Part of the United States' awakening to the complex challenges posed by a rising China is the realization that America's economic vulnerabilities are also national security vulnerabilities. And it's not just about trade.
U.S. capital markets are drastically increasing their holdings of Chinese companies, giving Beijing massive leverage inside the United States and posing huge risks to U.S. investors and the U.S. economy. This practice transfers billions of dollars out of the United States and into China, while also placing U.S. investors in the position of gambling their economic futures on Chinese companies that are beyond the reach of U.S. government oversight and accountability.
For example, the world's largest index provider, MSCI, has been steadily increasing its holdings of Chinese assets this year, reportedly "after it came under heavy pressure by the Chinese government." MSCI will quadruple its mainland Chinese holdings this year, which will send about $80 billion of U.S. cash into the struggling Chinese economy right away.
But there are greater implications. Nearly $14 trillion in U.S. investment funds follow the MSCI indexes or use them as yardsticks for their investment decisions. That means asset managers all over the country will be forced to increase their holdings of Chinese stocks and bonds. Millions of Americans, without doing anything, will soon be betting on Chinese companies with their pension funds, mutual funds and exchange-traded funds.
Chinese law bars U.S. regulators, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, from verifying the financial disclosures and audits submitted by Chinese companies on national security grounds. When fraudulent activity is discovered, as happens all the time, U.S. investors have no recourse.
The even greater problem is that Wall Street is not even considering how national security considerations can affect the value of these Chinese companies. As the United States cracks down on Chinese firms that contribute to Beijing's military expansion or its human rights violations, Americans are unwittingly tying their financial futures to those very companies.
"We can no longer allow China's authoritarian government to reap the rewards of American and international capital markets while Chinese companies avoid financial disclosure and basic transparency, and place U.S. investors and pensioners at risk," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in an interview. "Firms like MSCI have an obligation to make sure investors know whether their investment dollars are unwittingly aiding Chinese state-owned and state-directed companies."
Rubio sent a letter Wednesday to MSCI demanding that the index provider give Congress information on its decision to invest in several Chinese firms and increase the weighting of Chinese company shares in its indexes. For example, Rubio wants information on Hikvision, a Chinese video surveillance company that could soon be sanctioned for its role in surveillance and detention of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims inside China.
If millions of Americans have invested in Hikvision, their financial interest would be set against the U.S. government's drive to hold Chinese companies accountable for human rights violations. More broadly, Wall Street is making Americans fund China's internal repression and Beijing's economic strategy against the United States.
"In reality, what MSCI is doing is allowing the Chinese Communist Party controlled market, and its state-owned national champion companies, to access a critical source of capital and clothe itself in a façade of legitimacy," the letter states.
Rubio is asking MSCI to provide information on how it conducted due diligence on the Chinese companies to which it is now steering investment. Does MSCI even know whether these companies are connected the Chinese government, the People's Liberation Army or China's Ministry of State Security, or whether they are involved in activities such as South China Sea island building, sanctions busting, weapons production or human rights abuses?
"The Rubio letter should communicate to MSCI and other fund managers that even if they are not inclined to properly account for national security and human rights-related risk associated with the Chinese companies selected for inclusion in the index, others will," said Roger Robinson, former senior director for international economic affairs at the National Security Council and president of RWR Advisory Group, a risk management firm in Washington.
"The letter also spells out the various types of national security and human rights abuses which constitute material, asymmetric risk to share value and corporate reputation and should be disclosed to prospective investors," he said.
An MSCI spokesperson said in an interview that MSCI's decision to increase the weight of China shares in its indexes followed an extensive consultation with international institutional investors. "Investable market benchmarks should not be constrained by specific investor opinions, preferences or constraints. This is reflected in our methodology," the spokesperson said.
There's another good reason to reconsider transferring billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayers' money into China; that's investment that might otherwise go to U.S. companies to create U.S. jobs. As Joe Biden said in Iowa this week, "When it comes to taking on China, first, let's invest in ourselves."
"It is outrageous that long-term passive investment dollars are being funneled out of the U.S. and into opaque companies that avoid routine financial audits," said Christopher Iacovella, chief executive of the American Securities Association, which advocates for small businesses and small investors. "Senator Rubio is standing up for American investors by raising very important questions about the inclusion of some Chinese companies in stock indexes."
Wall Street is aiding the Chinese government in its effort to get Americans to fund China's economic aggression. But the issue is now being taken out of Wall Street's hands.
Policymakers and lawmakers are going to try to force Chinese companies to play by the rules or force Wall Street to stop helping them. For Beijing, economics and national security are closely linked. The United States can no longer pretend that's not the case.
Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He previously worked for Bloomberg View, the Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, Congressional Quarterly, Federal Computer Week and Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper.