US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a press conference and addresses the US closure of China's consulate in Houston, Texas.
Pompeo addresses order to close China's Houston consulate
02:45 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Mira Rapp-Hooper is the Stephen A. Schwarzman Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

The Trump administration’s decision to eject China from its Houston consulate on a spying accusation is the latest move in a spate of US policies and actions that target Beijing. In recent weeks, the administration has sanctioned high-level Chinese officials, revoked Hong Kong’s special commercial status, and delivered several high-level speeches directed at China — including on Thursday, in which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stopped just short of calling for regime change.

China, for its part, has retaliated by ordering the US to close its consulate in Chengdu. The timing of this escalation is no coincidence: Trump has claimed to be tough on China for years but, in reality, he has often fawned over President Xi Jinping, praising his leadership through the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Only when the administration failed to contain the virus at home has it pivoted to a hardline stance, calling Covid-19 the “China virus” and seeking to deflect responsibility for its own domestic incompetence by blaming a foreign rival.

Mira Rapp-Hooper

For all this recent tough talk, the Trump administration long ago sabotaged its best chances of competing with or standing up to Beijing, by alienating its allies in Europe and Asia. The early months of the coronavirus crisis have revealed an undeniable truth: China is increasingly assertive on the global stage, but the United States cannot respond economically, diplomatically or militarily if it acts alone. If it seeks to protect its national security and prosperity as China continues to rise, it must save the alliance system that has long kept it on top.

Well before the pandemic, the Trump administration’s approach to China had run aground. The administration has claimed to stand up to China’s unfair economic practices, aggressiveness toward its neighbors in Asia, and export of digital technologies with serious national security consequences — all of which are worrisome.

The headline-grabbing decision to shutter China’s Houston consulate came after US prosecutors accused Chinese hackers of seeking to steal information on Covid-19 treatments and vaccine research. National security experts have been voicing legitimate complaints about Chinese hacking and corporate espionage for years. But the closure of a consulate — an uncommon step in diplomatic relations, and a big deal between two countries that deal with each other regularly — is not the same as an effective strategy.

More to the point, Washington’s failure to work with allies in confronting Beijing has undermined its aims at every turn. While waging its trade war against China, the US also put tariffs on close partners, ensuring they would not take its side — and even that trade deal is now on the brink of collapse, as its promised second phase appears unlikely to arrive. It pressured allies against working with Huawei, China’s 5G telecommunications giant, but did not help them to find alternatives. It has identified China as a top military competitor, but it failed to work with Japan, South Korea and Australia to craft a common approach. Confrontation has masqueraded as strength and has delivered little.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has preferred to scold NATO allies over their defense budgets, and the President has warned that the US will not help to protect them unless they pay up. Washington has demanded that South Korea and Japan up their spending to levels they’re unlikely to be able to meet, possibly as a pretext for withdrawing American troops. These are precisely the countries the US needs to work with to counter China’s most problematic behaviors, but the alliance damage done in Asia may never be fully repaired. Beijing could hardly have hoped for better outcomes as it seeks to increase its own power at America’s expense.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, China has taken an already bold foreign policy to new levels of brazenness, criticizing western democracies for their handling of the virus, escalating a border dispute with India, and passing a law that rolls back freedom of speech and extends Beijing’s security apparatus into Hong Kong. Many have pointed the finger at China over recent cyberattacks against Australia. (Chinese foreign-ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has denied the accusations, saying China is a “staunch upholder of cyberspace security” and is “firmly opposed to all forms of cyber attacks.”) The US could pledge support for Canberra, show solidarity with the European partners China has maligned, or work with allies to shed light on deteriorating human rights in Xinjiang and the plight of Hong Kong. Instead, Washington is going it alone.

While China has, no doubt, given the Trump administration ample cause for complaint, revoking some Chinese student visas (as The New York Times and Reuters have reported the Trump administration is planning to do) and closing a major consulate will do little to change Beijing’s behavior. Instead, these are acts of diplomatic decoupling for its own sake. This is self-defeating, and it is also bad strategy. If the US hopes to stand up to China and keep itself safe and prosperous in the years ahead, it will not prevail unless it has close allies on its side. The global arithmetic simply does not favor it. As China recovers its economy will continue to grow and will soon pass the US economy in size – reports suggest it is already on the upswing again. China’s military, likewise, will look ever more formidable in Asia. With each year, the United States will be less able to stand up to China alone. Its allies in Europe and Asia, however, will remain capable and steady – exactly the sorts of partners the United States should want as it faces China’s rise or confronts global health emergencies and climate change.

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    For 70 years, Washington relied on its alliances to help it confront threats farther from its shores so it would not face them at home; if it combines its efforts with its allies against 21st century foes, it can retain a commanding position for years to come.

    Washington still has the chance to salvage the alliance system that has kept it mighty — and to remake it so that it will more effectively respond to tomorrow’s crises. But the pandemic also reminds us that time is short. America’s allies are living through the first global catastrophe in which the US has abdicated its role as world leader, and China’s own aggressive international diplomacy has filled the void. In his Thursday speech, Pompeo called for an “alliance of democracies” to face China; the US already has exactly that system and has worked to undermine it at every turn. If Washington continues to embrace reckless unilateralism in this desperate hour, the system that once kept it on top will be trampled in its own fitful stumbles.