Bret Stephens: The two China fires

(Denis Poroy | AP file photo) Smoke rises from the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego Sunday, July 12, 2020, in San Diego after an explosion and fire Sunday on board the ship at Naval Base San Diego.

We’ll probably never know exactly what sorts of documents were incinerated at China’s Consulate in Houston in the days before the United States forced it to close Friday, after accusing it of being a hub of espionage. We may also never know what caused this month’s catastrophic fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, a massive amphibious assault ship that was being fitted out to double as a small aircraft carrier, in the port of San Diego.

What we should know is that the two fires are actually one. We are racing toward a conflict with China we may be ill-prepared to wage.

The closure of the consulate comes on the heels of a quad of bellicose speeches from top administration officials, collectively amounting to a declaration of Cold War against China. Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, painted China’s leadership as unreconstructed Marxist-Leninists. The FBI director, Christopher Wray, spoke of China’s practice in the art of “malign foreign influence.” Attorney General Bill Barr accused China of “economic blitzkrieg.” And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted the free world may need a new version of NATO, this one aimed at Beijing instead of Moscow.

Given that the source is Team Trump and the timing is an election year, it’s tempting to dismiss the speeches’ warnings as cynical, hypocritical, political — and therefore wrong. Why complain about civil liberties in Hong Kong when we have goon squads in Portland? Why accuse China of trashing global norms when that’s been Trump’s ambition from the beginning? Why characterize Chinese President Xi Jinping as a linear ideological descendant of Joseph Stalin when, as we know from John Bolton, Trump was fulsomely praising him and soliciting his help for his reelection bid?

And why all of this now, when Trump needs enemies both foreign and domestic to rescue his flagging reelection bid?

But the problem with these questions is that — however on point they are as criticisms of Trump — they obscure two hard facts a Biden administration will also confront. The first is that, under Xi, China has become drastically more repressive at home, more aggressive abroad and more shameless about both than at nearly any point since the death of Mao.

This is not a matter of Beijing reacting badly to Trump (as the early Obama administration erroneously supposed that bad relations with Russia were a matter of Moscow reacting badly to George W. Bush). Some of China’s biggest digital heists date to the Obama years — including the 2015 hack of the Office of Personnel Management, which gave Beijing the background security files for nearly 22 million current or former U.S. government employees and their family members. China’s outrageous and illegal claims to most of the South China Sea also predate Trump and will fester long after he’s gone.

What stands out now is just how brazen Beijing has become. Take one detail from Wray’s speech: “We have now reached the point where the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours,” he said. In one case, a single scientist, Hongjin Tan, pleaded guilty to stealing an estimated $1 billion in trade secrets from an Oklahoma-based energy company.

Multiply that hundreds if not thousands of times over, and what you have is arguably the largest single theft of foreign property since Germany looted Europe in World War II. Whatever else one might say against the Trump administration, it isn’t lying about China.

But this brings us to the second blunt fact. U.S. power in East Asia is waning. Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the single best hedge the U.S. had against Chinese economic dominance of the region — may, in hindsight, prove to be his single worst policy mistake. He has tried to shake down both South Korea and Japan to pay more for basing U.S. forces: penny ante politics that only raise doubts about America’s reliability as an ally.

And then there’s the degraded state of the U.S. Navy, epitomized by the fire on the Bonhomme Richard (itself the latest in a string of corruption, leadership, cost over-run and competency scandals to bedevil the service). Trump came to office with grand plans to build a 355-ship Navy, up from the current 300. The Pentagon all but admits it has no hope of reaching that goal. Meanwhile, the Chinese Navy — which isn’t stretched around the world — has 335 ships, a 55% increase in 15 years.

If the U.S. and the People’s Republic were to come to blows after some incident over some atoll in the South China Sea, are we confident we’d prevail?

When (fingers crossed) Joe Biden is president, he needn’t ask his Cabinet members to deliver philippics against Beijing. But, as George Kennan once wrote about another regime, he must be prepared to confront China with “unalterable counter force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.”

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.