We’ve all tried ignoring a problem and hoping it will go away. How often does that work? The question is relevant because it appears to be the Biden administration’s plan for dealing with China.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in Singapore to give a speech recently to the annual Shangri-La defense summit. This summit represents a unique opportunity to brush back adversaries, bolster allies, and lead on issues that matter most to the American people. He might as well have stayed home. Austin was more than 3,000 words into his 4,200-word speech before he even mentioned China. He devoted more important parts of the speech to the “power of partnership” and how the United States is the “world’s single largest donor of vaccines.”
Austin did eventually outline some threats in the region: “The pandemic. Climate change. Nuclear threats from North Korea. Coercion by larger states against their smaller neighbors. And cruelty and violence from the regime in Myanmar.”
While we can guess one of the countries Austin meant by “larger states” engaging in coercion, why should we need to guess? Can’t our own Secretary of Defense publicly name the top threat to America: China?
When he finally mentioned China in the home stretch of the speech, his prescription was accommodative and echoed Beijing’s own talking points: “We do not seek confrontation or conflict. And we do not seek a new Cold War, an Asian NATO, or a region split into hostile blocs.”
All of this is par for the course for a Secretary of Defense who lacks vision and has helped President Joe Biden stumble from one foreign fiasco to another — perhaps most noticeably in the utter U.S. humiliation in Afghanistan, which continues to have global repercussions. Last July, in addressing the China threat, Austin said, “We will not flinch when our interests are threatened. Yet we do not seek confrontation. Let me be clear … I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China.”
The 1990s called; they want their talking points back. It’s forgivable for a grad school student to wish against hope that China’s rise in power will lead to greater cooperation or enduring peace, all evidence of the last 20 years to the contrary. To hear such wishful thinking from the man who is in charge of defending us from foreign threats is inexcusable.
Laughably, Austin said: “Today, the Indo-Pacific is our priority theater of operations.” If only that were so. Every foreign leader — friend or foe — can tell that the Biden administration has a de facto “Europe First” foreign policy. Biden’s diplomacy has focused on the G7, and he has the military engaged in a proxy war with Russia. Beijing sees this as a welcome distraction and can grasp that U.S. military capabilities in the Pacific continue to atrophy as we have fewer ships and planes with each passing year no matter the amount Congress spends on defense.
But Austin was on to something, even if he was being duplicitous. We ought to make the Pacific the priority theater of operations for defending America against the aggressive and powerful Chinese government. If we were serious, such an effort could have three components:
Economic. Turning around the Biden economy with its looming stagflation and energy crisis is critical to our defense and staying ahead of China economically. To do that, we need a trade policy that puts America first. The Biden administration is musing about lowering the tariffs on China that former President Donald Trump enacted. Instead, we should increase tariffs, tighten export controls to protect all of our intellectual property and dramatically decrease economic dependence on our chief adversary in the world.
Military. We need to build and deploy a military designed to deter war with China, empower allies to strengthen their own independent capabilities and build greater defenses against nuclear and asymmetrical threats. Instead, our current woke leadership places radical ideology ahead of a real-world focus on the greatest threat to our nation and our way of life, all while China leaps ahead with its military modernization and authoritarian aggression. Our Navy’s modest goal of a fleet of 355 ships now seems only like a dream. We have fewer bombers and fighters in the Pacific than a decade ago, we haven’t tested a nuclear weapon since 1991, and China poses a critical cyber threat to our satellites and ground-based networks. A return to “peace through strength” is needed now more than ever.
Political Warfare. We need the non-military spectrum of our statecraft focused on perturbing the Chinese Communist Party. That’s not the same as regime change; it’s a Reaganesque policy of using every opportunity to make life harder for the foreign government that wants to undermine our national power and way of life. China has infiltrated our universities and key industries and has sold our elite on the fiction of its unstoppable rise and inevitable supremacy. Successful political warfare should do the opposite: undermine Beijing’s soft power and illustrate that its government and economy is a house of cards.
Unfortunately, Biden and Secretary Austin appear unlikely to change their approach to China and implement such a program anytime soon. But as we find ourselves in a period of turmoil when conventional wisdom after wisdom is exposed as myth, hopefully we can emerge with a foreign policy on China that puts America first and Beijing last.
Stephen Yates is the chair of the China Policy Initiative at America First Policy Institute. He was the president of Radio Free Asia and a White House deputy national security advisor (2001-2005).