Kamala Harris Surrenders Two Levers Against China: Allies and Trade

August 25, 2021 Updated: August 25, 2021


In a speech on Aug. 24, Vice President Kamala Harris addressed several issues regarding Asia, most notably China. In the speech, Harris criticized China’s illegal South China Sea grab, but hastened to say that she was not asking countries to take a side. This was her first strategic mistake.

Like President Biden, she called for “action” but was non-specific about what this action ought to be regarding China. And, she surrendered a critical point of leverage that the United States and allies have over China: its dependence on export trade. This was big mistake number two.

By encouraging, through her pronounced silence, our allies to ally and trade with China, Harris sets the stage for America’s failure in Asia, and therefore the failure of democracy on a global scale. Countries globally are de-recognizing democratic Taiwan in China’s favor because China is very much asking those countries to take a side. The number has fallen from almost all major countries recognizing the Republic of China (Taiwan) rather than communist China in 1949, to almost all of them exclusively recognizing communist China today. Just 14 brave and principled countries, including Switzerland, continue to recognize Taiwan today.

This Taiwan metric is critical to tracking China’s global influence. If we do not want the world to go entirely red, we ought to focus on asking countries to again recognize Taiwan, at the very least. That means asking countries to take sides for democracy, and against totalitarianism. This is what the Biden-Harris team is so far unwilling to do.

The opportunity to ask countries to take sides will soon be gone. The more China expands, economically and militarily, the harder it will be to cohere an alliance of countries that do take a stand against China. Eventually, when China is powerful enough, it will be impossible to keep our allies onside.

At that point, China will be able to push the United States and its allies, including their military and businesses, out of Asia entirely. China will then become a regional if not global hegemon. We will have lost the opportunity to protect ourselves, because we foolishly failed to appeal to our allies to make hard choices, and really be allies when we still could.

Either you are with democracy, or you are against democracy. You cannot ally with China, and trade with China, and also support democracy. Since it became clear that engaging China through business and cultural endeavors failed disastrously as a strategy for democratizing China, the two are mutually exclusive.

The Harris speech should have been closer to that of George W. Bush in 2001. He said, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Today, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are the terrorists. They support state-sponsors of terrorism, like Pakistan, which supported the Taliban, and they engage in their own terrorism in the South China Sea, through for example sponsoring a “maritime militia” that sinks fishing boats from other countries.

In her speech, Harris did not mention China’s maritime militia, or its support for state-sponsors of terrorism. Instead, she retread the same old worn path, but more lightly and on eggshells, compared to the prior administration.

“Our vision includes freedom of navigation, which is vital to us all,” said Harris. “The livelihood of millions of people depend on the billions of dollars in trade that flow through these sea lanes each day.”

Her speech to this point was all so obvious as to be entirely uncontroversial and beside the point.

Epoch Times Photo
A Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning (C), during military drills in the South China Sea, on Jan. 2, 2017. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

“And yet, in the South China Sea, we know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate, and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” Harris continued. “These unlawful claims have been rejected by the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal decision. And Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations. The United States stands with our allies and partners in the face of these threats.”

But Harris is unclear on exactly how America stands with its allies. What has the Biden administration actually done in the South China Sea, other than performative freedom of navigation transits and exercises in the region? Almost nothing. No real economic sanctions, much less an attempt to defend islands that are threatened by Beijing, including the Paracels, Spratleys, and Scarborough Shoal.

Our allies have been thrown under the bus. They needed leadership and they got smiles and a glad hand across the back, instead.

At this point in the speech, Beijing was cracking a smile if not laughing into its sleeve.

“And I must be clear,” Harris continued, with a stern tone. “Our engagement in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country. Nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries,” she said. “Instead, our engagement is about advancing an optimistic vision that we have for our participation and partnership in this region. And our economic vision is a critical part of that.”

Beijing now starts to laugh openly and point.

Harris then proceeds to claim that the U.S. economy is doing well when it should have been clear to everyone in the audience that the Chinese economy did better during the pandemic.

Then comes Harris’ second big strategic mistake. She promotes free trade in the Pacific, which is a crowd-pleaser, but she does not say free trade for whom. This allows for more free trade with China, including the cotton and tomatoes produced by Uyghur slaves in Xinjiang.

Harris never mentioned Xinjiang, or the three genocides in China, against Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Falun Gong. Instead, she promotes a generalized free trade, which is a CCP talking point. That free trade is killing U.S. and allied strategic industries, including steel and computer chips, because they can’t compete on price with China’s slave labor, lack of environmental regulations, and predatory trade practices like dumping.

Harris mentions none of this. A lost opportunity.

By the time Harris finished her speech, China was in full party mode, almost drunk with glee.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, scoffed, “In order to defend ‘America first’, the U.S. can arbitrarily smear, suppress, coerce and bully other countries without paying any price. This is the order the U.S. wants. But who will believe them now?”

The counter from Harris and Biden? Crickets.

In the face of such insults to democracy and America, the Biden administration is looking the other way, making a bit of scratching noise about assembling a coalition of allies, but ultimately using such claims as a screen behind which to do nothing.

The Biden-Harris approach is a strategic error, compounded by a lost opportunity, which is itself multiplied by another strategic error. It makes America look as weak and indecisive as a doddering mathematician on a park bench in the middle of a busy metropolis. It compounds the impression already arrived at from Afghanistan, and a failure to more clearly defend the South China Sea and Japanese islands from Chinese incursions over the past decades.

If America is to beat China’s totalitarianism, it must be strong, and it must lead, even where some allies fail to follow. Only then will we know who are our real friends, who we can count on, and who can count on us in turn. We need countries to take a side. Those of us who truly support democracy, freedom, and the sovereignty of states need to take action against China, today.

We already know one who is against us, and that is time. So let’s count our other forces, get a real strategy, and get on with taking decisive action.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Anders Corr
Anders Corr
Anders Corr has a bachelor's/master's in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. He authored “The Concentration of Power” (forthcoming in 2021) and “No Trespassing,” and edited “Great Powers, Grand Strategies.”