How are international powers, especially China, reacting to the U.S. election?
In this episode, we discuss with James Carafano, a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges at the Heritage Foundation.
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: James Carafano, it’s such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
James Carafano: It’s good to be with you.
Mr. Jekielek: James, we have a hotly contested election happening as we speak. It’s taking longer than many elections have. I want to talk to you a little bit about what’s happening outside of America—what some of America’s adversaries are actually up to while these big question marks are in the air. America, obviously, is very focused on this issue.
Mr. Carafano: I think the first thing to recognize is regardless of how long it takes to resolve the outcome of the election, we only have one president at a time, and that president’s authority is unimpeachable until the day his office ends and the new term begins. So there’s not really a space in there for kind of misjudgment about who’s in charge or what’s going on here. So from that perspective, I think we’ll be fine.
Actually, we have recent history on this. We had Gore versus Bush that went on for several weeks. We’ve had cases go to the Supreme Court—we dealt with that. Like I said, the Constitution is very clear on this. So from a governance standpoint, and from the ability to command our forces and command foreign policy, nothing has really changed and won’t change until the new inauguration.
I think from a perspective of competitors and adversaries, most of them are doing what most Americans are—they’re waiting for the outcome of the elections. The Russians, really, have the least cards to play. Putin acts like he’s a puppet master, and he’s pushing everybody’s buttons.
But the reality is Putin has these enormous challenges of his own. His economy is in poor shape. He actually has domestic opposition. He’s got problems in his own backyard. There are demonstrations in Belarus, and there’s the ongoing war with Azerbaijan and Armenia. He’s going nowhere in the Ukraine, he’s going nowhere in Georgia, he’s going nowhere in Libya, and he’s going nowhere in Syria.
Syria is a very, very costly endeavor for the Russians. Yes, he’s meddling in Western Europe. But there’s really no gaps or spaces there. NATO is strong. So there’s nothing much Putin can really do, and unlikely he would try.
I think the Iranians are very hopeful that Vice President Biden secures a victory because he’s promised to go back to the Iran deal. There’s lots of issues with that, but I think the Iranians see opportunity there, so it behooves them to kind of wait.
The North Koreans, I think, are puzzled. I think they know what they face in Trump. I think they have a plan for how to deal with that, and maybe even going forward with a deal. If it is a Biden presidency, I think they want to feel them out. So again, there’s a space there that we’ll see.
The Chinese are the most interesting, because the Chinese have the most cards to play. So in a sense, they can see the outcome of the election, and decide how they want to deal with that. From a US perspective, there’s strong bipartisan concern about China. There’s a willingness to be tough on China.
People know what they would expect from a second President Trump term. I don’t know what people think they could expect … from a Biden term. We don’t know what that term might look like. We don’t know how the different wings of the party might feel about dealing on China policy. So I think there’s a certain amount of unknowns there.
The Chinese probably recognize that what they seem to be doing at this point is really kind of consolidating their position, focusing on really clamping down on their internal controls, and trying to focus inwardly on the economy and their supply chains. And trying to send signals to people in many ways that we’re going to be tough, we’re going to be tough, we’re going to be tough. They’re going to wait and see what they’re facing.
Mr. Jekielek: James, one of the things that we’re noticing is that China may be trying to take advantage of this time where Americans are obviously very, very focused on this election. For example, with their reports that China has authorized its coast guard to fire upon vessels in its territorial, or in some cases so-called territorial, waters. Are you familiar with this? And what do you make of it?
Mr. Carafano: The interesting thing about following Chinese policy over the last year or so, it’s interesting that the Chinese Communist Party in the leadership seem to be trying to adjust to a new international environment. They were in an environment where there was very, very little pushback or friction against the expansion of Chinese influence.
That’s changed considerably over the last few years, in part because of American leadership, but also, in part because of Chinese actions in Hong Kong, where they have abrogated their obligations or international treaties on how they treat the Hong Kong people, because of increased concerns about human rights, particularly this situation of the Uyghurs, and because of the response to the pandemic where a lot of people do blame China for the pandemic going global and not helping prepare for a global and national response, and hiding the facts and pushing policies to their liking.
There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the Belt and Road initiative. We see the government walking away from that, because it’s not this bright shining offer anymore. It’s actually viewed very skeptically. This is a level of pushback that the Chinese haven’t seen in years—concerns about Huawei and ZTE—countries banning them from their markets, banning apps from their markets.
It’s interesting to watch the Chinese respond to that and seek what’s the right blend of good cop-bad cop. So we see in some places this kind of China wolf warrior diplomacy, following the famous Chinese movies, getting out there and being really tough and bad mouthing people and bad mouthing the United States.
But we’ve also seen them accommodating, we’ve seen the leader come out at the U.N. General Assembly and promise to be the world global leader on climate change, even though they’re the world’s biggest polluter. That’s been interesting. Now, we have the results of the plenum and the leadership. … It’s interesting to see them potentially test the boundaries, be more aggressive.
I think it’s premature to say whether they’re really testing and pushing, or they’re really just kind of sending out feelers. In part, the Chinese government was worried about some kind of an aggressive response from the U.S. in the run up to the elections—so-called “October surprise”—where the U.S. would be really tough. For example, they were very demonstrative about Taiwan. That was largely because they were afraid the U.S. was going to do something terribly demonstrative about Taiwan.
But the reality is President Trump is the president, at least until the end of January. U.S. policies won’t change. We will be tough on Taiwan, we will be consistent in our policies on the South China Seas, and freedom on the seas. That won’t change. I think the Chinese do recognize that. So I don’t know how much real serious pushing we’re going to see from China over the next few months.
Mr. Jekielek: What would you expect to happen, given these new rules? Is this just a test to see if someone will respond at all?
Mr. Carafano: Look, we’ve seen a couple of these things. I just don’t know. We saw, for example, where the Chinese said they were going to sanction U.S. companies. Well, what does that really mean? We have a sanctions regime under law. When the Chinese say they’re going to sanction companies, what does that mean?
It might mean they’re going to do nothing. They’re kind of demonstrating—if you sanction us, we’re gonna sanction you. Is this just kind of blustering? Or does it actually mean a shift in policy to take advantage while the U.S. is distracted? Look, I don’t know if there’s a space that really could take advantage of the U.S. The President is the president. President Trump’s going to defend American interest every day he’s in office, and I think the Chinese recognize that.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about something that’s outside of the US, but I think still quite relevant. Right now, they’re also attacking major Australian export markets in blatant violation of WTO rules—at least in that sense, it’s relevant. What do you make of that?
Mr. Carafano: That’s of course not new. That’s been going on for a while now, where essentially, you see the regime in Beijing punishing the Australians, for the Australians have the audacity to push back on malicious activity from Beijing, which is bad for Australia. How dare you challenge our ability to push you around? I don’t think that’s unexpected in Australia. I think it actually steals Australian resolve against that.
I think the way they treated Hong Kong, the way they’ve treated Taiwan, and their belligerent, bullying attitude towards Australia—that’s going to strengthen international resolve. What we’ve seen in the U.S. under this administration is looking more at partnerships to really kind of respond and deal with that.
For example, look at soybeans. Basically, the two major producers are the United States and Brazil. China can play one off against the other unless the U.S. and Brazil work together. Then China can’t really bluff anybody. It’s reflective of this attitude from Beijing about finding ways to push back on resistance to Chinese expansion of Chinese power and influence.
The key thing to watch is not so much the Chinese doing that, because we expect them to do that. The key is what’s our response to that? Often our response has to be through collective, mutually supportive effort.
What is important is that regardless of who’s in the White House after January, that we continue on the policies that run in the U.S. pushing back against China across the board—diplomatic, economic, military, and political. The U.S. has been partnering with allies. So the Chinese don’t have space and can’t play one of us off against the other. I think it’s really important that the US continue to do that, regardless of who is the president in January.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about prospective differences in foreign policy, depending on who’s president in January. For example, do the Abraham Accords survive past a Trump presidency?
Mr. Carafano: First, the world’s the same, regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election. American interests are the same and our capabilities to defend those interests are the same. So there’s always a strong amount of continuity from one administration to the next, regardless of who’s president, as well as some change.
So in the Middle East, the Abraham Accords and the normalization of relationships between the Arab countries and Israel, that’s going to continue to move forward. If anything, it’s going to accelerate over the next few months because other countries are going to want to come in and seal the deal. That’s solid.
The other big variable is the Iran deal. I know the Biden people have said we need to go back to the JPCOA. Regardless of who is president, that’s a lot harder than it sounds. When you hear about the cheating, do you really want to lift the arms embargo? Do you really want to make all those countries in the region vulnerable? Do you really not want to deal with the proliferation issues?
Ironically, both Trump and Biden really want the same thing. They want a stronger deal. We’ll see a period with consultation with European allies. Again, regardless of whether it’s Trump or Biden, I’m looking at how we go to the table and get a stronger deal that we’re all more confident [about]. I feel pretty confident about that.
In Europe, there’s way more continuity. NATO is key to us. We’re not out to dismember the European Union, we need to find ways to work together. I think that’s the same. Nobody has an appetite for a Russian reset. Nobody trusts Putin. I think all the frozen conflicts are frozen.
The Indo-Pacific is a bit of an open question. And not just because I don’t think we’re completely clear on what, for example, a Biden would do? When he says he’s going to be tough on China, we don’t know what that means. We know what it means for President Trump—it’s pushing across the board. We don’t know what it means for Biden.
We also don’t know how the Chinese will choose to respond to that. If for example there is a Biden presidency, we’re going to have to see what he actually does, and hold him accountable for that. The Republicans and Democrats are actually pretty skeptical about China, and they want Americans to be tough on China, even on human rights.
