Interview with Dr. Michael Auslin

The Buckley Program hosted Dr. Michael Auslin for a seminar series on the Turbulent Pacific from February 12th to 26th.  Michael Auslin, PhD, is the Payson J. Treat Distinguished Research Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. A historian by training, he specializes in US policy in Asia and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.  He is a longtime contributor to the Wall Street Journal and National Review, and his writing appears in other leading publications, including the Financial Times, The Spectator, and Foreign Policy. Previously, Auslin was an associate professor of history at Yale University, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo.

Clay Skaggs: My first question is how do you think COVID-19 has affected China? Do you think China has emerged as a victor or do you think it has hurt them?

Dr. Michael Auslin: I think they’ve emerged stronger than before. It shouldn’t have been this way. In fact, the world should have held China accountable for the pandemic, for the coverup, and for willfully failing to share information that could have prevented an enormous amount of the damage that we suffered. The world should not have bought the claims of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that China had very minimal infections and minimal deaths. It certainly should not be acquiescing in the coverup as to the origins of the disease, which the World Health Organization is complicit in. But instead China actually emerged more powerful because it shamelessly offered a false and alternative view of what happened. It was abetted globally by business, media, stakeholders, and elites who are indebted to China and who would rather maintain what they believe is some level of access and influence in China rather than the truth.

Of course the CCP was also able to use extraordinarily draconian measures to shut down this disease, so they were able to emerge from it more quickly. That’s certainly not to excuse Western governments and their mishandling of COVID, which they did, but if they had weeks of preparation because Beijing had shared the truth about this airborne transmitted disease, things might’ve been very different. So unfortunately they emerged stronger and no small part of that is due to a self-criticism in the West for our systems which did not perform very well but we have to believe are better than the invasive and intrusive systems of the Communist Party.

CS: Thank you. My next question was should we hold China accountable for COVID, which you already answered. I guess my question then would be what would it look like to hold China accountable for COVID-19?

MA: That’s a really interesting question. I think a year ago, we all probably could have thought of that a little bit more. Now it’s gone so far down the road and we are rightfully focused on the problems at home and the failures and the lack of clear science and the like. I think there are different ways, however. One is the moral element of holding China accountable by the world condemning the CCP’s cover up and condemning China for failing to warn the world. There were certainly Chinese citizens and doctors who tried to warn the world and they were muzzled and disappeared in some cases by the communist government. I think there should have been first of all, moral condemnation.

Secondly, there could have been reactions to limit different types of interactions based on the unwillingness of the Communist Party government to level with the world. We could have limited diplomatic exchanges and cultural exchanges and the like. Of course the counter argument is always, if you do anything like that, then you just make it harder to work with China. Yet no one ever argues compellingly that the CCP has any real interest in working with us. So we tie our own hands behind our back and let China continue to pummel us.

Third, I think very easily, this should have been the moment for a serious reckoning with the global supply chain and our dependence on China for pharmaceuticals, protective personal equipment, rare earth metals, and all sorts of things. But you know, we don’t have to say that we’re going to get our Nike’s made somewhere else, but the important things that we realized now, we weren’t able to protect ourselves. Those important imports should never be held hostage by China the way that they were and should not be used to put us in the position of vulnerability.

We’re very lazy and we don’t do the things that would help us protect ourselves. I actually don’t know of any studies out there that say how much of the pharmaceuticals are now no longer being made in China or in India, for that matter. There is some personal protective equipment now being made here. What we saw were a lot of startups in the United States to produce masks and gowns and the like, but the big production, the massive production that was done by companies like 3M and others, I’m assuming was still in China. We just don’t know. So we’re lazy. We have to blame ourselves as much as we blame the CCP for not taking it seriously and just assuming that every time a problem comes we’ll dodge a bullet or throw money at it. So that would have been a third way to hold China accountable: to reduce our reliance on China for many of the critical goods that we need but also more broadly and say it’s time that we allowed other countries the opportunity to develop and move up the value-added chain. I think all of those things would have been ways of holding China accountable.

CS: Thank you. You mentioned China’s use of the World Health Organization and other international agreements like the Paris agreements to increase their clout while not actually making large sacrifices. How do you think the US can counter this kind of diplomatic strategy from China? Also can we engage with China in meaningful ways on issues such as climate change and the COVID pandemic or can we not engage with them in good faith?

MA: Certainly the CCP wasn’t willing and still isn’t willing to engage with us on COVID. So anything where questions of American health or security are concerned, I don’t think you can expect any help or good faith negotiations from the CCP. I think that’s pretty clear. In other areas the CCP is willing when it suits their interests to talk about things like climate change. But, usually that just means we wind up giving them technology as we did with solar or wind that they then used to corner the market. So I find it very difficult to see exactly how we work with them. No one’s been willing to come up with a list of areas where we’ve actually agreed to make a positive difference in the world together. That’s because there are no instances where Beijing has been willing to work through diplomatic mechanisms to resolve competing claims in the South or East China seas.

The Trump administration certainly began to try to counter Beijing’s strategy of diplomacy, first of all, by opposing Chinese candidates to head these international organizations, many of which are under the UN auspices. That’s very important. In fact, there were some victories such as with the World Intellectual Property Organization. But we’ve been very slow to recognize that the CCP has put diplomats and bureaucrats into many of these top organizations, sometimes heading them as in the case of the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Telecommunications Organization or completely suborning them as in the case of the World Health Organization. If these organizations are not willing to reform, and clearly the WHO is the most egregious case, then we need to be willing to consider alternatives.

