Where is the Big China Speech?
You might have noticed that in recent years/months/weeks U.S. policymakers have grown more and more hostile towards China. It is one of the few sources of bipartisan consensus on American foreign policy. And there are a lot of valid reasons to justify this hawkish turn: persistent intellectual property theft, a lack of transparency on COVID-19, crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and the increased bellicosity toward its neighbors. Oh, and also the more general concern that China is now a peer competitor of the United States.
That said, there are times where the range of Beltway opinion on this subject echoes the dueling post-9/11 Onion headlines of "We Must Retaliate With Blind Rage” vs. “We Must Retaliate With Measured, Focused Rage.”
If you think that is hyperbole, consider the first hearing of the House’s new Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party.1 According to Reuters, the chair, GOP representative Mike Gallagher, said about the Sino-American relationship: “This is not a polite tennis match. This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century - and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake." In response, ranking minority representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, responded with, “Over the last three decades, both Democrats and Republicans underestimated the CCP, and assumed that trade and investment would inevitably lead to democracy and greater security in the Indo-Pacific... Instead the opposite happened.”
NBC News’ Scott Wong painted a similar picture of the hearing:
The China panel's first hearing was unusually bipartisan and avoided the partisan bickering that had dominated other recent House hearings. As it wrapped up, Gallagher compared the hearing's length to an Avatar movie.
"And like a cinematic experience, in examining this strategic competition with the CCP tonight, we’ve gotten a sense of heroes and villains.... There’s no question in my mind, that we, America are the good guys," Gallagher said in closing. "We are the good guys. That even on our worst day, the rest of the world is still looking to us for leadership."
This is all part of a concerted effort to reframe the policy debate about China in even more hawkish terms than currently exist. And maybe this reframing is the right way to go — Chinese behavior across a range of issues has been super-hostile.
Those Onion 9/11 headlines, however, remind me of what happens when there is that powerful an urge to fixate on a new bogeyman. So I want to know where the limits are to the Sino-American strategic competition. To put it another way: Gallagher describes it as an existential struggle. I am old enough to remember the last few times that term was used to describe a U.S. adversary. Unfortunately, existential threats are used to justify policy overreaches all the damn time. Even if China is a bad actor, is severe decoupling the best way to respond?
This sure would be a good moment for the executive branch to weigh in! One of the few areas where the Trump administration executed a clear policy rollout was on China, with Hudson Institute speech after Hudson Institute speech. One could disagree with those speeches — and I did — but there was something to latch onto.
With the Biden administration, there have been a lot of concrete policies: the export controls, the Taiwan pronouncements, the Quad, AUKUS, IPEF, and so forth. There has been less conceptual work. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a much-delayed China speech in May of last year, but there has been little follow-through since then despite a mess of real-world developments.
Politico’s Alexander Burns picked up the lack of active White House messaging on China in a recent column:
If both parties agree that China poses a uniquely complex threat, only one has made it a daily obsession. Across the GOP’s warring factions, the Chinese Communist Party is a menace that nearly all can agree to despise; lawmakers voice that sentiment in sober floor speeches and frothing rants on Newsmax. The challenge for levelheaded Republicans on the select committee, led by Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, will be keeping the paranoid right from overwhelming their work.
An important job for Democrats will be clarifying their own policies with a message that makes sense to regular people….
Biden has neglected the job of articulating [his China policies] to voters in plain English. He has explained one policy at a time, but he has not defined a bigger picture that is clearer than “competition, not conflict.”
Good ideas need to be explained and defended if they are to win out over crude and offensive ones.
And when it comes to China, crude and offensive ideas abound.
Biden’s mantra on China has been “competition, not conflict.” It is a decent start of an idea. But the “not conflict” portion of the rhetoric needs to be fleshed out further. Otherwise, the crude and offensive ideas will proliferate.
Or consider the political response to the Chinese spy balloon a few weeks ago. I had hoped that Washington would not overreact to a Chinese screw-up. Those hopes were dashed quickly. Instead, the outbidding between Congress and the Biden White House has been so strong that the U.S. military has spent millions of dollars to shoot down… a bunch of recreational balloons.