Pompeo’s Strategy Depends on Beijing’s Own Paranoia

The U.S. secretary of state is raising the temperature with China to force decoupling.

By James Palmer, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, on July 23. Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In what was billed as a landmark speech on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched a fusillade of attacks on China, which he called “increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else.” The speech, which Pompeo delivered at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, came after months of intensifying hostile actions between Beijing and Washington, including the abrupt order on Tuesday by the United States to close the Chinese consulate in Houston, China’s denunciations of the United States, and a statement by Pompeo explicitly opposing China’s claims in the South China Sea.

In his speech, Pompeo articulated a view that is increasingly popular in Washington policymaking circles: that the implicit bargain past administrations struck with Beijing to hold off on ideological criticism and geopolitical containment in exchange for mutually profitable economic growth was a bad deal for the United States. Pompeo offered few signs of what a more productive approach might look like, however, or how to disentangle the U.S. and Chinese economies without causing a disaster for both. According to Pompeo’s account, Washington’s new strategy is to “engage and empower the Chinese people—a dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party.” He repeated a call for an alliance of “free world” states against China, but it was short on either details or the credibility needed to bring allies on board.

Like other recent actions driven by the most hawkish elements in the Trump administration, Pompeo’s speech was instead aimed at deliberately riling the Chinese government in order to put pressure on U.S. businesses and constrain America’s strategic options.

The idea of appealing to the Chinese people, rather than to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is flawed for numerous reasons. The CCP is deeply woven into the fabric of ordinary Chinese life, and the propaganda message that “Without the party, there would be no new China”—which can be strikingly effective—starts in elementary school. While there is plenty of resentment and anger among the Chinese people over individual issues, from government corruption to attacks on COVID-19 whistleblowers, there is no evidence that it directly translates into large-scale questioning of the CCP’s legitimacy. Even people who dislike the party in the abstract are likely to side with it against a hostile foreign government.

Even if the Chinese people did yearn to throw off the shackles of communism, the administration Pompeo serves has done nothing to either engage or empower them. Instead, President Donald Trump has used racist terms such as “kung flu”; made the visa process for Chinese visiting, studying, or immigrating to the United States more tortuous; and shuttered grassroots engagement programs, such as the Peace Corps in China, meant to present a friendly American face to ordinary Chinese people. Assessing Chinese public opinion is a tricky business, but no evidence suggests the kind of radical gulf between ruler and ruled that emerged in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Claims that the Chinese masses are ready to reject the CCP come from highly unreliable groups such as Tuidang—which claims to be a “emerging non-violent movement” but is run from abroad by Falun Gong, a banned but well-funded Chinese religious movement with close ties to the Trump administration. Tuidang says, fictitiously, that “350 million Chinese people have renounced the notorious Chinese Communist Party.”

Pompeo’s call for “free nations to act” and insist on reciprocity and transparency with China, coupled with his accusation that U.S. allies not willing to stand up to China are cowards, rings hollow coming from an administration that has decimated U.S. diplomacy. Countries such as Germany—which Pompeo hinted at without naming—may display moral cowardice toward Beijing in the service of their trade interests, but they’ve also been alienated by Washington’s behavior. The Trump administration’s actions have made it all too easy to level charges of equivalence between Washington and Beijing, whether it’s putting children in detention camps or lying about coronavirus data. Pompeo’s description of Beijing’s actions, “alienating potential allies, breaking trust at home and abroad, rejecting property rights and predictable rule of law,” could describe his own government.

Pompeo demanded reciprocity against Beijing, without laying out what such reciprocity entails for allied nations, or what its purpose should be save the inchoate idea of getting tough with China. Perhaps the real goal of the California speech was not to appeal to allies or even the American people, but to spur action from China itself that would further the agenda of Pompeo and other hard-line China hawks, such as Trump trade advisor Peter Navarro. Navarro and others have long been advocates of a comprehensive economic decoupling between the two countries, snapping the business ties that they see empowering the CCP at the cost of the United States. Pompeo’s speech repeatedly referred to the failings of American investment in China and to Beijing’s duplicitous business dealings.

There are plenty of moral and pragmatic arguments for decoupling and against it. However necessary it might be, it likely would come with enormous economic costs—a price that went unmentioned in the speech, save for a single note of the fact that China, unlike the Soviet Union, is tightly integrated into the global economy. Left unsaid was that for ordinary American consumers, decoupling would mean much higher prices on the cheap Chinese manufactured goods that have done so much to boost the U.S. standard of living. For U.S. businesses, decoupling would mean paying the massive costs of relocating enterprises and forfeiting billion-dollar investments.

A government comprehensively committed to decoupling might be able to allay these problems, by making its case to the American people and by offering support to U.S. businesses. Yet the president has shown no great enthusiasm for wide decoupling, nor for the kind of ideological warfare Pompeo proposes. His own antagonism toward China has been driven purely by the same issues for which he attacks Japan, South Korea, or Europe: that the United States isn’t getting a fair shake in trade or strategic deals.

Trump badly wants a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping, while Pompeo wants the United States to stop dealing with China altogether. Unlike Pompeo, Trump has publicly praised Xi and, according to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, even expressed his approval of China’s crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. This time, Trump’s commitment to the strategy can be gauged by the fact that he held a press conference of his own 30 minutes into Pompeo’s speech.

The strongest China hawks also face business-minded opposition from their colleagues in the cabinet, especially Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who pay lip service to Trump’s trade war but have no desire to see stock prices damaged by decoupling.

By upping the temperature of the U.S.-China dispute, however, Pompeo may be aiming to force the Chinese to initiate the decoupling. The political risks for U.S. firms in China have already grown sharply. Anti-American rhetoric has become a mainstay of Chinese diplomacy, and visa bans have disrupted foreign enterprises. In the past, the Chinese leadership has been happy to keep American businesses in China even as it shook its fists at the U.S. government, but the ideological demands of the CCP have already seen foreign firms forced to accept the power of party cells and exposed them to regular inspections and heavier paperwork.

A full-blown confrontation between Beijing and Washington, however, will leave U.S. businesses even more dangerously exposed, leading to abrupt expulsions, retaliatory detentions and exit bans, and demands to adhere to nationalist shibboleths that could, as the NBA found, damage their reputations at home. The recent split between Beijing and London over Hong Kong, for example, has resulted in the sudden pulling of Premier League soccer games from Chinese TV.

Forcing Beijing to retaliate against U.S. businesses serves the administration hawks’ greater purpose, driving decoupling while making it seem like China’s fault—which would allow the dysfunctional and divided Trump administration to avoid offering expensive and politically tricky support to U.S. consumers and businesses. It would also outflank the pro-business faction within the administration: As Washington escalates, Chinese officials will be increasingly unable to offer business concessions without damaging their political standing at home. Beijing could avoid this by pouring cold water on rising flames—but given the risks that backing down poses for Xi and the lack of internal debate within today’s Chinese Communist Party, such a wise course seems vanishingly unlikely.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer