The Trump administration’s recognition that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a primary threat to the United States and that the Indo–Pacific theater must be the Department of Defense’s top priority is among its greatest strengths. On Monday, I sat down with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask him about a variety of issues, the threats posed by China chief among them.
The day before we sat down together, Hong Kongers had gone to the polls in record-breaking numbers and delivered an overwhelming rebuke of the CCP. In Sunday’s District Council elections, pro-democracy forces won a landslide victory, securing almost 90 percent of the 452 seats up for grabs. The shocking result came despite what must have been a serious attempt by the CCP to throw the elections in its favor and against the Hong Kongers demanding what Beijing lawfully owes them: autonomy.
When I asked Secretary Pompeo about the significance of the election, he said of those who voted in favor of pro-democracy candidates: “They just came out to say, ‘We want to take care of families, we want to live in freedom. We want the opportunity for economic prosperity that we’ve had for all these years, and we want the political freedoms that come with that as well.’ I think that’s what you saw.”
President Trump’s public support for the Hong Kongers’ protests against the CCP has been unsentimental. As he works toward negotiating a new trade deal with the Chinese government, he has only gone so far as to say he does not want violence and that if there is widespread violence — there has already been quite a bit from both sides of the conflict — it would make achieving a deal more difficult.
Secretary Pompeo, clearly playing a different role, has been more explicit about the importance the Trump administration places on China’s meeting the Hong Kongers’ demands, and about the administration’s understanding of the CCP’s dangerous ideological motivations.
In addition to the Hong Kong elections, there was more breaking news over the weekend related to the CCP: An alleged Chinese spy defected to Australia and shared a trove of details about the pervasiveness of the party’s disinformation campaigns, its kidnapping of journalists and efforts to bully and intimidate journalists, and its astonishing efforts to infiltrate foreign universities and subvert governments disinclined to support its totalitarian vision.
Understandably, Pompeo couldn’t go into any detail about the case beyond acknowledging that he’s seen the reports of the defection. “The Trump Administration is keenly aware of the risks of Chinese efforts to influence and to conduct espionage campaigns, and so we’re taking all the appropriate measures,” he said. “We talk about them in lots of different contexts: protecting our elections, protecting American intellectual property. All of the things that President Trump has talked about in the context of trade often have a true national-security component to them as well.”
That’s a realization U.S. officials would be wise to take to heart. It is impossible to compartmentalize trade and national security. For too long, the United States acted as though they were separate, and as though economic incentives would be enough to transform adversaries into allies. That has proven over and over again to be false. It is increasingly difficult to argue that entire business sectors aren’t directly enabling the CCP’s gross abuses of Chinese religious minorities. Countries still holding on to the hope that deep economic ties will keep them out of the CCP’s military sights should be disabused of that notion sooner rather than later.
On that point, I asked Pompeo to speak to the importance of our alliance with Australia, a critical and faithful ally of the United States, as we counter CCP abuses and provocations that extend far beyond China’s borders. His response made clear that the U.S. takes the threats Beijing poses to regional stability very seriously:
I think the Australians are increasingly prepared to do the right thing — to try as best they can to maintain the opportunities that exist with the Chinese people, but to understand the threat from the Chinese Communist Party. They see it clearly in their waters. . . . They clearly see the threat in the South China Sea from a military perspective and have done more to patrol those waters and have taken a real leadership role with the Pacific islands. I’ve talked a lot with my Australian counterpart, Foreign Minister [Marise] Payne, about how we can ensure that those islands that are under enormous pressure from the Chinese Communist Party, how we work together to deliver good outcomes for the people of those islands that don’t force them into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, which is a place they don’t want to be. But these are nations without great wealth and they need support from America and from Australia and from India and from all the partners in the region that have the capacity to provide economic support to them.
While Americans have fought wars in the Middle East, China has watched how we fight, and has invested in making its military capable of evading our defenses. It has also mounted a carefully calculated campaign of aggression beyond its borders, to take and maintain control of territorial targets that would be critical in the event of a conflict with the U.S. America First cannot mean that we cede whole regions of the world to authoritarian imperialists. We must do much more to regain the military advantage over China, strengthening our diplomats’ hand in their efforts to frustrate the CCP’s ambitions while rallying and emboldening as many allies as we can to stand with us. The security and flourishing of Americans, and in turn the security and flourishing of free societies everywhere, depends on it.