Not long before a virus born in China began spreading around the globe, destroying lives, devastating economies and, oh yes, shutting down the Washington social scene, I attended an elegant, off-the-record dinner hosted by a well-funded think tank of the libertarian persuasion.
The guest of honor, a senior figure in the Trump administration, excused himself before dessert, citing pressing matters of state. At that point, a distinguished professor from a prestigious university held forth, posing a question to those around the table: “Who here is in favor of starting a new Cold War with China?”
Scattered chuckles but no other responses followed, so I chimed in: “With respect, Professor, that horse has left the barn. China has been waging a Cold War against America for years. The current administration has recognized that reality and outlined a response, notably in the National Security Strategy. If you haven’t read it, I recommend you do so soonest.”
The ensuing conversation was lively — OK, maybe it was acrimonious. But over the months since, it’s become increasingly clear that I was right, and the distinguished professor from a prestigious university was wrong. Abundant evidence in support of this conclusion is presented in “The Elements of the China Challenge,” a 50-page document (with 22 pages of footnotes) issued last month by the Policy Planning Staff of the Office of the Secretary of State.
A word about Policy Planning: This is the State Department’s fabled in-house think tank, first headed by George Kennan, whose 1946 “Long Telegram” provided a conceptual framework for American strategies and policies in what we now might think of as Cold War I.
National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien calls the two documents “similar,” noting two differences: “First, unlike Kennan’s case, written by an envoy at post [Moscow], this book contains the words and policies of the President and his most senior officials. Second, given China’s population size, economic prowess, and historic global ambitions, the People’s Republic of China is a more capable competitor than the Soviet Union at its height.”
For decades, the foreign policy elite held to theory that as China grew wealthier, it would inevitably liberalize, becoming a responsible stakeholder in the “American-led liberal rules-based international order.” Key figures in the Trump administration — including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy Nadia Schadlow, Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger (a China expert and fluent Mandarin-speaker), and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — perceived that this theory had proven incorrect.
In December 2017, they produced the aforementioned National Security Strategy, which identifies China’s rulers as America’s most determined and dangerous adversaries.
The conduct of those rulers since — including but not limited to their obfuscations and deceptions regarding the coronavirus, their imprisonment of millions of Muslim Uighurs in “re-education” camps, their takeover of Hong Kong in egregious violation of their treaty obligations, and their continuing massive intellectual-property thefts — have reinforced that reappraisal.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in the words of the Policy Planning paper, aims to “fundamentally revise world order, placing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the center and serving Beijing’s authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions.”
In addition: “The party today wields its economic power to co-opt and coerce countries around the world; make the societies and politics of foreign nations more accommodating to CCP specifications; and reshape international organizations in line with China’s brand of socialism. At the same time, the CCP is developing a world-class military to rival and eventually surpass the U.S. military.”
The Policy Planning Staff, led by director Peter Berkowitz, offers 10 recommendations to resist this global transformation. Among them:
The United States “must maintain the world’s most powerful, agile, and technologically sophisticated military while enhancing security cooperation, grounded in common interests and shared responsibility, with allies and partners. A strong military depends on a strong economy. … At the same time, a strong economy depends on a strong military – to ensure the open seas, safe skies, and secure communications networks that enable international commerce to thrive. For the sake of security and prosperity, moreover, the United States must rededicate itself to preserving its status as the world’s leader in technological innovation.”
Policy Planning concludes that China’s rulers pose a challenge and threat that “is likely to dominate American foreign policy across many administrations.”
Joe Biden’s view of China’s rulers has conformed to that of the foreign policy establishment. You may recall him saying they are “not bad folks” and certainly “not competition for us.” On the campaign trail last year, he scoffed: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man.”
However, his announcement that he plans to appoint Antony Blinken as secretary of State suggests his views may be evolving. In July, Mr. Blinken told an interviewer: “There is a growing consensus across parties that China poses a series of new challenges and that the status quo was really not sustainable.”
Of course, Mr. Biden is doubtless also getting an earful from those committed to soft-pedaling Beijing’s malign behaviors and hostile ambitions. Among them, investors who have been making fortunes in China, and at least one distinguished professor from a prestigious university.
Mr. Biden probably hasn’t read “The Elements of the China Challenge.” I’d recommend he do so soonest. As a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he surely understands how important it was that, during the First Cold War, there was something close to bipartisan consensus vis-à-vis the Soviet empire. The same is necessary in regard to those who rule China’s 21st century empire. If we can’t manage that, we really don’t stand a chance.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.