The China Conundrum

From Kenosha to Capitol Hill, from state houses to the Supreme Court, there is no shortage of urgent and grave storylines that we must confront as our democracy and the stability of our nation is under threat. But as journalists we are also trained to look for important stories that aren’t getting enough coverage, issues, places, and events that are bubbling on the backburner of our attention and have the potential to emerge as full-blown crises. A well-functioning government must do the same, especially if it has the power by its actions to fundamentally shape what comes next. 

All this brings me to an issue that is always somewhat on my mind but has increasingly become more front and center: China.

Now to be sure, China is not a small or hidden story. America’s complicated relationship with the rising power keeps popping up in the headlines in many forms, but I worry that we aren’t stopping to think enough about the big picture, to weigh the risks and the potential for progress that might develop in the near term, and the more distant future. 

The state of relations between the two countries is as fraught and as dangerous as I have seen in quite some time. Most of this is around China’s rapid military build-up. Its rhetoric is more bellicose and its actions more threatening, particularly when it comes to Taiwan. Now the issue of Taiwan is so complicated it cannot be handled in just one article (although here is a useful primer).

For the sake of our discussion, I note that for decades a status quo has allowed Taiwan to not only exist, but to emerge as a robust democracy and thriving economic power. But this status quo always been precarious. Mainland communist China sees Taiwan as unequivocally falling under its ultimate sovereignty, an issue Taiwan has not wanted to push for obvious reasons. Under this dance, the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but we also tacitly see it as the independent-acting nation that it is. 

The real question is what would happen if China decided to take Taiwan by force. Would the United States come to its defense? For a long time, America has had a policy of “strategic ambiguity” around this scenario. In other words, not definitively answering whether we would intervene in war has been a matter of national policy. This is a way to not threaten China directly, while also allowing Taiwan some level of assurance. It is not clear if this approach can continue as China has ramped up its threats. 

It would be one thing if Taiwan was the only complicating factor between the two powers, but it is as much a symptom as it is a cause. It is clear that China, especially under its nationalistic leader Xi Jinping, wants to exert a more formidable military shadow over Asia and the rest of the globe, matching the economic might it has been pushing for decades.

This casts all of Asia into greater uncertainty. And other regional powers, from Japan to South Korea to Australia, are calibrating their actions accordingly. But the sphere of potential Chinese influence and conflict stretches beyond East Asia. India, Vietnam, and others are all having to react to Beijing’s growing ambitions. 

China’s actions outside of its borders are complicated by what is happening internally. The horrific stories emerging of its treatment of the muslim Uyghur population in the country’s northwest points to human rights abuses on a massive scale, including torture and concentration camps. In a recent report, The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said the government “may be committing genocide.”

We have also seen the brutal crackdown on democracy protesters in Hong Kong and the suppression of free speech and other rights in mainland China. Now we have a story sweeping the sports world and beyond. A top Chinese women’s tennis player, Peng Shuai, has disappeared after accusing a prominent Chinese politician of sexual assault. To their credit, the Women’s Tennis Association has spoken out forcefully, risking its financial stake in China. And many others are taking up the cause.

In short you have a country with severe repression and grave abuses against its own citizens. America, as a champion of democracy and freedom (even if those ideals are under assault here at home) cannot let these kinds of actions occur without response and pressure. 

However, there are many areas where we need China’s help and goodwill. First and foremost is the climate crisis. We will not have a sustainable planet if the United States and China can’t work together on driving down greenhouse gas emissions. There were some hopeful signs out of the climate summit in Scotland with announcements of cooperation and action between the two countries. But we will need a lot more than words in the years ahead. Then there is the issue of our economies, which are largely interwoven. There are trade issues and supply chains. There is the robust Chinese middle class and the market potential they represent. 

It is impossible to capture even a small part of the complexities of this relationship, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on China. But I have been an observer through more than 60 years of rapid change. I first went to Taiwan with President Eisenhower in 1960 when it was under the iron-fisted rule of General Chiang Kai-shek. This was just 15 years after the end of World War II, and most of American foreign policy attention was geared to the Soviet Union and Europe at the time. But I could tell, even then, that we ignored Asia at our peril. When I went to China with President Nixon in his groundbreaking opening of relations in 1972, much had changed.

The Vietnam War had led to a tragic American military return to the region. And China was about to begin a rapid rise in stature. I was then back in 1989 to cover the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, when Chinese government authorities literally pulled the plug on our CBS News efforts in advance of their bloody crackdown.  

I have come to China and the region many, many times over the years. I say this not to suggest it yields any significant wisdom or to pad my part as a reporter. It is just a reminder that Asia must be central to American concerns.

I have long felt that our own history, and the European roots of those who founded the United States, have blinded us to the strength and depth of the cultures and history of China, and the rest of Asia. It is not so much that Asia is rising in importance. It is that it has always been there and we are episodic in paying suitable attention. 

I worry that in our hyper-politicized environment, with Republicans holding up nominees for vital national security and diplomatic posts in the Biden Administration, the dangers in our relations with China will only increase. This is no time for self-defeating chest pounding or foreign policy by sloganeering. There are no easy answers to how we weigh global interests around the climate with the human rights of those being persecuted. We have seen with the pandemic how interconnected our world is. Our public health, the prospects for war and peace, the hopes of peoples seeking freedom, all of this and so much more is at stake. 

What I have seen over the years, however, also gives me seeds of hope. For all the differences we see at the level of government and nations, I have been struck by the people I have met in my travels in China, and throughout Asia. Most want what we all want, a safe and secure world for ourselves and our families. Taiwan is a shining example of a country that turned from authoritarianism to democracy. That alone is a threat to the mainland Chinese narrative that somehow democracy doesn’t work in Asia.

Now is the time for steadfastness and hope, for diplomacy and resolve. I know that the specter of China will continue to be raised as a cudgel to score easy points in American politics. I hope and pray that those making the actual policy can find the room to maneuver through dangerous waters into calmer seas ahead.

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