In Pushing Back against China, U.S. Finds Few Allies

Staffers adjust U.S. and Chinese flags before the opening session of trade negotiations in Beijing, China, February 14, 2019. (Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via Reuters)
Too many freedom-loving nations fear economic retaliation.

As the Chinese Communist Party continues the process of enforcing its restrictive “security” law, barring pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong from participating in the September legislative election and arresting protesters, dissenting academics, social-media influencers, and even a 15-year-old banner-waving schoolgirl, it would appear quite challenging to speak in an equivocating, wishy-washy manner about the evils this government is perpetrating. Still, some manage. Several weeks ago, German chancellor Angela Merkel — the most powerful figure in Western Europe — promised that she would “continue to seek dialogue and conversation” with the Chinese government. Andreas Fulda, a senior fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the University of Nottingham, offers a theory behind the chancellor’s words: “Angela Merkel is not able, in my view, to understand the gravity of the challenge of continued one-party rule, whether it’s COVID-19 or the treatment of minorities or the suppression of Hong Kong or the military threats against Taiwan. . . . If the German Government does’’t take the threat of the CCP seriously then, by extension, the EU will not be able to make progress in terms of developing a more coherent China policy.”

That Merkel is simply misguided on the threat China poses, as Fulda believes, is certainly possible. However, given the political climate, there is likely a graver impulse behind Merkel’s placating remarks: fear of retribution. After all, Merkel is far from the only prominent politician to skirt the issue of the CCP’s atrocious human-rights record — far from the only politician to pretend that the Chinese government is a fair party on which one can count to honor its agreements and to act with benevolence.

Last month, representatives of Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Poland, and the Czech Republic on the U.N. Human Rights Council, among others, refused to condemn China for its encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy — a serious blow to a unified Western countermovement against the CCP’s actions. In all, just 27 governments expressed criticism of China’s oppression law, with 53 in favor and the rest staying silent. Just as it is hard to believe that Angela Merkel is oblivious to the crimes China is committing, it is hard to believe that only 27 governments actually found fault with an effective ban on free expression and self-determination for Hong Kongers. (Granted, fewer governments around the world are democratic than one accustomed to Western laws might believe.) Rather, history has likely taught many nations that it is more expedient to keep their mouth shut than to take a firm stance on the global superpower with the world’s second-largest economy.

Consider Spain, one of the countries that remained silent throughout the U.N.’s vote. In 2013, a Spanish court issued arrest warrants for a former Chinese president, a former Chinese prime minister, and other important Chinese Communist officials for allegedly bringing about genocide in Tibet. Just days later, a Chinese spokesperson was expressing Beijing’s dissatisfaction with the warrants, warning the Spanish “not [to] do things that harm the Chinese side and the relationship between China and Spain.” Fearing harsh retaliation from a country holding a fifth of Spanish bonds and consuming many Spanish exports, Spain’s government quickly passed a reform limiting the use of universal jurisdiction.

Though the motive behind this reform was relatively open, it would not be shocking if much other action and rhetoric surrounding China from freedom-loving nations were similarly induced by a fear of economic retaliation. This may help explain why Canada refused to request an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 in May. Or why New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, unlikely not to share President Trump’s personal outrage at China’s activity, nevertheless is reportedly “seeking to be less confrontational than the Trump administration” with regard to the CCP. Even U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson, who has taken very strong action against China by offering a path to citizenship for Hong Kong natives, suspending the U.K.’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong (so as not to be obliged to send back Hong Kongers at Beijing’s whim), and extending the U.K.’s arms embargo on China to Hong Kong, nevertheless has felt the need to send something of a mixed message in assuring that his government is “going to be tough on some things but also going to continue to engage” with China. One imagines Boris Johnson putting China in a timeout for bad behavior but giving it a pat on the head and a cookie to munch on.

This sort of diplomatic behavior is understandable. It is difficult to summon the moral courage to openly condemn a global superpower such as China, especially when large GDP growth and stable diplomatic relations are on the line. In any case, it would appear that the United States, in enacting sanctions against Chinese officials for abusing Uighur Muslims, terminating trade benefits for now-CCP-controlled Hong Kong, closing the Chinese consulate in Houston, and imposing export controls on corporations enabling China’s activity, stands virtually alone on China.

To be sure, there is an occasional discontinuity between the Trump administration’s official policy and the president’s rhetoric. As Trump himself has admitted, he had little desire to press China on its treatment of Uighur Muslims in the middle of trade negotiations with the nation in late 2018, even though top White House officials were already viewing the situation with concern. And as late as February 29, weeks after the CIA had already warned that China had vastly underreported its coronavirus infections and that its information was unreliable, Trump stated in a COVID-19 briefing: “China seems to be making tremendous progress. Their numbers are way down. . . . I think our relationship with China is very good. We just did a big trade deal. We’re starting on another trade deal with China — a very big one. And we’ve been working very closely. They’ve been talking to our people, we’ve been talking to their people, having to do with the virus.” But despite occasional confusion, the commitment to a solidly anti-Beijing foreign policy has been perhaps clearer in the Trump administration than in the government of any other country besides India and Taiwan. This is reflected not only in the U.S.’s recent policies but in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s denunciation of Xi, last week, as a “true believer in a bankrupt, totalitarian ideology” and in his insistence that the United States “induce China to change” lest Communist China “surely change us.”

Of course, even within the United States, there is not a unanimous consensus that China constitutes a major threat. As National Review’s Zachary Evans reports, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein of California had some flattering things to say about China yesterday. Speaking in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, she remarked: “We hold China as a potential trading partner, as a country that has pulled tens of millions of people out of poverty in a short period of time, and as a country growing into a respectable nation amongst other nations.” Senator Feinstein’s statement came in the context of a debate over whether U.S. citizens should be allowed to sue the Chinese government for damages caused by the coronavirus — an idea that Feinstein argued could “launch a series of unknown events that could be very, very dangerous. . . . A huge mistake.”

Encouragingly, however, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill in late June condemning China’s oppression law; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spoke eloquently of the bill as “an urgently needed response to the cowardly Chinese government’s passage of its so-called national security law, which threatens the end of the ‘one country, two systems’ promised exactly 23 years ago today.” Moreover, Pew Research reports that sentiment against the Chinese government is at an all-time high since U.S. adults have been polled: Sixty-six percent say they view the government unfavorably.

In all, it would appear that, barring a massive change in European attitudes and in the fragile economic positions of nations such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the United States will not have many reliable allies in the fight against China’s most egregious abuses. The courageous pro-democracy residents of Hong Kong, as well as a few nations including Taiwan, India, and Israel, are notable but rare exceptions.


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