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Guest opinion: Romney’s reckless China rhetoric risks new Cold War

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, pauses during an interview with KSL’s Doug Wright in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Tough talk on China is all the rage in Washington. Senate Republicans are directing GOP candidates to answer questions about America’s disastrous coronavirus response by blaming Beijing for the outbreak, while presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is accusing President Donald Trump of being soft on China.

Sen. Mitt Romney jumped on this bandwagon last week by calling on America to “seize the moment” of the pandemic to wage a grand geopolitical struggle against China. His argument is based on fundamental factual distortions that betray an ignorance of China’s capabilities and strategy. Romney inflates the threat posed by Beijing, feeding into a reckless new Cold War narrative. He betrays conservative principles, advocating a protectionist and over-militarized strategy that will drive up deficits and weaken our economy at a time when we are already grappling with a serious recession and skyrocketing debt.

Romney notes how the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted America’s reliance on China for medical supplies and implies something sinister about interdependence. He neglects to mention how Americans have worked with Chinese companies to procure rapid shipments of vital personal protective equipment (PPE).

U.S.-China collaboration is happening here in Utah, too, with tens of thousands of PPE donated by officials from Liaoning Province, with whom the Utah legislature has a unique “sister-state” relationship. Granted, the United States would do well to diversify its medical supply chains, invest in its domestic production capacity and bolster its national medical stockpile. At no point, however, has China threatened to withhold critical medical supplies. Romney’s baseless insinuations endanger the cooperation essential to the United States’ and China’s production and sharing of treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

Romney argues that China poses a much broader geopolitical challenge on both military and economic fronts based on inaccurate assessments of Chinese strategy and power. Most egregiously, he characterizes China’s grand strategy as one of “economic, military and geopolitical domination.” Although China is seeking to increase its influence commensurate to its growing economy and population size, it is not seeking a strategy of “domination,” particularly not at a global level. China’s ability to project significant military power beyond its “near seas” remains limited relative to the United States’.

The great irony of China’s military modernization is that it was in large part a response to America’s own grand strategy of military domination after the Cold War. The U.S. military’s victory in the First Gulf War, its interventions in the Balkans and President Clinton’s dispatch of an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait all deeply impressed China’s military. Witnessing how ably the United States wielded military might against China and others, Beijing embarked on a multi-decade effort to diminish China’s vulnerability to U.S. forces.

Even after 25 years of modernization, Chinese military power does not compare to that of the United States. Romney attempts to obscure this fact by asserting without any evidence that “(a)n apples-to-apples analysis demonstrates that China’s annual procurement of military hardware is nearly identical to ours.”

Although China’s annual acquisitions are significant, it is still spending far less than the United States on its military, while building from a lower baseline of military hardware. For example, the United States has 11 aircraft carriers active in its fleet, compared to China’s two carriers. Much of China’s military technology and platforms are also less advanced. China still depends on imports from Russia and elsewhere for crucial technologies such as jet engines.

Of course, we should not underestimate China’s military capacity. It is true that in conflicts along China’s coasts, U.S. military superiority is likely a thing of the past. But this is to be expected of a country China’s size. Certainly, the United States wouldn’t tolerate a foreign country dominating the waters along its shores.

Ironically, Romney acknowledges China’s military buildup is not actually that threatening to the United States in conceding China’s “weapon of choice” is economic. He points to Beijing’s intellectual property theft, technology transfer requirements and subsidization of domestic industries as examples of its “predatory” economic behavior. He fails to mention that the United States and other developed nations engaged in similar practices when building their own economies.

This does not excuse China’s worst economic abuses. But Romney ignores how China has clamped down on some of those offenses. In a 2019 survey of U.S. businesspeople by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, 59% said China’s intellectual property rights enforcement had improved over the past five years, and 37% felt it had stayed the same.

Romney also disregards the innumerable ways America — and Utah in particular — benefit from economic integration with China. If anything, China’s rise and the coronavirus crisis should compel the United States to emphasize diplomatic cooperation and economic investments over military confrontation. America’s strategy of global military primacy and trade protectionism is bankrupting our country, driving up national debt without protecting us against the true threats we face — pandemics, environmental degradation, crumbling infrastructure and economic crisis.

A wiser and more conservative strategy would resist the temptation to exaggerate the challenge posed by China. Rather than wasting taxpayer dollars to line the pockets of defense contractors, Washington should reduce budget deficits, bolster diplomatic capabilities and invest in domestic infrastructure. This would strengthen America’s global influence relative to China by making our political system more attractive and our economy more competitive. Such rebalancing toward responsible statecraft and domestic renewal is the best way for America to seize this moment.

Rachel Esplin Odell (@resplinodell) is a research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and an international security fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. She is an expert on U.S. policy toward Asia, Chinese military strategy and U.S.-China trade relations.