Difficult Ethical Choices on China

Jul 7, 2020

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

Andrew Sullivan pulls no punches:

It's time we treated China as the rogue dictatorship it is. When a totalitarian nation is enacting genocide, has a dictator for life, is showing itself to be a health menace to humankind, has crushed an island of democracy it pledged to protect, and is militarily acting out against its neighbors, we cannot continue as normal.

The problem of course is that unlike Serbia or Libya, China has two major deterrent options to prevent itself from being compelled by the United States, the West, or any "international community." The first of course is its military, including its nuclear arsenal, which can not only defend itself from any outside military pressure but can raise the costs—to unacceptable levels—for any state or group of states that threatens to use force. The second is its economic and financial heft. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is not only fully integrated into the global economic system, it is a supplier of essential goods and services and it holds debt instruments for major Western states, including the United States. China can therefore dish out a good deal of pain in response to any moves taken against it for how it is operating in Xinjiang or Hong Kong. So when Sullivan says "we cannot continue as normal," what does that entail?

It was comparatively easy for Americans to support the "right to protect" when the costs were light (recall that the Obama administration even argued to Congress that the 2011 Libya operation did not even rise to the level of the War Powers Act because of the apparent lack of danger for United States military personnel) and when there were no real consequences to be borne (certainly Libyans are still paying the costs, and to some extent Europeans have dealt with a migration crisis generated in part by the aftermath of Libya, but Americans themselves suffered no risks in terms of increased terrorism or economic losses). But what about China?

There are three broad ethical responses, and here I am using ethical not in the sense of desirable but, per Peter Singer's definition, encompassing "the nature of ultimate value and the standards by which human actions can be judged right or wrong."

The first is a transactional or relative approach: political leaders abandon the notion of universal human rights and obligations in favor of each state or bloc determining its standards, and allowing for beneficial interaction (e.g. trade) but on the basis of non-interference. No United States politician will openly embrace this, except perhaps President Trump (per John Bolton's recollection). Another transactional approach might be to push for some sort of resettlement option: Uyghers resettled outside of China, perhaps in other parts of Central Asia, saving the culture and people but trading away the land.

The second is to push for de-coupling and non-intercourse: recognizing that China has sufficient deterrent capability to prevent Beijing from being compelled, but where the United States and its allies (perhaps in a democratic community) absorb the short-term costs of ending business with China and move to deterrence against China to prevent the expansion of its influence. This approach would be designed to break United States interaction with and thus complicity with Chinese actions but would also not do much to help those currently facing repression or persecution.

The third is to intervene. This, of course, is tricky ethically because weighing the human rights violations in any country against the risk of massive destruction and loss of life that any major great power conflict would produce. This would then most likely shift the competition to the tools used during the long twilight struggle of the Cold War: finding ways to pursue regime change by peaceful, non-military means. Of course, the societies of the West are also equally subject to such manipulation, so the question would be whether such a conflict could ultimately be regulated in the same way as the Cold War.

Optimists who read the original Francis Fukuyama article about the end of history thirty years ago may have hoped that United States policymakers would never again have the navigate the ethical shoals of the Cold War. But here we are once again, where current human rights and future survival, with short-term costs and longer-term moral considerations, are all intersecting. In the 1970s the United States chose to engage with a China coming out of the Cultural Revolution in order to forge a global strategic balance that, in part, helped bring about a largely peaceful end to the Cold War and enabled the human race to survive the 20th century without nuclear annihilation. However, that choice was made with a clear understanding of the ethical compromises entailed. It looks like United States policymakers in the third decade of the 21st century may face a similar set of unappealing choices.

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