Great struggles between great powers tend to have a tipping point. It’s the moment when the irreconcilability of differences becomes obvious to nearly everyone.
In 1911 Germany sparked an international crisis when it sent a gunboat into the Moroccan port of Agadir and, as Winston Churchill wrote in his history of the First World War, “all the alarm bells throughout Europe began immediately to quiver.” In 1936 Germany provoked another crisis when it marched troops into the Rhineland, in flagrant breach of its treaty obligations. In 1946, the Soviet Union made it obvious it had no intention of honoring democratic principles in Central Europe, and Churchill was left to warn that “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”
Analogies between these past episodes and China’s decision this week draft a new national security law on Hong Kong aren’t perfect. Hong Kong is a Chinese port, not a faraway foreign one. Hong Kong’s people have ferociously resisted Beijing’s efforts to impose control, unlike the Rhineland Germans who welcomed Berlin’s. And the curtailment of freedom that awaits Hong Kong is nothing like the totalitarian tyranny that Joseph Stalin imposed on Warsaw, Budapest and other cities.
But the analogies aren’t inapt, either. Beijing has spent the better part of 20 years subverting its promises to preserve Hong Kong’s democratic institutions. Now it is moving to quash what remains of the city’s civic freedoms through a forthcoming law that allows the government to punish speech as subversion and protest as sedition. The concept of “one country, two systems,” was supposed to last at least until 2047 under the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Now China’s rulers have been openly violating that treaty, much as Germany openly violated the treaties of Locarno and Versailles.
And again, alarm bells quiver.
For years, Donald Trump’s comments on China have swung between the truculent and the obsequious. But beneath the president’s mental foam, the administration has undertaken a sober rethink of the U.S. strategic approach to China, the outlines of which are described in a new interagency document quietly released by the White House last week.
Gone from this new vision are the platitudes about encouraging China’s “peaceful rise” as a “responsible stakeholder” in a “rules-based order.” Instead, Beijing is described, accurately, as a habitual and aggressive violator of that order — a domestic tyrant, international bully and economic bandit that systematically robs companies of their intellectual property, countries of their sovereign authorities, and its own people of their natural rights.
“Beijing has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not offer compromises in response to American displays of goodwill, and that its actions are not constrained by its prior commitments,” the report reads. “We acknowledge and respond in kind to Beijing’s transactional approach with timely incentives and costs, or credible threats thereof.”
A critic might note that this description of China’s behavior sounds a lot like Trump’s. Sort of, except that the comparison trivializes the scale of China’s abuses and neglects the breadth and longevity of its challenge. A Biden administration will be confronted with the same unpleasant facts about a geopolitical adversary that seeks not only to dominate its region but also dethrone liberal democracy as the dominant political model of the 21st century.
All of which makes the Hong Kong crisis so consequential. Beijing almost certainly chose this moment to strike because it calculated that a world straining under the weight of a pandemic and a depression lacked the will and attention to react. On Friday, Trump said he would strip Hong Kong of its privileged commercial and legal ties to the U.S. But that punishes the people of Hong Kong at least as much as it does their rulers in Beijing.
What’s a better course for the U.S.? A few ideas:
Sanction Chinese officials engaged in human-rights abuses in Hong Kong under the Global Magnitsky Act. Upgrade relations with Taiwan and increase arms sales, including top-shelf weapons’ systems such as the F-35 and the Navy’s future frigate. Re-enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement as a counter to China’s economic influence. (This won’t happen in a Trump administration, but should in a Biden one.) Publicly press all G-7 countries to stop doing business with telecom-giant Huawei as a meaningful response to the Hong Kong law.
One other idea is now being explored by Britain, the former colonial power. Give every Hong Kong person an opportunity to easily obtain a U.K. residency card, even a passport. As Tom Tugendhat, the chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and founder of its China Research Group, told me on Thursday, doing so would “right a wrong done when the U.K. removed the status in the 1980s. After a century of rule, Britain has obligations.” A future American president who believes in the value of immigration could join that effort, in the same way we helped Hungarian refugees and Vietnamese boat people.
If all this and more were announced now, it might persuade Beijing to pull back from the brink. In the meantime, think of this as our Rhineland moment with China — and remember what happened the last time the free world looked aggression in the eye, and blinked.
Bret L. Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.