Hong Kong Protests Should Demolish The Illusion Of China’s Peaceful Rise

Robert G. Kaufman Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University
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Asia has eclipsed Europe as the world’s paramount center of power — demographically, economically, politically, and militarily. So the United States must prevent hostile powers from dominating this region for the same reasons that dictated American intervention to defeat Germany in both world wars of the 20th century and the policy of containment to thwart the Soviet Union’s insatiable ambitions during the Cold War. For such a colossus would possess overwhelming resources to imperil the vital interests of the United States, not only in Asia, but beyond.

All signs indicate that a dynamic authoritarian China (PRC) harbors the ambition to attain such dominance. Though not revolutionary in the mold of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, the PRC has swelling and dangerous geopolitical ambitions, which include supplanting the United States as the dominant power in Asia. China has sorely disappointed the expectations of the regime’s admirers that enormous economic growth would inspire political liberalization. Although Deng Xiaoping and his successors have mitigated the worst features of Mao’s horrific totalitarianism responsible for impoverishing the country and killing millions, the Chinese regime remains highly repressive by all measures, with the media heavily censored and the ruling Communist Party (CPC) virulently intolerant of religious freedom any form of organized dissent, or independent political parties. The CPC totally controls the judiciary, remaining above the law rather than subject to it.

In 2014, China ranked, as usual, near the bottom of Freedom House’s scale of measuring political freedom around the world, with one being the best and seven the worst. The PRC scores a dismal 6.5 overall, 6 on civil liberties, and 7 on political rights. Contrary to popular perception, the CPC continues to dominate the lion’s share of the economy directly and through the control of more than 80 percent of state-owned enterprises. China has consistently scored at the lower boundaries of the mostly unfree category of the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, including in 2014 ranking 137 freest out of 186 globally and 29 out of 42 in the Asia-Pacific region.

China has moved backward on freedom since Xi Jinping became China’s top leader in 2013. In April 2013,  the CPC issued the infamous Document number 9, exhorting communist party cadres to eradicate subversive ideas such as democracy, free market economics, objective standards of human rights or any criticism of Mao’s terrible legacy. The PRC has waged a remorseless campaign to roll back the religious, press, and political freedoms the regime promised Hong Kong. Count on the CCP extinguishing the massive student demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong protesting PRC’s mendacity.

Like Putin’s Russia, the PRC’s internal repression has begat external expansion. China has provoked multiple conflicts with its maritime neighbors, untenably claiming sovereignty over vast areas of the resource rich and strategically pivotal South and East China Seas. Chinese larger strategy aims to intimidate Japan and other maritime nations of East and South Asia, including India, into deferring to rather than resisting Chinese hegemony. Moreover, the PRC had manifested an increasing desire negate the credibility of American security guarantees to democratic allies in the Pacific.

The insidious synergy of China’s prodigious military buildup and the Obama administration’s improvident defense cuts has transformed “the balance of power in unfavorable ways,” according to the bipartisan report of the National Defense Panel Review issue in the summer of 2014. China’s well-conceived and amply funded anti-access and area-denial strategy (A2AD) has already rendered precarious the ability of the American surface fleet — particularly the aircraft carrier task force central to the projection of American power — to survive in the waters of the East and South China seas. Worse, the increasing range, number, and sophistication of the next generation of China’s long range anti-ship and anti-defense missiles may imperil the survivability of the American fleet for thousands of miles across the Pacific beyond Asia’s shores.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s current and long term defense plans before and since the announcement of the rhetorical Asia Pivot have widened the gap between the force structure we have and the air, sea, and space capabilities the U.S. needs to preserve American dominance in the Pacific. Obama’s shrinking defense budgets provide too few surface vessels, long range aircraft, drones, attack submarines, cruise and ballistic missiles to counter China’s burgeoning A2AD capabilities. The Obama administration also continues to incorrigibly oppose the energetic development and deployment of multiple modes of ballistic missile defense — essential for any effective long term answer the gathering danger China poses.

Nor has the Obama administration responded to the PRC any more wisely on the political or diplomatic front. President Obama continues to consider China a strategic partner rather than a competitor. He continues to accord greater priority to achieving a climate change agreement with China rather than cultivating stable liberal democratic allies such as Japan and India yearning for a more muscular U.S. response to China’s bid for hegemony.

The suppression of Hong Kong’s democratic protestors bodes ill for what China’s hegemony will entail should this repressive authoritarian regime ever achieve it, an outcome abetted by a combination of U.S. weakness, obtuseness, and neglect. President Obama’s upcoming trip to China offers a splendid opportunity to educate the American people about the imperative of rejuvenating our democratic alliance system in Asia and restoring American military preeminence on which any tolerable global order depends. Alas, Obama must educate himself first, while those people in Hong Kong cherishing freedom shudder in fear in the meantime.