Speaker Pelosi, for example, has always been concerned about human rights in China. She’s been silent on that over the last year, I get that. She doesn’t want to give the president any support on any issue. But there’s no reason with a President Biden, why she would have to be silent about the importance of human rights. So that’s a bit of a question mark.
Mr. Jekielek: So let’s talk about another country here. Being Canadian, I was surprised to discover that you actually wrote an article recently exploring U.S.-Canadian security cooperation and strengthening that, presumably. I wonder if you could actually speak to that? Obviously, it’s of great interest to both countries.
Mr. Carafano: Regardless of who is present, there are some really pressing issues where the U.S. and Canada need to align, particularly in the national security area. One thing we hear a lot is, … “President Trump could speak differently. President Biden could have a different tone. International organizations could get back in it.” Honestly, I find all those things pretty ephemeral.
Let’s be honest, if just changing tone and speaking nicer to people actually got things done, people would do that. And we’d be there. You know, President Trump was very tough. We sealed the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Free Trade Agreement against three leaders who are among the most unlikely people to get along. I am not in the camp, that things will just change tone and solve all the really difficult problems we saw.
I don’t think international organizations are the answer, either, because China is in these international organizations, not to establish global norms, not to reach common agreements, but to really tilt the playing field to China’s advantage. International organizations are really becoming more a battleground than they are a place where we’re solving problems.
So with the U.S. and Canada there’s some things that we just have to figure out. Ironically, even though we’re the closest of neighbors, we have lots of contrasting differences on how do we keep the Arctic free, safe and open for everybody, maintain peace, not have military competition, take care of indigenous people, protect the environment, deal with the security issues, and deal with the encroachment of Chinese influence.
We have to get past our differences. We have to figure that out. Because we can’t do that without each other. Neither one of us has the infrastructure in the Arctic region to go at it alone. We have to build infrastructure and we have to build capability. We have to do it together.
Another area is the common defense. I don’t know what direction proliferation goes. But the reality is that missile defense, air defense and defense in the maritime domain has given our hemisphere a unique advantage of peace and prosperity. We have to maintain that.
Canada and the U.S. have an important joint role in terms of missile defense, air defense because people are building hypersonic weapons—many of them went for air breathers—and also the security of the maritime lands. That’s another area where we’ve got to move cooperation to the next level. There’s a number of things.
The other one I really point to is NATO. NATO was a political-military alliance. When it comes to the military stuff, the guy with the most tanks has a lot of influence. But on the political level, all countries are kind of equal. There are tough issues for NATO—how do you deal with China? A good example, how do we deal with these hybrid threats? Canada’s political voice is important.
And when you add the Canadian and American political voice together into a joint position on NATO, that’s really important and helpful. There’s an enormous amount of area for cooperation and engagement. At the end of the day, on China, Canada’s gonna have to pick a side.
The reality is the nations of the free world believe in human rights and the free enterprise system. We have lots of differences, but we believe in all those fundamentals. We do, that’s why we call it the free world. But the regime in Beijing, they don’t. Not only do they not believe with them, they see them as an obstacle to the expansion of their power and influence.
If the free world doesn’t band together to protect its equities, then those equities will always be under threat. That does not mean that nobody does business with China—we’re all going to do business with China. It doesn’t mean that we all have to agree on everything—we don’t. But we do have to pick a side.
On issues like 5G, for example, we have to make some tough calls. The other area where I actually think Canada has an extraordinary role to play, is there is no one size that fits all. I’m very skeptical of what international organizations can do in this great era of great power competition to solve problems. But I am very confident that groupings of nations in different frameworks, using the advantages and the abilities of the frameworks can do a lot.
Probably one of the most powerful one of those is the Five Eyes, right? So we think of the Five Eyes—US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain as primarily an intelligence network—the countries that seamlessly share intelligence. But the reality of that framework can work in many different areas. We’ve seen, for example, cooperation on Immigration and Border Security, and foreign policy—there’s a number of different areas.
The Five Eyes framework, which Canada is a key part of, could be something that’s incredibly useful for all the countries. Because if you think about it, look at the big theaters of Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the greater Middle East. Some of those countries are present in all those theaters. All of them are present in some of the theaters. So there’s a lot of potential for cooperation there to really be teased out.
Mr. Jekielek: James, to your point, China is now calling itself a near-Arctic power or something like that indicating its interest in the region. What you’re saying is making a lot of sense to me.
Mr. Carafano: So when China says it’s a near-Arctic power, just like it’s an anything power, it means that’s my excuse to go and rob from other people’s fisheries. That’s my excuse to go and impinge on their energy supplies. That’s my excuse to go and abuse the freedom of the seas and territorial claims. When China says it’s your neighbor, not China. When the regime in Beijing says it wants to be your neighbor, that’s a problem. Under the Chinese vision of the future, people become suburbs of Beijing. And I don’t think anybody should be excited about the notion of being a suburb of Beijing.
Mr. Jekielek: James Carafano, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Carafano: Thank you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.