The Anti-China Offensive

Photograph Source: Chen-fang Tina Chung – Public Domain

The leading endeavor of U.S. foreign policy is now containment of the rise of China, “our most consequential strategic competitor,” as the 2022 National Defense Strategy notes at its start. The response to this “pacing challenge” includes confrontation over Taiwan and obstruction of technological progress, while China’s burgeoning network of economic alliances is singled out as a threat that must be contained. These are shrewd ways of pursuing an overriding goal of U.S. foreign policy, making American preeminence in global power last as long as possible. But the anti-China offensive should be opposed as morally wrong. While, if anything, it worsens repressiveness in China, it encourages an invasion of Taiwan, obstructs the escape from poverty of hundreds of millions in China, and increases the likely future worldwide toll of U.S.-induced violent disorder. The strategic wisdom of these responses to the challenge of China’s rise extends this condemnation to the grand strategic goal that motivates them.

Confrontation over Taiwan is one prong of the anti-China offensive. Since 2020, the U.S. has sent warships, sometimes two at once, about once a month through the Taiwan Strait. Since 2019, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have amounted to $19.5 billion, accompanied by increased deployment of U.S. military personnel, including Special Forces. Interviewed this past September, Biden followed up on previous assertions of a U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan, noting that “Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence … that’s their decision” before saying that U.S. forces would defend Taiwan if “there was an unprecedented attack.” In October, encouraged by this surging support, the president of Taiwan announced plans for a massive military build-up and declared, “We have no room for compromise” in “defend[ing] our national sovereignty.” In December, Biden signed the Taiwan Enhanced Resilience Act, which authorizes $2 billion a year of aid providing military equipment for the next five years, with loan guarantees for Taiwan’s purchases from non-government sources.

The Taiwan prong helps to make U.S. preeminence in global power last as long as possible. It weakens the mainland’s commercial ties with Taiwan, a global mainstay of advanced technology, diverts the regime’s resources from economic goals, detracts from its military strength beyond the Taiwan Strait, and weakens China’s international political influence. But this surge in confrontation makes invasion more likely.

The Chinese Communist Party’s commitment to eventual unification with Taiwan is central to its stature as the party that ended a century of national humiliation which included foreign control of Chinese “treaty ports” and the loss of Taiwan to Japan. This stature is an essential basis for the regime’s legitimacy. Over the last three decades, Beijing has combined this commitment with negotiations with representatives of Taipei leading to a vast increase of commerce and travel across the strait. This has been a coherent combination, since Beijing claims to want ultimate peaceful unification, while noting that it would seek forced reunification if “‘Taiwan independence’ forces should act … to cause the fact of Taiwan’s separation, or … possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted.” The Taiwan prong undermines this balance of peace with warnings, encouraging deadly wrongful invasion. Even if the U.S. did not increase the scope of this war by directly intervening, vast carnage in Taiwan is the likely outcome.

The other current prong is an attack on an engine of economic development, China’s growing reliance on advanced technology. Earlier in China’s economic rise, 800 million people were liberated from abject poverty through economic growth based on exports produced with extremely cheap labor. But many people are still poor. In 2019, a quarter lived on less than $6.85 a day at 2017 purchasing power parity and 46% lived on less than $10 a day (the situation of 2.25% of Americans). Further progress depends on shifting to high-value-added production, for foreign and domestic markets, making use of advanced technology and deploying advanced skills. With increasing vigor, the U.S. is interfering with this shift, slowing the economic rise of “our most consequential strategic competitor.”

This offensive began in August 2022. Qualifying for the tax credits for purchase of electric vehicles and solar panels in the Inflation Reduction Act depends on meeting stringent limits on Chinese content in electric vehicle batteries and solar panel components. Chinese companies produce 55% of the world’s EV batteries, and 85% of photovoltaic cells. In October, the Commerce Department launched the most powerful attack so far. Exports to twenty eight Chinese companies of advanced semiconductors, equipment that includes them, and equipment for manufacturing semiconductors (which requires those advanced chips) were, effectively, banned, put on a blacklist to which thirty six were added in December. If governments of other countries do not impose these restrictions on their own firms’ activities, their violators will face a ban on trade with U.S. firms, with temporary, limited concessions to South Korea and Taiwan subject to case-by-case review. U.S. citizens and green card holders are prohibited from going to China to provide help that might contribute to design or production of advanced semiconductors or equipment making use of them.

This mandate hits a highly vulnerable spot. The share of information technology and computer goods in China’s goods exports is around 30% and economic activities making major use of semiconductor-based technology account for a similar proportion of GDP, but 85% of funds spent on semiconductors go to firms that are not Chinese owned and no Chinese owned firm produces state-of-the-art semiconductors. The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., generally regarded as the leading think tank in the field, had this exuberantly grisly appraisal: “These actions … begin a new U.S. policy of actively strangling large segments of the Chinese technology industry—strangling with an intent to kill … to actively degrade China’s technological maturity below its current level.”

Finally, the U.S. government’s prominent anxiety about China’s use of “its infrastructure and technology-led development programs to tie countries closer” points to future grave dangers of U.S.-induced disorder. Centered on the Belt and Road Initiative, which 149 countries have joined, these programs increasingly reduce the foreign political influence of the U.S. and channel scarce mineral resources to China. Payment in extracted minerals and renminbi together with agreements with central banks, 45 by 2022, for swaps of local currency with renminbi are the cutting edge of a growing threat to the dominance of the dollar in international commerce. This pillar of U.S. power is a major resource for U.S.-based multinationals and financial institutions, significantly lowers interest paid by the U.S. Treasury, and provides vital leverage in the IMF. These threats will provide a mounting incentive for reliance on a tactic that has bolstered U.S. hegemony in the past, with vast, deadly consequences: promoting conflict and repression abroad that strengthens forces allied with the U.S. and undermines opponents.

Opposition to the anti-China offensive is entirely compatible with opposition to wrongful repression by the government of China. If anything, the offensive increases harms of repression by strengthening the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic appeals to its dominance as needed to resist foreign threats. Efforts to reduce repression in China should be joined with another just cause, in which Americans outside the corridors of power must take the lead: reducing the harms of the U.S. government’s efforts to make American preeminence in global power last as long as possible.

Richard Miller is Hutchinson Professor in Ethics and Public Life Emeritus at Cornell University. His writings on U.S. foreign policy include “Globalizing Justice: The Ethics of Poverty and Power” (Oxford University Press, 2010).