Deconstructing the Bipartisan Consensus on the China Threat
Bipartisan consensus—on the scope of the threat—needs to be reconsidered because the wrong diagnosis could yield the wrong, or even dangerous, prescriptions.
The debate in Washington over U.S. policy toward China appears to have turned a corner in the wake of the first hearing on February 28 of the new House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). One of the benchmarks of the hearing was Chairman Mike Gallagher’s assertion in his opening statement that the threat posed to America by the CCP represents “an existential struggle over what life will look like in the twenty-first century,” a struggle in which “the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.” No one on the committee or among the witnesses at the hearing challenged this assertion, reinforcing the presumption that it reflects a bipartisan consensus on the nature and scope of the threat from China.
Multiple observers, however, have raised alarm about the potential implications of this judgment, questioning not just the committee’s agenda but also the validity of the premises upon which its agenda is based. One prominent commentator characterized the apparent agreement about the “allegedly existential danger posed by the CCP” as “a classic example of groupthink” that was “forged out of paranoia, hysteria and, above all, fears of being branded as soft” on China. Some detractors responded that it was an earlier consensus in support of “engagement” with China that was misguided groupthink—overlooking (and proving) that “groupthink” is largely a pejorative critique of whatever one disagrees with. Another foreign policy writer speculated that the agreement between the Republicans and Democrats on the committee “could mean they are falling prey to a collective delusion.”
Believers in an “existential” threat from China tried to claim validation from public remarks last week by Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Qin Gang on the margins of Beijing’s annual legislative session. Xi reportedly said that “Western countries headed by the United States have contained, encircled, and suppressed China”—a rare if not unprecedented direct public criticism of Washington. He then issued what appears to be an aggressive new foreign policy mantra—eclipsing Deng Xiaoping’s perennial guidance for China to “hide its capabilities and bide its time”—that included the phrase “dare to struggle.” This was widely characterized as a Chinese call to arms, as was Qin’s statement that “If the United States does not hit the brake but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation.”
Neither Xi’s nor Qin’s remarks contained much that was substantively new to those familiar with Beijing’s longstanding views. But the public debate was further fueled by Western commentary asserting that Xi and Qin were speaking accurately. A writer in the Financial Times said Xi was “not technically wrong” about a US containment strategy. And an article in the Daily Beast observed that “everything Xi said was true. The US is actively seeking to contain China and impede its ability to develop key technologies.” Regarding Qin’s observation that “there will surely be conflict and confrontation” if Washington does not adjust its China policy, the same article said, “That too, as it happens, is true.”
All of these commentators were widely criticized for either understating or—more seriously—failing to recognize the magnitude and immediacy of the threat from the CCP. One of the emerging counterarguments is that the bipartisan consensus on the nature and extent of that threat is reliably and well-established; where disagreement remains is over what policies should be pursued in responding to it. If this is correct, that bipartisan consensus (on the scope of the threat) needs to be reconsidered because the wrong diagnosis could yield the wrong—or even dangerous—prescriptions.
China does pose a profound and unprecedented strategic challenge to the United States. But this is not an “existential struggle” in which “the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.” A more measured and empirical appraisal of the challenge that China represents was published last week in the Annual Threat Assessment (ATA) of the U.S. intelligence community (IC). The IC’s analysis does not support many of the characterizations of the China threat that have emanated from the select committee and have appeared more broadly in the public discourse about China.
For example, Gallagher stated that “the CCP is laser focused on its vision for the future: a world crowded with totalitarian states.” And Ranking Member Raja Krishnamoorthi said in his opening statement, Xi wants to ensure that China “leads the world in terms of composite national strength and international influence” by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But this is how the ATA characterizes China’s global ambitions:
China’s Communist Party (CCP) will continue efforts to achieve President Xi Jinping’s vision of making China the preeminent power in East Asia and a major power on the world stage. . . . Beijing will try to expand its influence abroad and its efforts to be viewed as a champion of global development . . . [It will also seek] to promote a China-led alternative to often U.S. and Western-dominated international development and security forums and frameworks . . . [and] modifications to international norms to favor state sovereignty and political stability over individual rights.
This does not reflect the pursuit of “a world crowded with totalitarian states.” Moreover, Krishnamoorthi’s assertion that China seeks to “lead the world” appears to quote from Xi’s speech to the CCP’s 19th Congress in 2017, which scholars have more reliably translated to refer to China aspiring to be “a global leader” rather than “the global leader.” Indeed, the IC assesses that China seeks to be “a major power on the world stage” by maximizing its relative power and influence while working to reshape global multilateralism in directions that are more conducive to and tolerant of Chinese interests, preferences, and values. This does not imply or require the establishment of unipolar Chinese global hegemony, nor of Chinese efforts to dictate how other countries govern themselves.
None of this is meant to minimize the comprehensive and relentless competitive challenge that China poses to the United States. The ATA outlines the many elements of that challenge. The IC judges that Beijing is determined “to erode US influence across military, technological, economic, and diplomatic spheres.” It will seek to “drive wedges between Washington and its partners”; use “whole-of-government tools” to “compel neighbors to acquiesce to its preferences”; and continue “building a world-class military” in a bid to “establish its preeminence in regional affairs, and project power globally while offsetting perceived U.S. military superiority.” At the same time, “China will remain the top threat to US technological competitiveness” and will try to “leverage its dominance [in markets and supply chains] for political or economic gain.” The CCP is also “attempting to sow doubts about US leadership, undermine democracy, and extend Beijing’s influence, particularly in East Asia and the western Pacific.” And it will “continue expanding its global intelligence and covert influence posture to better support the CCP’s political, economic, and security goals.”
Regarding China’s threat to the U.S. homeland, the CCP will use “a sophisticated array of covert, overt, licit, and illicit means to try to soften US criticism, shape US power centers’ views of China, and influence policymakers at all levels of government.” It is also trying to “actively exploit perceived US societal divisions” and is “intensifying efforts to mold US public discourse,” especially on Chinese sovereignty issues like Taiwan and Hong Kong.
This clearly is a formidable and ruthless opponent, and one that requires a comprehensive, whole-of-government competitive U.S. response. But it still does not add up to an “existential” winner-take-all threat to U.S. global power and influence, or to the American way of life, requiring a wholly adversarial cold war U.S. response. Beijing is working across the board globally to score points against Washington and to blunt the United States’ ability to do China harm, and it will use all of its levers and sources of power in pursuit of those goals. But the intelligence community does not assess that Beijing seeks to supplant the United States as global hegemon, or destroy American democracy and the American economy. If the evidence supported such judgments, they would have been included in the ATA.
In this regard, the ATA includes two important caveats to the IC’s assessment of Beijing’s competitive challenge. The first is that China’s leaders, despite their adversarial posture, “will seek opportunities to reduce tensions with Washington when they believe it suits their interests.” The second is that China is responding symmetrically to what to it perceives as a comparable US challenge: “Beijing sees increasingly competitive US–China relations as part of an epochal geopolitical shift and views Washington’s diplomatic, economic, military, and technological measures against Beijing as part of a broader US effort to prevent China’s rise and undermine CCP rule.” In short, Beijing sees the United States as an existential challenge to the PRC. If we reject that notion as an irrational and inflated Chinese threat perception, we must consider the possibility of irrational and inflated US threat perceptions, along with the possibility that the Chinese are no less interested in peaceful coexistence than we are.