How the U.S. Must Respond to China’s Exploitation of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Riot police officers walk as anti-national security law protesters march during the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from Britain, in Hong Kong, China, July 1, 2020. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
The cost of submission to Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions is one that we cannot, under any circumstances, afford to pay.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O n June 30, the Chinese Communist Party’s Standing Committee, the functional seat of power in mainland China, approved a “national security” law that effectively obviates Hong Kong’s unique status. Under the new law, the contents of which were classified until it was passed, Beijing can arrest and extradite any Hong Konger it accuses of jeopardizing “national security.” Already, the government has begun to detain pro-democracy activists.

Extra-political crises — pandemics, global economic crashes, natural disasters — typically accelerate geopolitical trends rather than transforming them, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Since Hong Kong’s “handover” to Chinese suzerainty in 1997, the CCP has viewed the island as a threat and asset in equal measure. Hong Kong’s historical links to Europe and its developed economy made it an ideal bridge between post-Maoist China and global markets. But the city’s prosperity rested on its Western-style political institutions, which protected property rights and freedom of thought and were democratically accountable to its citizens. Hong Kong’s very existence proved that the Chinese people did not need a neo-imperial oligarchy to govern it, which made it an obvious problem for Beijing.

Indeed, the tenacity with which native Hong Kongers resisted China’s progressive encroachments upon its sovereignty and political system demonstrates how deeply Western economic and political norms are entrenched in the city. The likelihood is that, if given the choice, China’s growing urban middle class would prefer the semi-autonomous, liberal, democratic political arrangement that Hong Kong had until now enjoyed to the CCP’s surveillance state. Because the Party’s power and prosperity rest upon the support of that same class, whose members accept autocracy in return for political stability and economic expansion, Hong Kong was ultimately a mortal threat to the CCP’s legitimacy.

Hence China’s progressive encroachments on Hong Kong’s autonomy, which have now culminated in the national-security law. In the face of a massive, stubborn pro-democracy protest movement that had sparked a months-long standoff in the city, the CCP deployed paramilitary divisions to supplement Hong Kong’s police force, ultimately establishing a tenuous balance in late 2019. Then, this year’s pandemic provided the Party with the perfect opportunity to eliminate the Hong Kong threat. Social-distancing restrictions and fear of infection had naturally reduced the power of the protesters, while the virus had dominated global political attention, reducing outside scrutiny of China’s actions. The result is now a foregone conclusion: By the time the world’s democracies manage to control the pandemic, the CCP will have dismantled Hong Kong’s institutions and jailed or killed the protest movement’s leaders. Even if they wish to, Europe and America will find no more Hong Konger allies to support.

The CCP’s brutality in Hong Kong indicates its regional — and global — intentions. Beijing cannot tolerate the existence of an alternative political model that demonstrates Chinese people can govern themselves. More broadly, the Party cannot legitimately liberalize the Chinese economy for fear of internal dissent. To deliver the economic prosperity China’s urban class demands, it must adopt a neo-mercantilist strategy, securing markets and resources abroad while building a shipping fleet to transport these goods and a navy that can protect the maritime routes the fleet needs.

Economic development alone will not secure the CCP’s position. China’s faux liberalization belies an economy permeated by state and parastate actors. Beijing has retained control over major economic decisions and in practice directs many of the country’s nominally private economic juggernauts. Indeed, in most cases, the CCP still outright controls China’s largest companies. Of China’s largest 25 economic enterprises, all but two — the telecommunications giant Huawei and the insurance conglomerate Ping An — are state-owned, and both of those companies’ CEOs are Communist Party members.

Without legitimate liberalization, China’s growth will continue to slow, forcing the CCP to finance additional bubbles that undermine the country’s long-term economic health. By functionally colonizing resource-rich African, Latin American, and Central Asian countries and ensuring its access to European markets, China can make itself the center of global economic activity, drawing resources into the imperial core and carefully managing its billion-dollar revenue streams.

