WASHINGTON – Six months of civil unrest in Hong Kong has, obviously, created a crisis for the Chinese government. Less obviously, it has created a real conundrum for the U.S. government.
At the end of November, in an overwhelming election victory for the opposition, nearly 90 percent of district council seats went to resistance candidates. While that body has little real power, the symbolic value was significant. And on Dec. 9, an estimated 800,000 residents turned out to protest — reversing a gradual string of less-massive demonstrations since they began in June — which is stunning given that Hong Kong’s population is only around 7 million. The protesters have coalesced around their “five demands,” and they don’t appear to be backing down.
Beijing is maintaining a relatively low-key approach, likely hoping the protesters will gradually lose interest and antagonize the broader Hong Kong population. Chinese leaders don’t want to trigger significant Western sanctions, or to alienate pro-Chinese parties in Taiwan — a far bigger and less-certain prize — before next month’s presidential election.
Over the coming months, China will likely decide to cut loose the beleaguered Hong Kong administrator, Carrie Lam; continue a relatively unobtrusive campaign to incarcerate student protest leaders; saber-rattle with Chinese military and police just outside the boundaries of Hong Kong; use social media and fake news to sway undecided Hong Kong residents; and play rope-a-dope by providing some very small concessions to the protesters’ demands (i.e., an investigation into police techniques and actions).
Then there is the situation in Washington. On the one hand, U.S. President Donald Trump desperately wants to complete his pre-election trade and tariff deal with China and announce it as a remarkable triumph of his negotiating prowess. But the strong sentiment in both houses of Congress is to support the protesters, as evidenced by the recently passed Hong Kong support bill that the president had to be strong-armed into signing.
The measure threatens sanctions against individuals, and could cut the special trade status that Hong Kong enjoys as a former British Crown colony — a death knell for the golden-goose income that the city provides to the Chinese. While the situation may drift along for months, eventually there will be a reckoning, and the United States will have to make a choice: support the protest movement or capitulate to Chinese.
Washington needs to rise above its current tactical approach to China and craft a comprehensive strategy. It has a basket of significant disagreements with Beijing that are somewhat intertwined, and simply grabbing one of them — say, the trade imbalance and commercial disputes over business practices and labor activity — is not feasible. The other disagreements — over the ownership of the South China Sea, intellectual property theft, cyber intrusions, human rights and so forth — are at least as important as the trade and tariff issues. Given the complex relationship, a comprehensive strategy has to have economic, military, political, diplomatic and technological components.
It may be time to stand up a national commission at a high level, with real subject-matter experts and practitioners experienced in U.S.-China relations. I’d start with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a chairman. Others who come to mind are retired Adm. Joe Prueher, the former commander of U.S. Pacific Command who served as ambassador to China from 1999 to 2001; the novelist and Chinese scholar Bette Bao Lord; Graham Allison of Harvard University, author of “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?”; former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a fluent speaker of Mandarin who would bring a non-U.S. perspective; Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of the energy and environmental policy program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts (my old stomping grounds); and Janet Yellen, former head of the Federal Reserve. Like similar commissions, it could be stood up by either Congress or the executive branch, and given a modest budget and a one-year mandate.
As a starting point, the group should consider how to structure an effective global coalition for free trade and high-seas freedom that can compete with China’s “One Road” mercantile strategy.
Other priorities should include defense acquisitions that create real deterrence in the minds of Chinese strategists (including cyber, space, maritime and unmanned subsurface systems); a political approach that focuses on finding zones of cooperation with China, such as the environment, the Arctic, humanitarian assistance and medical diplomacy; the use of people-to-people contacts and “Track II” diplomacy, especially within the growing Chinese-American community; an approach to human rights advocacy involving both Hong Kong and Taiwan; and the development of a plan for dealing with the risks inherent in 5G telephony and growing Chinese capability in artificial intelligence, biotech and quantum computing.
Kissinger recently opined that we are in the “foothills of a Cold War” with China already. The demonstrations in Hong Kong remind us that we cannot simply react to individual issues if we are going to get this vital relationship right. There will be no winners in an outright U.S.-China conflict, and the path to avoiding one is to think strategically and comprehensively, beginning now.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.