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Foreign Policy

America’s Self-Defeating Silliness

Aug 15, 2020
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

In recent months, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has delivered a series of speeches attacking China. Of particular note is the speech he delivered at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California on July 23, in which he discredited the Communist Party of China and incited sentiment against the country through false claims and ideological prejudice.

In the speech, he also called for the establishment of “a new alliance of democracies” to take on China, saying, “If the free world doesn’t change Communist China, it will surely change us.”

Based on his misjudgment of the international situation, Pompeo laid out the terms of a new cold war to contain China. His ideas and rhetoric, however, go against the trend of the times and are doomed to failure.

First, the world today is much more integrated than it once was. The tide of globalization has increased productivity significantly, and countries are ever more interconnected and interdependent. With intertwined interests, they constitute a world in which they cannot grow in isolation.

The trade war launched by the United States against China has disrupted global industrial and value chains and at the same time undermined the interests of many other countries, including U.S. allies. Now the United States is provoking a new cold war and forcing other countries to choose sides.

In fact, many countries are caught in a dilemma. Around the world, there is widespread criticism of the Trump administration. In a videoconference hosted by the American think tank Atlantic Council, for example, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he hopes the next president of the United States will, first of all, stabilize relations with China, because in the rest of Asia “we depend on stable U.S.-China relations in order for us to have a secure and predictable environment.” In addition, he expressed hope that the next U.S. president will establish a “stable” and “predictable” foreign policy.

Second, stopgap plans can’t help the United States solve problems in its foreign relations. Since taking office, the Trump administration has seen “America first” as the guiding principle in decision-making. Therefore, it seeks to maximize the interests of the nation at the expense of other countries and peoples, as evidenced by its tough rhetoric to U.S. allies. For instance, Trump blamed Europe for European integration, military spending, disadvantageous trade and the flow of refugees, causing uneasiness and anger. Moreover, the European Union stands against many of Trump’s positions and decisions on other international issues, including his questioning of the effectiveness of NATO and the U.S withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the United States and Europe have been mired in disagreements on many issues, including anti-pandemic supplies, the so-called “Wuhan virus,” the U.S. exit from the World Health Organization and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany. According to some European media reports, the alliance between the United States and Europe is at its lowest point since World War II.

At the same time, the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea have also been affected by the “America First” policy. Trump criticized the two countries for manipulating exchange rates in ways that helped them gain an edge in trade with the United States. He forced Japan to sign a free trade agreement with the United States in which Japan had to make disproportionate concessions. He asked South Korea and Japan to substantially increase their financial support for U.S. troops in the two countries. And he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Never before in history have the alliances of the United States with Japan and South Korea such bumps.

The “America first” stance has offended almost all U.S. allies to varying degrees. As they see the United States as untrustworthy and unreliable, these allies have begun to increase their autonomy, and they continue to develop their ties with China. That may explain why U.S. attempts to get its allies to join an anti-China coalition are met with a boycott.

On July 28, China’s Liu He, vice premier, and Valdis Dombrovskis, executive vice president of the European Commission, co-chaired the Eighth China-EU Economic and Trade High-Level Dialogue via video link. The two sides achieved fruitful results and consensus on many fronts, including anti-pandemic cooperation, the security of industrial and supply chains, China-EU investment agreement negotiations, World Trade Organization reform and expansion of market access. In this dialogue, which focused on specific agenda items, Europe responded to unreasonable U.S. demands by increasing cooperation with China.

Finally, as the world’s second-largest economy, China has a huge market with remarkable appeal. Today, China is the largest manufacturing country, the largest trading country in goods and the largest trading partner of more than 100 countries. Domestic consumption has become the main growth driver, and the country is expected to become the world’s largest consumer market in the near future.

As its domestic business environment continues to improve, China has become one of the world’s top investment destinations. For many countries, including many U.S. allies, an important policy objective is to maintain and expand economic and trade relations with China. As a matter of fact, this is a strong bulwark against the Trump administration’s attempt to initiate a new cold war.

In late June, the United States and Australia held consultations that brought together the Australian and U.S. heads of foreign affairs and defense in Washington. Although in the joint statement Australia pointed fingers at China on issues concerning Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Ann Payne said at the news conference, referring to the United States, “We don’t agree on everything.”

“The relationship that we have with China is important,” she said. “And we have no intention of injuring it.” She also said that “the secretary’s speeches are his own, Australia’s positions are our own.”

Although delivered in a subtle manner, her message was clear: Australia will not join the U.S.-led anti-China alliance. Australia is a die-hard ally of the United States, but it still has some scruples about being a full-time muscleman for the United States in taking on China. The reason is simple: worsening relations with China do not serve its interests.

Similarly, as a member of the Five Eyes, the United Kingdom has taken foolish positions on issues concerning 5G and Hong Kong. But after Pompeo traveled to the UK and lobbied London to join the anti-China alliance, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stressed the need for a more “balanced” approach in the UK’s China policy and said that he doesn’t want to become “a knee-jerk Sinophobe.”

To set the scene for his anti-China agenda, Pompeo arranged for National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General William Barr to unleash on Chinese ideology, espionage and economic issues.

Building on their remarks, Pompeo explained in his California speech how “a new alliance of democracies” would align against China. But this speech was met with near silence among U.S. allies, as if it had never been delivered. The Trump administration aims to isolate China, but now it finds itself isolated by others. That is the very definition of self-defeating behavior, indeed. 

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