China’s actions in Hong Kong are therefore only the latest — and most apparent — step in its broader global plans. Taiwan is next highest on the CCP’s list. Its geographic position threatens to disrupt any Chinese military or merchant movement between Northeast and Southeast Asia, thereby undermining Beijing’s ability to monopolize regional maritime-transportation routes. Taiwan’s political character is equally important. The Republic of China experienced the same political cataclysms as its Communist counterpart, but it has grown into a free, capitalist democracy with a transparent, accountable political system and a living standard comparable to those found in Western Europe, the U.S., and Canada. The CCP is unwilling to tolerate the strategic and political realities of Taiwan’s success. As the key to the First Pacific Island Chain and a testament to liberalism’s global durability, Taiwan keeps China’s rulers awake at night.

Hence their escalating pressure on Taipei, before and during the current pandemic. China has punished Taiwan’s citizens for siding with the “Pan-Green Coalition,” whose members have expressed support for Taiwanese independence, by restricting mainland citizens’ access to the country and the access of Taiwanese citizens to the mainland. Moreover, it has threatened to use force if Taiwan ever considers independence.

Until recently, these threats appeared empty. But today’s People’s Liberation Army fields a force designed to decisively win high-intensity conflicts against China’s regional adversaries while boxing out American reinforcements. The PLA possesses thousands of land-, air-, and sea-launched cruise and ballistic missiles, which it could use to rain fire on Taiwan in such a conflict’s opening phases. Longer-ranged weapons — including hypersonic delivery vehicles — could target American and allied forces further into the Pacific. Simultaneously, China could deploy the short-range amphibious fleet that it has amassed in the Taiwan Strait, securing bridgeheads at multiple points along the island, and overwhelming any remaining forces with sheer numbers and speed.

It is a mistake to view China’s international military misbehavior as a form of political signaling, or even an alternative to military operations. China’s island bases in the South China Sea are forward-staging points that its tactical air forces could use in a regional war. They would ensure Chinese air supremacy in a conflict’s opening hours, particularly since the closest air base is 1,000 miles away in Okinawa. Similarly, Chinese combat aircraft have violated Taiwanese airspace eight times in the past month, including six times in one week. This follows Chinese military exercises in April, when a PLA Carrier Strike Group transited the Miyako Strait and cut off Taiwan from Okinawa, and night-fighting exercises in March.

Each Chinese provocation tests Taiwanese reflexes. Taipei fields high-quality military forces, but the PLA’s forces outmatch its own qualitatively and quantitatively. In total, the Taiwanese Air Force operates 289 fighter aircraft, including F-16s, Mirage 2000s, Taiwan’s own Indigenous Defense Fighter, and a limited number of legacy F-5s. If one includes theoretically combat-capable training aircraft, the ROC Air Force fields 382 air-superiority fighters. But the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command includes three fighter divisions, an attack division, and a bomber division. PLA Air Force air divisions comprise between 70 and 120 aircraft. The majority of the PLA’s constituent fighter air brigades and regiments field variants of Russian Su-27s and Su-30s, while at least one unit operates the stealthy, fifth-generation J-20. PLA naval aviation supplements this air contingent with navalized H-6K maritime-strike aircraft. Moreover, China has based thousands of ground-launched missiles in the Eastern Theater Command, while the Southern Theater Command’s long-range strike aircraft could be redirected north during an assault on Taiwan.

At sea, the balance is similarly uneven. The ROC Navy includes 26 medium- and small-surface combatants, along with 31 missile boats, 13 coastal patrol craft, nine minesweepers, and two diesel-electric submarines. By contrast, the PLA Navy’s East Sea Fleet has 29 medium- and small-surface combatants — including the Type-52D Aegis-equivalent destroyer and the multi-role Type-54A frigate — ten corvettes, and seven submarines.

