Heading Off a Cold War with China

Cipher Brief Expert View

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is former Special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea and the U.S. Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO), as well as former CIA director of East Asia Operations. He also served as the Associate Director of National Intelligence and Mission Manager for North Korea and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, and as a Special Adviser to the Director of National Intelligence. He is a fluent Mandarin Chinese speaker who served over two decades with the Central Intelligence Agency as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service. 

OPINION — There are a myriad of sensitive issues affecting U. S. relations with China, and each requires immediate attention. Now is the time to formally and proactively discuss these issues with China, hoping we may be able to resolve some or all of them, before bilateral relations are irreparably damaged, presaging a cold war with a new adversary, China.

China’s leadership has a moral and political obligation to be totally transparent with the U.S. – and others — on all issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic.  It’s clear that China silenced Chinese doctors who, in December 2019, were reporting a SARS-similar disease in Wuhan.  A lockdown of Wuhan happened on January 23, after the January 21 disclosure of human-to-human transmission of a virus that reportedly emanated from a wet market in Wuhan. Many believe, however, that the virus originated from the Wuhan Virology Institute.

China’s decision not to permit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to visit Wuhan to share relevant scientific information with the U.S. was unfortunate.  Equally unfortunate was China’s political decision to openly use the spokesman at their Ministry of Foreign Affairs to claim that the U.S. brought the virus to Wuhan and to refer the public, on twitter, to articles alleging that the virus originated in the U.S.  This overt government disinformation campaign, which continues, is inexplicable – it’s reckless and dangerous.

With Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. approaching 70,000, with over 1.2 million people infected with this virus, it would seem appropriate that the U.S. needs granularity on the virus and its origin. We’re dealing with an uncontrolled virus that continues to sicken and kill people, so why wouldn’t China want to share all particulars related to this virus?   By not inviting the CDC, or any other U.S. government agency to Wuhan, even now at this late date, is irresponsible.  But China’s leadership apparently has reasons why they are not forthcoming. Indeed, it could be that the research conducted at the Wuhan Virology Institute was sensitive, involving China’s national security.  Also likely was the leadership’s attempt to initially deny and then understate the severity of the situation and when that proved impossible, to deflect blame to local authorities.  These and other theories will continue to be discussed until China’s leadership decides to be transparent and at a minimum, invites the CDC to Wuhan to collaborate on this pandemic.

There are other, less urgent but important issues that require close attention.  China’s militarization of islands and reefs in the South China Sea and its effort to impede freedom of navigation by the U.S. and others is intolerable and dangerous.  Recently, China acted aggressively to U.S.-Australia joint freedom of navigation exercises in these disputed waters, accusing the U.S. of fomenting trouble and threatening Australia with a Chinese consumer boycott. While Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also claim sovereignty for some of these islands, China has publicly ignored the U.N. Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in July 2016 that ruled there was no legal basis for China to claim historical rights to resources in parts of the South China Sea encompassed by what China calls its nine-dash line. It’s clear that China’s continued militarization of these islands is in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and a threat to freedom of navigation in international waters.

There is understandable concern that China’s “Made in China 2025”, an industrial policy to make China the world’s dominant high-tech manufacturing country, surpassing the U.S. and other industrialized democracies, will rely on government subsidies, state-owned enterprises, intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers and cyber espionage. The concern is that China will use these and other predatory tactics to achieve its short and long-term goal of dominating, in 2049, the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), high tech industries like advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, information technology, bio-medicine, aerospace engineering and other advanced technologies. The international goal is a fair and level playing field for all countries to pursue these and other technologies, in accord with commitments to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The first phase of the U.S.-China Trade Agreement, with China committing to purchase $200 billion of U.S. products over the next two years is a positive development. Especially significant is the reduction of Chinese barriers to U.S. agricultural products and agreements on intellectual property protection and forced technology transfers. Implementation of this first phase is critically important, as both countries then move to the second phase of U.S. efforts to better address the significant trade imbalance with China, currently at over $300 billion, significantly lower than previous years.

North Korea’s nuclear program continues to be a threat to Northeast Asia and the world.  The U.S. and China share a common objective: The complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea, in return for security assurances, economic development assistance, a peace treaty ending the Korean War and a transformation of U.S.-North Korea relations. These were objectives of the Six Party Talks that China hosted from 2003-2009. Unfortunately, those talks, that did have some success with the Joint Statement of September 19, 2005, ultimately failed and North Korea now has more nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems than in the past.  Therefore, it’s now important that China and the U.S. work closely together to convince North Korea to implement the Singapore Summit Joint Statement of June 12, 2018 between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jung-un that commits North Korea to complete denuclearization in return for a more normal relationship with the U.S. and peace on the Korean Peninsula. Failure of the U.S. and China to cooperate on North Korea, which includes implementing the United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea, will result in a North Korea retaining nuclear weapons and fomenting instability on the Korean Peninsula and the region.

China is concerned with U.S. missile defense capabilities in the region, complaining that those systems are directed at China, not North Korea.  This was an issue with South Korea, with the deployment of THAAD (Theatre High Altitude Area Defense) in 2017 and China’s economic sanctioning of South Korea for permitting the deployment of THAAD.  This continues to be an issue of concern for a China that does not accept the U.S. argument that THAAD and other missile defense systems in Japan are directed at a nuclear North Korea, not China.

Authorities in Hong Kong recently arrested Martin Lee and fourteen other pro-democracy advocates. The arrests appear to be a blatant violation of the 1997 Basic Law Agreement that granted Hong Kong fifty years of autonomy on all issues except foreign affairs and defense.  Given the significant U.S. and international financial investment in Hong Kong, it’s important that China clarify what they mean by “one country two systems”, given their recent actions in Hong Kong.

These are just some of the issues requiring immediate attention.  Failure to resolve or at least attempt to resolve these and other issues will move our countries further apart, as some hardliners in China apparently want to see happen, for their own political objectives.

This column by Cipher Brief Expert Ambassador Joseph DeTrani was first published by our friends at the Washington Times

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