U.S. and China at a Crossroads

U.S. and China at a Crossroads

Rep. Adam Smith

China’s rise in the 21st century was no accident, and the government in Beijing’s goal is to remain a global power long into the future. Given its ambition, and because China already represents our greatest economic competitor, pursuing the right approach to the U.S.-China relationship has never mattered more for our country’s national security.

Maintaining a peaceful, productive relationship between the United States and China is crucial — the world is a better place when we work together and coexist peacefully — but it will not be easy. The United States must deter Chinese military aggression, compete fairly in the global market, and leverage all diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal to resolve our disagreements. The future of the global economy, international security, and generations to come all depend on an effective approach to the U.S.-China relationship.

However, Beijing’s behavior in recent years has made it extraordinarily difficult to foster a peaceful, productive relationship.

Intellectual property theft, unfair trade practices and bloated state-owned conglomerates in China have undermined American businesses and workers in the global marketplace. The Chinese Communist Party has also exploited vulnerabilities in developing economies with its Belt and Road Initiative — an approach to economic development in Africa, Asia and elsewhere that causes more problems than it solves by feeding corruption and creating debt traps, often investments with a dual military use.

The Chinese government’s challenges to a healthy relationship with the United States and the rest of the world do not end with unfair economic and trade practices. Beijing’s heavy-handed authoritarianism has resulted in threats against people who call Taiwan home, territorial disputes with China’s neighbors, and egregious human rights abuses within China’s borders. The United States cannot afford instability and aggression in the economically dynamic Pacific region that is also home to some of our most crucial partnerships.

Beijing’s approach to its relationship with the United States now faces a significant test as Russian military forces conduct a bloody, unprovoked war against Ukraine. Before Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to attack, he and China’s President Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the Olympic Games in Beijing — a testament to the deepening relationship between Russia and China.

The United States, along with our allies and partners, imposed an unprecedented range of economic consequences for Putin’s war, including sharp sanctions and a U.S. ban on Russian oil imports. China is in a position to help Russia ameliorate some of the effects of those measures. Aiding and abetting Putin’s violent war against the Ukrainian people cannot and should not go unpunished. To date, President Joe Biden and other members of his administration have engaged Chinese Communist Party leaders to convey the potential consequences if China helps Russia avoid accountability for its invasion. These conversations are critical — not only because of how important it is that the United States stand with the people of Ukraine, but also because we know this will not be the last time leaders from Washington and Beijing will need to engage in dialogue over security challenges.

So how should we address the challenges posed by China?

First, we must maintain a strong deterrent so that the potential cost of military aggression is such that the Chinese leadership chooses a peaceful path instead. We should continue to provide support to Taiwan, under the Taiwan Relations Act, for maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability without needlessly provoking Beijing.

To deter Chinese military aggression, the U.S. must hold the technological and innovative advantage, with equipment that can deliver real-time, high-quality battlefield information to personnel and survive a range of potential threats including cyberattacks. Maintaining a strong military advantage against any potential aggressor will help the United States prevent conflicts.

Second, the United States must continue rebuilding partnerships across the Indo-Pacific region and around the world, something President Biden and his administration have prioritized very effectively. Strong bilateral agreements with key allies like the Republic of Korea are integral to our success in the region. Networks like the Quad — which includes the United States, India, Japan and Australia — our AUKUS security partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom, and NATO all show how the United States can best meet our security needs when we act alongside economic and military partners. These alliances and partnerships allow us to compete more effectively across a whole range of areas.

Third, our leaders must also pursue opportunities to work with Beijing. The leaders of our two countries should meet often at multiple levels to express views, seek clarity and explore opportunities for cooperation on issues like combating climate change, eradicating poverty and achieving a fairer economic system. Our military leaders should also be in regular contact to avoid dangerous miscalculations between two nuclear-armed powers. A healthy U.S.-China relationship requires both sides to recognize that we can compete and cooperate simultaneously, and that regular conversation between countries is a necessity.

While we compete with China, U.S. policymakers must always make clear that our strategic competition is with the Chinese government. The everyday citizens of China are not our adversaries, nor are Chinese Americans or other members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, we saw a dramatic increase in hate crimes and racist incidents against those of Asian descent — and we know that these incidents have continued. That’s why it was so important to pass S. 937, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, last year. The United States cannot fully realize one of our greatest competitive advantages — our people and our diversity — if challenges from Beijing are described in ways that endanger our neighbors in Seattle and around the country. We will have a harder time seeking the support of our partners, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, if hateful acts against the AAPI community are tolerated here.

The U.S.-China relationship occupies a central role in the world today, and it will continue to shape the global economy and international security for decades. We should seek cooperation with Beijing when we can. When we cannot cooperate, the United States should compete with our economic strength, military deterrent, and network of allies and partners. A more secure, peaceful, prosperous future for people living in the Seattle area and across the United States: that’s what getting the U.S.-China relationship right looks like.

Adam Smith is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. A Democrat, he represents the 9th Congressional District, which includes parts of Seattle, Bellevue, Federal Way and Tacoma.

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