The Trump administration pulled out of the WHO, but it didn’t come up with an alternative. The Biden administration simply put us right back into the WHO. So again, we don’t seem to be very serious about international organizations. Maybe we don’t care. Maybe we recognize that they don’t actually do that much. You know, they talk a lot, they take a lot of money. They don’t certainly seem to change much and so maybe we’re just being hard-hearted and saying “who cares”. But the Chinese use them for their own goals. They use them, for example, to keep Taiwan out of the international community as in the WHO or the ICAO. So, what we need to do is be willing to go down the path that the Trump administration started, but you have to have alternatives or you have to be willing to use your weight to say we’re not going to give money to these organizations that are acting in a patently illiberal ways or ways that are not beneficial for the global community.

CS: One thing we talked about towards the end of our seminar was the future of the Quad. I know Biden took the step last week of having the first quad meeting with heads of states rather than with other representatives. Do you think that this is a positive step and do you think the approach Biden seems to be taking of strengthening partnerships rather than aggression is a good one?

MA: Well, yes. In terms of outright aggression, the United States has not engaged in anything one could call outright aggression in Asia for a very long time. We work with our allies and we have very strong partnerships, so it’s not the same thing that we’ve been engaged in the Middle East or other areas. That being said, yes, I think it’s very good that the Biden administration moved to elevate the Quad. What they did is they took up the revitalization of the initiative that the Trump administration started in 2017, because the Quad dialogue had lain fallow for 10 years. Trump revitalized it with meetings of the equivalent of secretary of state-level.

And that’s important. And then the Biden administration had both the foreign ministers meeting and a heads of state meeting. And that was very, very important, and they’re to be commended for it and they should continue it. The question is, what are the ends that they see for the Quad? Is it simply a once a year talking shop? That’s better than nothing, but it doesn’t really do much. So, the question is do they see it as a common cooperative activity? What are the areas that they’ll focus on? Maritime security, for example? These are all very important questions that they’ll have to grapple with, but it’s certainly a good sign that they decided to take on the burden of keeping this going at the highest levels. So yes, we should see more of it hopefully.

CS: Recently we’ve seen the US and European allies put sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the Xinjiang genocide. Do you think there is a hope of a turning point where more and more the international community recognizes what’s happening in China? And do you think it’s an opportunity to build a coalition against them?

MA: That’s a good question. I’m not sure we need a coalition as much as we need to decide to do the right thing at the right time and then find partners. These can be floating coalitions. It’s long overdue that officials were sanctioned for the actions, the cultural genocide, and the like in Xinjiang. It should have happened a long time ago. It should be happening vis-a-vis Tibet. It should be happening vis-a-vis Hong Kong. I mean the CCP has decided to destroy Hong Kong’s freedoms and they have basically succeeded in doing so in the space of a year. They’ve been eliminated. This is one of the most tragic outcomes of the global agreements that the world signed with the Chinese Communist Party, assuming that it would live up to its word and clearly it has not.

We have to consider what this might mean for Taiwan and even beyond. But yes, it’s very good to sanction officials. The Trump administration sanctioned officials over Huawei. They sanctioned officials over espionage issues. The Chinese continue rampant intellectual property theft, and those groups should be isolated and sanctioned. It only goes so far, but at least it’s an indication that you’re not going to be accepting business as usual. But I think you have to go farther. You have to go to visa bans, you have to go to agreements that you’re not going to be working with groups in China that are supportive of this. We see American companies like Disney kowtow to the Chinese. We see almost all American companies do that, but the most egregious recent example was Disney in the face of its film Mulan, where it thanked the Chinese government departments that are in charge of Xinjiang. There has to be a much broader understanding of the predatory and aggressive and illiberal and immoral actions on the part of the Chinese Communist Party and how we should be responding to them, not only to protect our own interests, but to make a moral statement.

CS: I just want to ask you one final question. You’ve written about bringing Taiwan back into the international community. How should we go about doing that.

MA: It’s something again that the Trump administration took farther than most other administrations. You have to give the Obama administration credit for building a new and enlarged American Institute of Taiwan building, which is really our de facto embassy. But the Trump administration moved much further on lifting the restrictions on meetings, on arms sales, and on supporting Taiwan internationally. That’s really what you have to do. The Biden administration has so far continued that, and they are to be applauded for that. Hopefully they will continue. They invited the Taiwanese representative to the United States to the inauguration and have announced a further loosening of restrictions on meetings between US and Taiwanese officials.  All of this is very important.

I think what you do is you essentially “stealth normalize” relations. You just go about dealing with Taiwan and treating Taiwan like you treat almost every other nation. Maybe you use a few different terms. This is in some ways what we’ve been doing, but we should make it fully regular. It shouldn’t be an issue at all for our senior military officials or our cabinet officials to visit Taiwan and to meet their Taiwanese counterparts. Taiwanese military officials should be able to wear their uniforms in the United States. I think the Trump administration allowed that. We should be including Taiwan whenever we talk with democratic allies around the world and especially in Asia. They should just be at the table so that it’s not a surprise.

This is very important to getting over the hump of saying, oh my God are you going to have the Taiwanese there? The answer should be of course they’re there because everyone’s there. So I think you eventually stealth normalize relations with Taiwan and you hope that other countries follow you. There’s been movement with central Europe and Taiwan, which is very important. It’d be nice to see Western Europe get more involved and other nations in Asia, but somebody has to take the lead and it should be the United States.