitments in East Asia would lead to a more constrained China. The relationship is not so linear. On the contrary, expanding America’s military footprint in the Asia-Pacific runs the risk of antagonizing China and fueling its fears of encirclement. Adopting a posture that deters Chinese revisionism in key theaters is one thing; believing that the United States can acquire leverage over China by pouring military assets into the region is quite another.

In the economic sphere, the United States should set aside wrongheaded calls for “decoupling” and move to salvage the trade and investment relationship that has served both sides so well over the past several decades. If US leaders want to improve America’s economic standing vis-à-vis China, they would be best served considering their task one of making closeness to the United States critical to China’s economic success. Of course, the only way to make American goods and services indispensable to the Chinese is to through domestic reform, renewal, investment, and innovation; the United States cannot endear itself to China through force.

At some point, the United States must also attempt to repair institutional fabric of world order, which President Trump has done so much to abrade. Some China hawks criticize international organizations like the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and World Health Organization as being ineffective at constraining Chinese behavior. But these criticisms are based upon a gross misunderstanding of what these institutions are supposed to do, which is to establish the international conditions for states’ interests to converge or overlap, not compel states like China to act against their perceived self-interest.

In Hong Kong, sadly, hopes of nudging Beijing in the direction of restraint are fading fast. The Trump administration has announced its intention to revoke the special economic privileges that Hong Kong has enjoyed until now. Other moves such as sanctioning Chinese officials might follow. But the prospects of enticing Beijing away from repression are not good. More likely than not, the United States will be a bystander to the fate of democracy in Hong Kong.

This is a devastating reality to face up to: that the United States is powerless to defend a democratic city from its autocratic rulers. But it should not have come as much of a surprise. Hong Kong is under China’s sovereign jurisdiction, after all.

Elsewhere, the prospect of encouraging Chinese restraint might not be an entirely lost cause – especially if China incurs significant blowback from its iron-fisted treatment of Hong Kong. The challenge is to create an international environment that makes restraint a more attractive option for China’s leaders; to prod rather than provoke. It is a role that America’s leaders are not used to playing – limited, diminished, unexceptional, and accepting of the fact that America’s rivals are ultimately free to choose their own path. But it is a role that needs to be mastered, and fast.

Limited influence over America’s nearest geopolitical challenger will not satisfy many of the people involved in making US foreign policy. But it is not nothing. And if the decision is between encouraging Chinese restraint where possible and succumbing to an unwinnable war against China – hot or cold – then the correct choice ought to be obvious.

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