After years of wishful thinking, America and its allies in the Indo-Pacific are returning, finally, to what President Franklin Roosevelt called “armed defense of democratic existence.” Given Beijing’s actions both at home and abroad, one wonders what took them so long.
Washington is increasing freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea and transits of the Taiwan Strait; surging multiple aircraft carriers into the Pacific; and readying billions for an “Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative” that will enhance weapons systems, modernize infrastructure, and strengthen support for allies across the region.
Japan is converting helicopter carriers once intended for humanitarian operations into full-fledged strike aircraft carriers, each armed with 40 F-35s; dotting military bases in the East China Sea with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles; building military-grade runways on Mageshima Island in the East China Sea, with plans for US and Japanese warplanes to operate from the base; and fielding island-defense units modeled after the US Marine Corps.
Australia is pouring fresh resources into anti-ship missile systems, anti-submarine surveillance, cyber-defenses, and squadrons of F-35s; increasing defense spending 81 percent between 2016 and 2025; doubling its submarine fleet; and hosting US Marines, F-22s, and B-52s for extended rotations.
The Philippines recently reversed plans to terminate a military-training agreement with the United States. Manila took China to court—and won. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then, in effect, widened the scope of the US-Philippine defense treaty by declaring, “Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our mutual defense treaty.”
India is pivoting toward Washington and beefing up its military—each side viewing the other as a helpful counterweight to Beijing and a source of strategic depth vis-à-vis the Beijing behemoth. Vietnam is opening its ports to US aircraft carriers. All 10 ASEAN members recently rebuked Beijing for its lawlessness in the South China Sea.
This return to realism isn’t quarantined within the Indo-Pacific. Noting that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is “investing heavily in modern military capabilities, including missiles that can reach all NATO allied countries,” “coming closer to us in cyberspace… in the Arctic… in Africa… in our critical infrastructure,” and “working more and more together with Russia,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance “must address… the security consequences of the rise of China” and expand cooperation with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.
Not coincidentally, France has outlined plans to strengthen military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. Canadian and French warships have sailed through the Taiwan Strait. Britain’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will make its maiden deployment to the Indo-Pacific. After scrapping plans to allow PRC-backed Huawei to build its 5G telecom network, Britain is calling on the D10—a partnership of 10 democracies enfolding the G7, Australia, South Korea, and India—to pool their technological resources, build on their shared values and harness their interoperability to create an uncompromised 5G network.
Some of this is a function of Beijing’s hostile behavior and outright aggression—the attempted annexation of the East and South China Seas, the illegal island-building project, the Himalayan border attack, the military buildup, the intimidation of Taiwan, smothering of Hong Kong, and the cyber-siege of Japan, Australia, America, and Europe. But much of this comes in response to Beijing’s criminal mishandling of a preventable pandemic known as COVID-19. The world now knows that Xi Jinping’s regime lied about human-to-human transmission; allowed thousands of people to leave Wuhan for destinations around the world; ordered scientists not to share findings about coronavirus-genome sequencing; and carried out a premeditated plan to hoard 2.5 billion pieces of medical protective equipment as the virus swept the globe.
In short, Xi’s response to COVID-19 forced the world to come to grips with a hard truth: the PRC is an ends-justify-the-means regime that has contempt for the individual at home and disdain for norms of behavior abroad. It has no desire to join an international system that has promoted peace and prosperity since 1945—only to supplant it. Some of us have been arguing this for years (see here, here, here, here and here p.50). But the trade über alles caucus promised that ever-expanding commercial ties with the PRC would—someday soon—subdue its imperial inclinations; lead to political reform; encourage respect for human rights; and somehow graft its capital-ish economy and repressive autocracy into an international system premised on freedom and the rule of law.
Those promises never came to fruition—and never will as long as the PRC is ruled by the Communist Party. We didn’t need COVID-19 or Hong Kong or the South China Sea to understand this truth. All we needed was to consider how the PRC treats its own people.
The PRC is a place where, as Freedom House reports, “hundreds of thousands” of religious adherents—many of them guilty of “simply possessing spiritual texts in the privacy of their homes”—are sentenced to forced labor; where Christian churches are smashed, Christian pastors are jailed, and followers of Christ are sent to reeducation camps; where Buddhist temples are bulldozed; where Uighur Muslims are herded into concentration camps, Uighur men are packed into freight trains, Uighur women are forcibly sterilized, and Uighur babies are forcibly aborted; where bishops and Nobel Peace Prize laureates die in prison.
The PRC is a place where cruelty is a part of statecraft.
Not only are Muslims monitored and brutalized, PRC authorities have “hung Chinese flags on mosque walls in the direction of Mecca” so that when the religious bow for prayer, they are reminded of their godless masters.
Not only are physicians muzzled for trying to live up to the oaths of medicine, they are arrested for it and left to die for it.
Not only has the PRC forced millions of women to abort their babies, many of those women have been forced to endure unspeakable inhumanity after enduring that trauma. The PRC’s nationwide one-child policy has ended, but it apparently persists at local levels. Not long ago, as the Washington Post details, a woman pregnant with her second child was arrested and ordered to pay $6,000 in fines. “When the family couldn’t get the money together… officials gave her an injection that killed the baby, whom the mother delivered stillborn while in police custody.” The government then forced the woman to wait alongside her baby’s lifeless body while bureaucrats finished their work.
A regime capable of doing that to a broken, shattered mother—the haunting words “Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted” come to mind—is capable of justifying and doing anything. That would include illegally annexing and militarizing vast swathes of the South China Sea, violating the airspace and territorial waters of its neighbors, blinding pilots and mugging planes flying in international airspace, using cyberspace to steal hundreds of billions of dollars in intellectual property and blackmail its enemies, flouting international treaties, bludgeoning to death unarmed foreign troops, invading a free and sovereign people, launching an unprovoked attack against ships operating in international waters, threatening to incinerate millions of civilians, and even parlaying a pandemic into a geopolitical windfall.
As dissident leader Xu Zhangrun observes, “A polity that is blatantly incapable of treating its own people properly can hardly be expected to treat the rest of the world well.”
And here we are.
What’s as obvious today as it was a year ago or a decade ago or a half-century ago, is that regimes with no respect for religious liberty and other human rights naturally see no limits on their power and no moral constraints on what they do. Since they believe nothing is above the state, they rationalize everything they do in the name of the state, the fatherland, the revolution, the dear leader, the paramount leader.
That worldview informs every aspect of PRC decision-making, including its foreign policy, which is why Washington needs to be ever on alert when dealing with Beijing. As Xi and his henchmen rationalize and normalize mass-cruelty within their borders, they are more likely to violate rules of the road and norms of behavior beyond their borders.
University of Texas professor William Inboden notes that “every major war the United States has fought over the past 70 years has been against an enemy that also severely violated religious freedom.” Indeed, the one common denominator between the fascists of the Axis Powers and the communists of the Soviet bloc, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, Hezbollah and the Taliban, ISIS and al-Qaeda, the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran, is that all of them are (or were) violently opposed to religious liberty.
This isn’t to suggest that America and its allies should go to war with Xi’s China, but rather that they should fully commit to “armed defense of democratic existence,” prepare for worst-case scenarios, and “deal with China as it is, not as we wish it to be,” in Pompeo’s blunt words.
The world is beginning to do that—finally.