Why Economic De-Risking Is Not Enough
Never in human history have nations with such radically different economic and political systems as the United States and China attempted economic integration. Before the modern era, neither the markets nor the technology existed to facilitate such a project. During the Cold War, facing similar differences, Washington and Moscow stayed economically far apart. PepsiCo’s opening of a Soviet bottling plant was front-page news in 1972, and because rubles were not convertible to dollars, the Soviets paid for the bottling equipment with vodka. No wonder that globalization gained steam only after the Berlin Wall fell.
In the early post–Cold War years, U.S. theorists and policymakers ignored the potential risks of integration with an authoritarian peer. Globalization was predicated on liberal economic standards, democratic values, and U.S. cultural norms, all of which were taken for granted by economists and the foreign policy establishment. The United States set the rules for international institutions and multinational corporations, most of which were either American or heavily reliant upon access to U.S. technology and markets. Under these conditions, economic entanglements were regarded as opportunities for Washington to exert leverage and impose its rules. Incursions in, and distortions of, one market by another were Washington’s strategy, not its problem.
When welcomed into the international community in the late 1990s, China was still a developing nation. Its GDP was roughly one-tenth of the United States’ GDP, and in 1999, it was still one of the world’s poorest countries per capita, ranked between Sri Lanka and Guyana. U.S. leaders across the political spectrum were confident that by encouraging China’s integration into the global economy, they could ensure that the country would become a constructive participant in a U.S.-led world order. U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke for many when he declared that China’s accession to the World Trade Organization was about “more than our economic interests; it is clearly in our larger national interest.”
It has not turned out that way. Instead, China has rapidly become—by some measures— the world’s largest economy and a powerful counterweight to U.S. influence. Its state-controlled economy and increasingly authoritarian leadership have subverted U.S. investment, supply chains, and institutions. Beijing’s efforts to use global integration to enhance Chinese power and harm U.S. interests have proliferated. The Chinese government has leveraged market access to force technology transfers from U.S. firms including Westinghouse, General Electric, and Microsoft. It has dominated global markets by flooding them with subsidized goods, including solar panels, and it has forced the National Basketball Association and its players into humiliating silence on Chinese human rights abuses.
The fundamental problem is that the United States’ free-market economy is incompatible with a Chinese state-controlled one. U.S. liberty and democracy are antithetical to the authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist Party. The United States must break from China or else become irrevocably corrupted by it.