As the presidential election nears, the bipartisan consensus on China is that it is in a precarious state. This may seem counterintuitive as China is one policy area where both candidates are seeking to burnish their hawkish credentials. Yet, looking past the season of campaign promises there is reason to suspect that whether the country goes red or blue this fall, the United States is at risk of squandering its opportunity to confront the challenge posed by a rising China.
Over the past six years, the United States has overhauled its approach to China by jettisoning decades of bipartisan policies that sought cooperation with Beijing in favor of a strategy that confronts and competes with the Chinese Communist Party. Recognizing the U.S. was late to the party of great power competition, the Trump Administration brandished a set of policies that has impacted every facet of the Sino-U.S. relationship. Leading with a national security and defense strategy that calls for a military rebuild capable of deterring and containing the People's Liberation Army followed by a suite of trade, diplomatic, immigration and foreign investment policies, the competition now extends far beyond the traditional realm of security and military affairs. Unless, policymakers and elected officials remain disciplined and focused, a policy reversal may be upon us.
Both presidential candidates claim to understand the national security threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party regime. Each candidate will tell you they alone can manage the challenges posed by Beijing. Yet, when it comes to the competition with China, the measure of our nation's commitment to the strategy begins with our investments in national security budgets. Early indications suggest the U.S. will underperform. For example, in February President Trump released a budget that previewed a second term defense budget that would remain flat. This was before the fiscal impact of a global pandemic and an economic crisis. Thus, even if Republicans retain the White House and the Senate, the Pentagon can expect fewer dollars to execute a national defense strategy that made China its number one priority.
A putative Biden administration would likely only differ in the details. Most expect a President Biden to increase spending on the domestic side of the ledger. This will undoubtedly lead to Congressional Republicans rediscovering their fiscal discipline (abandoned during the Trump years) and oppose any additional domestic spending. The result? A bipartisan agreement reminiscent of the Obama years that will flatten or even reduce spending on the one part of the budget where fiscal hawks and Democrats agree—the DoD budget. Thus, whether it's Biden or Trump, the Pentagon will lack the funds necessary to keep pace with China's military modernization—an investment of 3-5 percent annual growth according to a bipartisan panel of experts—giving China the edge on the security front.
There are some who argue that the benchmark for the U.S. prevailing in this competition is not how many dollars we spend, but what the United States does with the funds. According to this view, dollars and investments are secondary to the way we engage with China economically and diplomatically. This so-called "smarter" approach, while necessary, will not be sufficient, and risks deluding ourselves into trying to compete with Beijing on the cheap.
For example, we have been told that during a Trump second term to expect a reduction of U.S. forces presence on the Korean peninsula, signaling an increased push for allies to do more while the United States does less. In addition to the real risk of fewer US military assets to counter an increasingly large Chinese footprint in Asia, the possibility remains that President Trump's goal of resolving the trade dispute with China will usher in a rapprochement with Beijing. Such a deal would mean not only Beijing buying American agricultural products, but may pave the way for reconciling longstanding tensions over technology and intellectual property. It seems doubtful that the Chinese Communist Party will cease to be a national security threat when it comes to technology and data, but it's entirely possible that the economic agencies of the US government, as well as the private sector, will begin to soften their position in an effort to address the serious economic challenges at home.
A Biden administration by contrast may not reconcile with Beijing in the same way, though it's possible. More likely, other voices from within the Democratic Party will prevail in seeking a softer, less confrontational approach seeking areas of cooperation on issues like climate change. The net result will be the same: less pressure on Beijing.
The last area that portends headwinds for the China strategy are the inevitable events that will distract from policy implementation. No administration, Republican or Democratic, avoids having its policy eye shift from the important to the merely urgent. Whether it be a Biden administration attempt to renegotiate the Obama Administration's Iran deal or a Trump Administration that makes good on the long-standing threat to leave NATO (or other alliance commitments), rest assured there is plenty to keep the Situation Room distracted from focusing on Beijing.
Be it COVID-19 or TikTok, a majority of Americans are convinced more than ever that the Chinese Communist Party represents a threat to our way of life comparable to what we faced during the Cold War. Moreover, the Chinese Communist Party's human rights abuses against Uighurs and its brazen violation of political and civil rights in Hong Kong reveal the deeper ideological challenge of the competition. Yet it remains to be seen whether our elected officials and policymakers will sustain a set of policies that transcend Administrations, irrespective of which party is in power. This was a defining feature of American policy during our decades competition with the Soviet Union.
Whether the United States is capable of winning a Cold War 2.0 may depend less on what happens in China and more about what happens in Washington over the next four years.
Roger Zakheim is Director of the Ronald Reagan Institute in Washington, DC.
This article was initially published online by Newsweek on 9/16/2020