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.
Washington’s approach going forward would benefit from greater attention to the IC’s empirical assessment of the China threat than to the exaggerated version presented by Gallagher and others. This is because an accurate assessment of the problem can help avoid misguided policy solutions that would be costly and counterproductive. It would also avoid an exclusively adversarial approach to China that comes at the expense of opportunities for cooperation and mutual understanding. Washington and Beijing need a more accurate appraisal of each other’s strategic goals and intentions—instead of the prevailing U.S. view of a China determined to destroy America’s “fundamental freedoms,” and the Chinese view of a United States determined to obstruct China’s development and overthrow its regime.
This gets to the bipartisan consensus on how to respond to the China threat (once it is correctly assessed). Gallagher’s approach would seemingly proscribe any pursuit of constructive relations with Beijing. In his opening statement at the committee’s first hearing, he renounced “engagement” with China:
We must learn from our mistakes. For much of the past half century, we tried to win the CCP over with honey, with engagement, believing that economic engagement in particular would lead to reforms in China. Both parties made the same bet. The only problem is it didn’t work out. We were wrong. The CCP laughed at our naivete and took advantage of our good faith. But that era of wishful thinking is over. The Select Committee will not allow the CCP to lull us into complacency or maneuver us into submission.
Setting aside Gallagher’s historically inaccurate version of both the goal of engagement and its relative success, his diagnosis of the China threat (that the CCP seeks to “maneuver us into submission”) and his prescription for dealing with it risk even greater “mistakes” than those he attributes to U.S. engagement with Beijing. The mistakes that his approach risks include escalating U.S.-China hostility, inviting another cold war (or worse), and thwarting U.S.-China cooperation on a wide range of global issues—which most of the rest of the world is eager to see.
The Biden administration is risking some of the same mistakes. In his State of the Union speech, Biden said “we seek competition, not conflict” with China. Various administration officials have now incorporated this into the policy mantra. But we need not, and did not, seek competition with China; it has inevitably been thrust upon us. While girding for the competition, what Washington needs to actively seek is cooperation and dialogue: sustained diplomatic interaction with Beijing, whether we choose to call it “engagement” or not. If the bipartisan consensus on China adopts both the select committee’s characterization of the threat and its strictly confrontational approach to dealing with it, U.S.-China relations are going to keep getting worse before there is a chance for them to get better.
Paul Heer is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).