Make China More Like Hong Kong: A New U.S. National Security Policy Approach Toward China
"One Country, Two Systems." This ostensibly continues to be the semi-official motto of Hong Kong. At the British hand-over to China in 1997, the hope for the West was that China would gradually become more like British-lead Hong Kong. Today in 2019, the reality for Hong Kong, by force from Beijing if necessary, is to become more like an increasingly autocratic China. The goal of U.S. national security strategy should be to flip this narrative.
China is the single most significant foreign policy challenge for America. China's economy continues to grow and will likely surpass the U.S. within the lifetime of most Americans. With increased economic leverage, the ruling Chinese communist leadership has become more authoritarian, intolerant of dissent, and willing to use force to get its way. This sets the stage for a potentially dangerous confrontation between America and Chinese communist leaders.
Short of seeking regime change, the U.S. needs to re-work its national security policies to better meet this challenge. America's long-term strategy should be to shift policies and shape China toward a more traditional "Hong Kong orientation" and away from its increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
The struggle of an incumbent power challenged by an assertive rising power is a story as old as humanity. The ancient writer Thucydides identified this dynamic in his description of the 5th Century BCE Peloponnesian War. Described by historian Graham Allison as "Thucydides Trap," humanity most commonly resolved these sorts of incumbent v. rising power struggles - like the struggle between the U.S. and China - with war.
War between the U.S. and China would be devastating. But a US-China Thucydides Trap does not have to end in war. The U.S. itself shows the exception to the rule in its rise to world power status in the 20th Century with the then incumbent Great Britain.
The key to a peaceful rise between the U.S. and Great Britain was a common understanding of democracy and human rights between the two countries. As China rises, the U.S. policy needs to work on shaping China's communist leaders and cooperatively guide them toward a less authoritarian and more open society.
Unfortunately, U.S. national security policy is set improperly to achieve this objective. The U.S. needs to adopt, as Teddy Roosevelt once put it, a 'speak softly and carry a big stick’ approach with China.
The U.S. should adopt a foreign policy that encourages increased commercial and cultural engagement between the U.S. and China but maintain a strong and robust national security stance to be able to readily confront and defeat China in all combat environments.
The Obama administration nominally understood this approach with its “pivot to the Pacific” security strategy. The previous administration said the right words and adopted the right outlook for dealing with the China challenge. The problem with the Obama administration approach is they never backed it up with the necessary security appropriations and Asia-Pacific defense re-positioning of forces needed to effectuate the rhetoric. It was a good idea, but ultimately empty.
Conversely, the Trump administration flipped the Obama administration approach but still has an inadequate foreign policy posture. Trump has clearly shown his willingness to increase defense spending. But the Trump administration approach is still incorrect as the President engages in an unnecessary trade war, intentionally antagonizes long time global allies for no gain and lacks a consistent long-term blueprint for dealing with China.
The U.S. should instead seek more, not less, trade with China to lessen tensions, develop a better understanding between the two countries and gradually push China toward becoming engaged in global affairs as a partner, not rival, of the U.S. and the West. The on-going trade war with China needlessly increases misunderstanding and harms American consumers.
America also needs strong international alliances to show China they would stand isolated and alone in any major confrontation. Renewing and actively engaging with allies in NATO, but especially in the Indo-Pacific, is the key toward seeding doubt inside the Chinese communist party with confronting the West.
But this increased trade exchange and strong international alliances must be balanced with a ready ability for China to understand that the U.S. can consistently meet and readily defeat China in any actual confrontation. This necessitates a strong U.S. defense budget and a defense orientation toward the Indo-Pacific region.
A generation ago, Ronald Reagan eloquently spoke about "peace through strength." President Reagan adopted a national security approach that leads to the successful end of the Cold War and Western ideals triumphing over Soviet communism. American policymakers should adopt a similar approach with the West's most significant challenge of the 21st Century – the Chinese communist party. With increased trade coupled with stronger global alliances, balanced with a powerful military in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. can shape China toward becoming a partner rather than a rival. The hope that China gradually becomes more like Hong Kong in the 21st Century is not entirely lost - yet.
Charles Djou is a former Member of Congress and served on the Armed Services and Budget Committees. An Afghanistan war veteran, Djou is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve in Hawaii and teaches political science at Hawaii Pacific University. This commentary was written in conjunction with the Army Strategic Broadening Seminar at the University of Louisville.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.