An old saying counsels, “It’s better to fix the problem than fix the blame.” But sometimes the former depends on the latter. That’s certainly the case when it comes to the foreign policy dimensions of COVID-19, which mushroomed from a manageable public health problem into a global pandemic and economic crisis because Xi Jinping’s regime failed to act and then tried to cover up its failures.
As the health crisis spawned by COVID-19 begins to ease and the world begins to wade through the economic wreckage, the time is approaching for the president to explain to the American people—and the world—the extent and depth of Beijing’s criminal malfeasance. This should not be an off-the-cuff riff or a campaign-style stump speech. Instead, the president should use the Oval Office or East Room to underscore the gravity and seriousness of what he has to say—and what Xi’s regime has done.
A helpful roadmap is President Ronald Reagan’s speech following Moscow’s shootdown of Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983.
Speaking with controlled anger in his voice, Reagan charged Moscow with “savagery” and “a crime against humanity.” He called the Soviet attack “an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.”
What was true of the Soviets is true of Xi and his henchmen.
Like the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China is an ends-justify-the-means regime that has contempt for the individual at home and disdain for norms of behavior abroad. Xi’s China is a land of slave-labor camps, forced sterilization, and forced mass-migration. Xi’s subjects are deprived of the most basic religious and political freedoms. Christians, Muslims, and political dissenters are banished to laogai prisons. China’s Uighur Muslim region, according to a human-rights watchdog, “resembles a massive internment camp… a no-rights zone.” More accurately, all of China is a no-rights zone. Xi’s lieutenants bulldoze churches in Zhejiang and Shaanxi, herd Muslims into concentration camps in Xinjiang, raid house churches in Dazhou, and smother Tibetan Buddhists.
The PRC’s lawlessness is not quarantined within its borders. Xi’s military is annexing the South China Sea piecemeal. And as the COVID-19 Crisis makes plain, his regime’s callousness toward life is poisoning the world. While we cannot blame Beijing for COVID-19, we can blame Beijing for its mishandling of COVID-19 and other deadly diseases. H5N1, SARS and COVID-19 are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths globally. Each began in the PRC.
“There was absolutely no justification, either legal or moral, for what the Soviets did,” Reagan explained, before revealing plans to “obtain compensation for the benefit of the victims’ survivors. Such compensation is an absolute moral duty, which the Soviets must assume.”
President Donald Trump could make the same case today.
Citing treaties China is party to, James Kraska of the US Naval War College argues Beijing is obliged to “make full reparations for the injury caused by” its “wrongful acts.” If Beijing refuses, “the United States and other injured states may suspend existing legal obligations or deliberately violate other legal duties owed to China as a means to induce Beijing to fulfill its responsibilities and address the calamitous damages it has inflicted on the world.”
Similarly, former Justice Department official John Yoo and American Enterprise Institute legal expert Ivana Stradner conclude that China is “legally liable under international law.” Given the “ineffectiveness and corruption of international institutions,” they propose expelling PRC scholars from US universities; imposing economic sanctions on China; blocking China from buying and selling advanced technologies; targeting PRC leaders with asset-freezes and visa-denials; and seizing “the assets of Chinese state-owned companies.”
Concluding that Beijing’s response to COVID-19 “was in breach of international law,” a British policy-research firm is calling for Beijing to face $6.5 trillion in damages.
Noting that Soviet leaders “have spun a confused tale” and “refuse to tell the truth,” Reagan shared “incontrovertible evidence” with the American people. Trump should do the same by providing a definitive timeline of Beijing’s COVID-19 response, releasing classified materials to shine light on Beijing’s actions and inaction, quantifying the costs of Beijing’s crimes of commission and omission, and refuting Beijing’s outrageous propaganda claims.
Trump could detail how Xi took six weeks to quarantine Wuhan, the outbreak’s epicenter; thousands of people left Wuhan for destinations around the world during that time; Chinese authorities jailed a physician for warning colleagues about the virus; Beijing assured the World Health Organization there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”; China ordered its scientists not to share findings about coronavirus-genome sequencing; and Xi refused assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reagan spoke of a newfound “feeling of unity” in Washington in the wake of the Kremlin’s lawless actions, and he used the KAL007 massacre to press for a tougher stance against Moscow. “Until they are willing to join the rest of the world community,” he said of the Soviets, “we must maintain the strength to deter their aggression.”
In the same way, Trump could point to the rapidly-emerging consensus in Washington around a tougher China policy. In the wake of Beijing’s illegal island-building efforts, relentless cyber-siege and criminal mishandling of COVID19, the trade über alles caucus that promised markets would reform China has collapsed. In its place is a new coalition of national security hawks, human rights activists, fair traders, parents, nurses, entrepreneurs, and a 26-million-strong army of jobless Americans enraged by what Beijing’s business-suit dictatorship has wrought.
Congress is beginning to harness its fury. Among the many bills in Congress calling for punitive action against Beijing, one directs the president and secretary of the Treasury “to develop and carry out a strategy to seek reimbursement from the People’s Republic of China.” Another demands that China “be held accountable” for “its decision to hide the emergence and spread of COVID-19 on the lives and livelihoods of the people of the United States and other nations,” envisions ways to “quantify the harm… to the health and economic wellbeing of the people of the United States,” and proposes “a mechanism for delivering compensation” from China “to all affected nations for the harm caused by its decision to hide the emergence and spread of COVID-19.”
Trump could encourage bipartisan movement on these and similar measures—not simply to punish Xi’s regime, but to compel a change in behavior.
In that vein, Reagan called on Moscow “to join the rest of the world in working out a system to protect against this ever happening again.” And he urged the civilized world “to see that justice is done,” adding, “The real test of our resolve is whether we have the will to remain strong, steady and united… If we stand together and move forward with courage, then history will record that some good did come from this monstrous wrong.”
Battered by COVID-19, America’s allies seem primed to answer such a call to arms. The Japanese government is investing $2 billion to help its corporations relocate outside China. Prominent members of Britain’s majority party have called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson—himself a COVID-19 survivor—to “rethink our wider relationship with China” in order to protect “Britain’s long-term economic, technical and security needs.” Australian lawmakers are pushing for punitive action against China. France has reprimanded Chinese diplomats for anti-Western smears. Other European nations have been forced to recall defective PRC aid. Deft diplomacy can forge this mistrust of Beijing into a bulwark against its malign influence.
The KAL007-COVID-19 parallels aren’t perfect, of course. The former was a deliberate action that killed 269 and directly impacted very few Americans. The latter is a deliberate inaction that has killed tens of thousands and affects every American. While the US and USSR were literally walled-off from one another, America and the PRC are economically intertwined. As such, China has more cards to play than the Soviet Union, but it also has more vulnerabilities to America’s economic, diplomatic, and technological responses.
Moreover, the parallels between the callousness of Moscow and Beijing—and the relevance of Reagan’s words to today’s challenges—are striking. Now, as in 1983, the actions of a brutal communist regime have exposed its true nature. Now, as then, “if we move forward with courage… some good may come from this monstrous wrong.”