America Alone or America Engaged?

These two images signal the potential for a conflict that would be massively destructive. On the left, a U.S. Navy photo shows two aircraft-carrier battle groups in a joint exercise in the South China Sea, On the right, a screenshot of a Twitter post by Global Times, one of China’s propaganda machines boasting that those carriers are operating “at the pleasure of the PLA, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces. China is clearly not yet ready to risk war by denying the right of passage to U.S. naval forces. Still, China’s increased assertiveness borders on external aggression and implies that it may soon seek to enforce its claim to the South China Sea. China’s position on the South China Sea disregards a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.[1] Meanwhile, its increasingly brutal domestic policies indicate a near-complete disregard for international opinion. It cracked down on all forms of dissent and abrogated the agreement with the United Kingdom over the treatment of Hong Kong. China appears to be proceding with genocidal policies by forcing abortions and sterilizations of Muslim women[2] along with internment and “reeducation” all Uiguers in China’s far west. China's expansionist agenda is challenging both India and Bhutan in the Himalayas. The Belt and Road Initiative seeks to bind China’s neighbors and countries on along the Silk Road to China through complicated financial and infrastructure programs. On trade policy, China has largely ignored most of its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), most egregiously by its rampant theft of intellectual property and its unabashed subsidies to state-owned industries (SOEs). In this election year, one would expect each camp to issue proclamations on China policy, yet to date, we’ve heard nothing. Admittedly, the news is dominated by the COVID-19 crisis and the protests over police killings as well as calls for broad reforms on race relations. Still, we need to hear the two presidential candidates articulate our national interests for the South China Sea and the Western Pacific. If we blindly assume that the status quo should continue, we could, within the next presidential term, see China sink a U.S. warship and dare the United States to respond. At this juncture, we have two fundamental choices: 1. America Alone; or 2. America engaged. President Trump’s policies are essentially “America Alone” – mercantile trade policies, scorning allies, allowing domestic political considerations to override national interests. In order to cut a trade deal with China, Trump withheld criticism of China’s increasingly authoritarian policies. According to former national security advisor, John Bolton, he even told Chinese Premier Xi Jinping that China should go ahead with building camps for Muslims[3] while asking Xi to buy more U.S. farm products. If “America Alone” continues for four more years, we can expect to see our alliances atrophy, our influence wane and, ultimately, the decline of American power. In other words, America Alone will make China great again. If we withdraw, China will very likely bully large parts of Asia and the Pacific to accept it as the dominant power. European nations, Japan and South Korea will be forced to accept China’s terms of trade and its claims to disputed islands. What of the United States in this scenario? It essentially implies that U.S. national interests will be limited to the Americas alone. The alternative is to build coalitions and alliances that reinforce international laws and standards. With such a broad-based coalition, a world united could invite China to discuss acceptable parameters of international behavior. With a world-wide consensus that includes standards on freedom of navigation, the threat of a clash in the South China Sea will be minimized. This is not a new approach to international relations. In fact, you might say it is a bit old fashioned. It is a version of the policy devised by Franklin Roosevelt in the face of political pressure from the America First Committee for America to go it alone in 1940. The Japanese thought the United States would retreat to the Americas when they attacked Pearl Harbor. We should not tempt China to think that we would cede East Asia if attacked. But that is what we will do if we continue to go it alone now. Richard Holwill Wilson, Wyoming July 14, 2020 [1] [2] [3]

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