Both in the air and at sea, China has a moderate but significant quantitative superiority over Taiwan, and its forces are at a minimum qualitatively equal to Taipei’s. The PLA Air Force and Navy can summon reserves that Taiwan cannot. What’s more, initial Chinese missile barrages would likely destroy some aircraft on the ground and any ships that remain in port, giving China a greater quantitative edge than it appeared to have pre-conflict. Taiwanese ground forces might resist the PLA for weeks or months, depending upon their use of the island’s interior geography. But by neutralizing Taiwanese air and naval capabilities in a conflict’s initial phases, China could check Taiwan’s strategic relevance in the Western Pacific.

Taiwanese defeat would be the greatest wartime strategic disaster for the U.S. since Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines in 1941. With Taiwan humbled, China would have broken through the First Island Chain. It would be free to then swing its forces North to attack American and allied forces in Japan, or South to secure dominance over the South China Sea. Guam and Hawaii would be open to Chinese attack, particularly if budget cuts had shrunk America’s combat fleet. The fall of Taiwan would spell strategic collapse in the Western Pacific. The U.S. would be forced to choose between fighting its way back into the region — engaging in an island-hopping campaign much like those of the Second World War while risking nuclear escalation over time — or accepting China’s regional hegemony and submitting to its economic and political demands.

In short, securing America’s interests in the Pacific requires ensuring Taiwanese survival. Freedom-of-navigation operations that challenge illegitimate Chinese territorial claims will not deter war. Only concerted preparation for conflict will convince China that the cost of taking Taiwan is too high to bear.

The good news is that the U.S. can take multiple short-term policy steps toward this goal. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command should immediately establish a joint command center with Taiwan and begin explicitly coordinating military deployments and force structures to strengthen the allied hand. Taiwan should also be included in the next iteration of RIMPAC. It is a key regional ally, and its forces must understand how to operate alongside other like-minded Pacific states. High-level military-to-military visits would smooth this process of integrating Taiwan more explicitly into the U.S.’ regional defense structure, as would port visits between U.S. and Taiwanese warships.

Politically, the U.S. should invite Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen to speak before a Joint Session of Congress. Both the Left and Right are starting to recognize that China poses the greatest threat to American interests and values of any state since the Soviet Union. A speech before Congress would signal this increasing bipartisan resolve, and reassure America’s allies that, regardless of electoral outcomes, the U.S. is committed to thwarting China’s hegemonic ambitions.

The U.S. can also take several measures to bolster Taiwan’s defenses short of stationing forces there. For example, the U.S. Navy, in partnership with private defense companies, can provide technical assistance to Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program. Taiwan lacks the industrial and technical base to develop its own attack submarines at a reasonable cost. But a joint U.S.–Taiwanese project would mitigate these development issues, and the U.S. could market the product such a project produced — ideally a low- to medium-cost diesel–electric boat — to other Pacific allies threatened by China. Similarly, the U.S. and Taiwan would benefit from partnerships in missile technology and UAV development. Both are low-cost tools that would disrupt Chinese offensive plans by increasing Taiwan’s ability to keep fighting after a first strike.

Apart from a few token rebukes — the Trump administration’s revocation of Hong Kong’s special trade privileges, the U.K.’s offer of de facto citizenship to 3 million Hong Kongers — the world has not punished China for its destruction of a vibrant democracy. Its blatant malfeasance and duplicity throughout the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that it bestowed upon the world have not come with serious geopolitical consequences, either. The U.S. must translate tough-on-China rhetoric into action. Freedom-of-navigation operations are necessary but insufficient as the balance of naval power continues to shift in China’s direction.

Winning a strategic competition with China requires a strategy built on a concerted military expansion in the Pacific, with Taiwan as the keystone of American power. Global leadership sometimes comes at a high cost, but the higher cost of submission to China’s ambitions is one that we cannot, under any circumstances, afford to pay.

— Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. Harry Halem is a research assistant at Hudson and a graduate student at the London School of Economics.

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