Now China’s propagandists are competing to create a narrative that obscures the origins of the crisis and that blames the United States for the virus. This irresponsible behavior and lack of transparency revealed what Trump’s National Security Strategy had identified early on: that “contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of others.” Instead of becoming a “responsible stakeholder”—a term George W. Bush’s administration used to describe the role it hoped Beijing would play following China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001—the Chinese Communist Party used the advantages of WTO membership to advance a political and economic system at odds with America’s free and open society. Previous National Security Strategy documents had tiptoed around China’s adversarial conduct, as if calling out that country as a competitor—as the 2017 document unequivocally did—was somehow impolite.
But at some point, an American administration needed to shift the conversation away from hopes for an imagined future China to the realities of the Communist Party’s conduct—which is hardly a secret. For the decade and a half prior to 2017, Republican and Democratic leaders publicly worried about China’s unwillingness to play by the rules, but were reluctant to deal head on with China’s authoritarian government and statist economy. The bipartisan U.S.-China Economic Security Commission has consistently called out China’s unfair practices. In 2010, President Barack Obama lambasted China before the G-20 for its currency manipulation. The need to compete effectively with the policies of the Chinese Communist Party is one of the few points of agreement between Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Even as he seeks to find ways to conclude reciprocal trade agreements, his administration has not lost sight of China’s aggressive rise.
The coronavirus experience demonstrates that economic interaction does not occur in a vacuum of geopolitical competition. Dependence on China for crucial medical equipment throughout the pandemic has illuminated the dangers of a hyper-globalized economy. Experts had warned of American dependence on key drug ingredients from China. The Wall Street Journal has reported that China is the only maker of key ingredients for certain classes of drugs, including established antibiotics that treat a range of bacterial infections such as pneumonia. American reliance on Chinese suppliers for other pharmaceuticals and medical supplies is also worrisome. Americans should not depend on an authoritarian rival state for its citizens’ health—any more than the United States and other free and open societies should give Chinese companies, and by extension the Chinese Communist Party, control over communications infrastructure and sensitive personal data.
Many of President Trump’s critics in the foreign-policy community put great stock in the ability of multilateral and international organizations to constrain the misbehavior of China and other states. These organizations, at their best, promote concerted action against commonly recognized problems. But Trump’s critics tend to view them mainly in their idealized form and as the central instruments to solve global problems and advance values shared by all. In practice, though, how international organizations perform is profoundly influenced by power relationships among member states.
China’s leaders have become quite skillful at using these bodies to pursue their own interests. President Xi Jinping has made it a priority—as he put it in a 2018 speech—to “reform” and lead in the “global governance system,” viewing such efforts as integral to “building a modern, strong socialist country.” Despite its record of stealing patented technologies, China tried to lead the World Intellectual Property Organization, an effort thwarted by Washington. Chinese tech companies have also sought to induce the United Nations to adopt their facial-recognition and surveillance standards, to clear the way for the deployment of their technologies around the world.
Contrary to what critics argue, “America first” does not mean “America alone.” That Trump might be introducing needed correctives to the hyper-globalization pursued by earlier administrations is generating serious cognitive dissonance in some quarters. And the reality is that only one organization in the entire world has as its sole responsibility the American people’s safety. That institution is the U.S. government. Whether led by Republicans or Democrats—or by Donald Trump or anyone else—it should always put the American people first.
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