No to US-China cold war

The Korea Times - - OPINION - This ed­i­to­rial ap­peared at the Los An­ge­les Times and was dis­trib­uted by Tri­bune Con­tent Agency.

The an­nounce­ment Fri­day that Hong Kong’s leg­isla­tive elec­tions, orig­i­nally sched­uled for Septem­ber, would be de­layed a year be­cause of the COVID-19 pan­demic is the lat­est ex­am­ple of the in­creas­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism in China. It came weeks af­ter Bei­jing adopted a new se­cu­rity law that os­ten­si­bly pro­hibits “se­ces­sion, sub­ver­sion, ter­ror­ism and col­lu­sion with for­eign forces” but is in fact a pre­text for stop­ping the waves of pro-democ­racy protests that have roiled the for­mer Bri­tish colony since 2014. Amid a cul­tural purge and in­creased cen­sor­ship, the free­doms that China had pledged to up­hold fol­low­ing the 1997 han­dover of the re­gion from Bri­tain have been se­ri­ously eroded.

It has been a ter­ri­ble year for the cause of free­dom in China. In June, an in­de­pen­dent panel of United Na­tions ex­perts de­nounced the crack­down in Hong Kong, in­clud­ing as­saults on pro­test­ers; the con­tin­u­ing per­se­cu­tion of eth­nic and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties in Xin­jiang and Ti­bet; the de­ten­tion of lawyers; and the on­go­ing pros­e­cu­tion, even dis­ap­pear­ance, of hu­man rights ac­tivists.

Sadly, the de­bil­i­ta­tion of the United States on the world stage has left Wash­ing­ton poorly equipped to speak up for hu­man rights and democ­racy. Worse, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has shown lit­tle in­ter­est in such is­sues, and has in­stead de­ferred to an alarm­ing de­gree to global strong­men.

Mean­while, his ad­min­is­tra­tion has sought to dra­mat­i­cally change the U.S. ap­proach to China. “If we want to have a free 21st cen­tury, and not the Chi­nese cen­tury of which Xi Jin­ping dreams, the old par­a­digm of blind en­gage­ment with China sim­ply won’t get it done,” Sec­re­tary of State Michael R. Pom­peo re­cently de­clared. “We must not con­tinue it and we must not re­turn to it.”

Al­though “blind en­gage­ment” is a car­i­ca­ture of pre­vi­ous U.S. pol­icy, Pom­peo has a point. Af­ter the nor­mal­iza­tion of Sino-Amer­i­can re­la­tions in 1979, the U.S. was largely sup­port­ive of China’s peace­ful rise. A bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus across six pres­i­den­cies held that ex­changes of goods, stu­dents and ideas would ben­e­fit both coun­tries. The U.S. was cru­cial to China’s en­try into the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2001, which helped open vast new mar­kets for China’s colos­sal ex­port in­dus­tries.

That con­sen­sus has now frayed to the break­ing point. Trump rose to power in part on his claims that China had taken ad­van­tage of the U.S., steal­ing Amer­i­can jobs and tech­nol­ogy. Hawks like Pom­peo see the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, in par­tic­u­lar, as hav­ing been naive and im­po­tent in the face of in­creas­ing Chi­nese ag­gres­sion, es­pe­cially in geopo­lit­i­cal hot spots such as the South China Sea.

Trump’s com­plaints about China’s un­fair trad­ing prac­tices — the theft and ex­trac­tion of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, the sub­si­dies for fa­vored Chi­nese in­dus­tries and the gen­eral dis­re­gard for in­ter­na­tional rules — were valid, as was his ob­ser­va­tion that pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions had failed to change China’s be­hav­ior. But his get-tough ap­proach did lit­tle more than ratchet up ten­sions and costs on both sides of the Pa­cific.

If we’ve learned any­thing from the ex­tended trade war with Bei­jing, it’s that the United States can’t bully China into the main­stream. It needs to as­sem­ble a broad coali­tion of coun­tries be­hind a higher set of stan­dards for ex­porters to op­er­ate un­der — in­clud­ing la­bor laws and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions — mak­ing it harder for China to re­main an out­lier. And in the mean­time, it needs to en­force more ag­gres­sively the trade rules China agreed to honor as a mem­ber of the WTO.

Trump, sadly, has gone in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. Rather than build­ing coali­tions, he aban­doned mul­ti­lat­eral trade deals and an­tag­o­nized other ma­jor ex­port­ing na­tions with tar­iffs. And he has sought to ren­der the WTO tooth­less by block­ing ap­point­ments to a key panel that judges trade dis­putes.

It’s a pat­tern re­peated across mul­ti­ple ar­eas of in­ter­est re­gard­ing China. Trump’s chaotic lead­er­ship and his dic­ta­to­rial lean­ings have se­verely eroded Amer­ica’s standing in the world — dam­age that will take decades to re­pair.

The Thucy­dides Trap is a term that de­scribes an ap­par­ent ten­dency to­ward war when a ris­ing power threat­ens to dis­place an es­tab­lished one. The sad truth is that the au­thor­i­tar­i­ans who lead the two na­tions — Xi, who took of­fice in 2012, is all but cer­tain to be pres­i­dent for life, and Trump, who in 2018 joked, “Maybe we’ll give that a shot some­day” — have made the trap more likely to be­come a re­al­ity.

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