Column: Can the US build bridges with authoritarians?

Narain Batra. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Narain Batra. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to


For the Valley News

Published: 02-16-2024 7:45 PM

I always look forward to reading the periodic reports about the intersection of business and government issued by Tuck School of Business Dean Matthew Slaughter and his colleague, and former White House speechwriter, Matthew Rees. The most recent Slaughter & Rees Report asks an intriguing question: “Will the World Get a Vote in America?”

An open, dynamic society that established the post-World War II, rules-based liberal international order and today still the world’s largest economy, the U.S. is nonetheless wracked with self-doubt. The two Matts, as Slaughter and Rees jokingly call themselves, ask, “Whoever is the next U.S. president, who in Washington will articulate a vision for globalization other than building more walls?”

They argue that although President Biden has not started a new trade war against China, his trade policies are not much different from those of former President Trump. They lament that America might lose its dominant place in the global economy, though, according to them, “most Americans want to build more bridges connected to the global economy — along with more ladders of opportunity to take advantage of global engagement.”

The day Slaughter and Rees published their report about the need for global bridge building and the free flow of trade and commerce, Jan. 31, a fierce discussion was taking place in Capitol Hill about the dark role of the Communist Party of China, which under President Xi Jinping has begun to use all the available means not build bridges but to penetrate and hack American society.

FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party that “China’s hackers are positioning on American infrastructure in preparation to wreak havoc and cause real-world harm to American citizens and communities, if or when China decides the time has come to strike,” adding further that “they target our freedoms, reaching inside our borders, across America, to silence, coerce, and threaten our citizens and residents.”

Along with the head of the National Security Agency, Paul Nakasone, and other senior U.S. officials, Wray warned the House Committee that China is actively targeting such critical infrastructure as water treatment plants, power grids and transportation systems. Attacks on these and other systems could disrupt essential services and cause significant harm. China has a large pool of skilled hackers with access to advanced technology, making them capable of launching complex and damaging cyberattacks.

America has work to do to prepare for such attacks. Some of the blame lies with U.S. technology companies because, as Jen Easterly, who leads the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told the committee, “the Chinese cyber actors have taken advantage of very basic flaws in our technology. … the technology underpinning our critical infrastructure is inherently insecure because of decades of software developers not being held liable for defective technology. That has led to incentives where features and speed-to-market have been prioritized against security, leaving our nation vulnerable to cyber invasion. That has to stop.”

Chinese hackers are known to steal sensitive data, including intellectual property, government secrets and personal information. In addition to pursuing critical infrastructure, they attempt to infiltrate the software supply chain to target various businesses, industries and organizations. Chinese hackers are constantly developing new techniques and tools, making it challenging to stay ahead of the curve. The geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea, especially in regard to Taiwan, add another layer of complexity to the issue.

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But why do American companies as well as some academics insist on doing business with China, in spite of dangers? China is the world’s second largest economy and a massive consumer base, offering immense potential for growth and profit. China has traditionally offered lower manufacturing costs than many other countries, making it attractive for production. And China is deeply integrated into global supply chains, making it difficult for many companies to disentangle themselves without significant disruption. Many companies have felt compelled to participate in the Chinese market due to competitive pressures, fearing being left behind if they did not engage.

No doubt American companies are increasingly aware of the cyber threats posed by Chinese hackers and are taking steps to improve their cybersecurity posture, such as data encryption, multi-factor authentication and threat intelligence. They are implementing strategies to protect their intellectual property, such as careful due diligence of partners, seeking stronger patent protection and diversifying their manufacturing footprint. Some companies also face pressure to address human rights concerns in China, such as forced labor or Uyghur oppression.

The decision to do business in China is a complex one with significant potential benefits and risks. Nonetheless, while scholars such as Slaughter and Rees are hopeful that “new leaders will step up to voice a new vision for how America can reconnect to the world in a way that works all around: for American companies, for American families, and for American communities — and for the rest of the world as well,” we need to keep in mind that China is a closed, authoritarian society with global ambitions that challenge the liberal order. Bridge building with China cannot go very far.

As University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer argues, “What we foolishly did was pursue a policy of engagement, which was explicitly designed to help China grow more powerful economically. Of course, as China grew economically, it translated that economic might into military might, and the U.S., as a consequence of this foolish policy of engagement, helped to create a peer competitor.”

The idea of American engagement with the world advanced by Slaughter and Rees is different from how the Communist Party of China under President Xi Jinping wants to engage with the world. Tuck’s graduates are highly valued not only by corporate America but also in India, East Asia, Europe and elsewhere. Perhaps in a future report, Slaughter and Rees will respond to the challenge of doing business with China in the framework of geopolitical realities, human rights and, not least, national security. Doing global business is about more than making money.

Narain Batra, of Hartford, is affiliated with the Graduate College at Norwich University, where he teaches global corporate diplomacy. He hosts the podcast “America Unbound,” publishes the newsletter “Freedom Public Square,” and is a contributing columnist for The Statesman (India) and other publications.