Why can’t the Democrats explain themselves on China? Story-level
Vigorous competition would be a healthy version of a US-China relationship, he said. But he did not seem convinced that Biden’s slogan fully addressed the status quo, as a competitor like the PRC can become an “adversary” if he breaks the rules to win.
“We have to protect our interests and we have to protect our values,” Krishnamoorthi said, even as “our businesses and our supply chain are interdependent with the business and technology ecosystem within the PRC.”
Krishnamoorthi and a small group of Democrats will bring that layered worldview to the select committee when it holds its debut hearing on Tuesday. Conceived by the new House Republican majority and approved by a bipartisan vote as a wide-ranging investigative body, the committee is also a crucial opportunity for Democrats to explain their perspective on China to the American people.
To this point, they have conceded too much to the right in the political discourse on China.
If both sides agree that China poses a uniquely complex threat, only one has made it a daily obsession. Among the warring factions of the Republican Party, the Chinese Communist Party is a threat almost everyone can agree to despise; lawmakers express that sentiment in sober speeches and tirades on Newsmax. The challenge for the sensible Republicans on the select committee, led by Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, will be to keep their work from being overwhelmed by the paranoid right.
An important job for Democrats will be to clarify their own policies with a message that makes sense to ordinary people.
Krishnamoorthi, a 49-year-old lawyer who is also a senior member of the intelligence committee, is sensitive to the task. He said he consulted veterans on the Jan. 6 committee on their methods of gaining public attention, with a view to using witness testimony and multimedia to appeal to a mass audience. In his Chicago-area district, Krishnamoorthi said he encountered many voters alarmed by China’s human rights abuses, covert economic tactics and militancy toward Taiwan. But few voters can mold that swirling fog of worry into a coherent image.
That fog emanates, in part, from the White House.
For people who closely follow his policies, Biden’s China strategy is pretty clear. He has placed painful restrictions on China’s tech sector and pressured European allies to do the same. He has deepened military alliances with China’s neighbors and has promised to supply Australia with nuclear submarines to strengthen its defenses. His administration is considering new limits on US investment in the Chinese economy. It is an approach aimed at forcibly undermining Chinese power and allowing space for dialogue on issues of shared interest, such as climate change and the war in Ukraine.
But Biden has neglected the job of articulating all of that to voters in plain language. He has explained one policy at a time, but has not defined a larger picture that is clearer than “competition, not conflict.”
Sometimes that verbiage is ludicrously inappropriate, as when Kamala Harris told my colleague Eugene Daniels, after the Air Force shot down the spy balloon and the Secretary of State canceled a trip to Beijing, that nothing needed to change in relations between United States and China.
“We look for competition, but not for conflict or confrontation,” Harris insisted. Those tumultuous events, he said, were “very consistent with our stated approach.”
On some issues, that “stated approach” has been cryptic. Time and time again, Biden has vowed to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack. She did so at a press conference in Japan, in an interview with 60 Minutes, and at a town hall on CNN. But each time, Biden’s aides have retracted his comments under the cover of anonymity. “Strategic ambiguity” is fine for policy-planning jargon, but Americans deserve to know if there’s a good chance of outright war with a nuclear power within this decade. They might reasonably expect to have a say in the matter.
Then there was Biden’s “Fawlty Towers” moment in the State of the Union address: the outburst that reminded me of nothing more than the hotelier from John Cleese’s sitcom losing his head to a group of German guests he was determined not to offend. Biden followed his script for a while, spouting tough phrases about resolute competition with China (don’t mention the new Cold War!) until the polite facade came crashing down. Like Basil Fawlty taking an extravagant goose-step, Biden erupted in a derisive cry: “Name me a world leader who would trade places with Xi Jinping! Name me one!”
What were the Americans supposed to get out of it?
There are occasional moments of piercing clarity when those close to Biden shed the opaque language of diplomacy. One example came last week when in a conference call with several columnists, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo outlined the strategic imperative of turning the United States into a tech-manufacturing superpower.
In the call, Raimondo called for a “national mobilization” to turn the US semiconductor industry into a global force. After she invoked the World War II-era push for US nuclear technology and the 1960s space race, I pointed out that this happened in the context of the United States facing off against empires. of evil Should Americans understand the semiconductor campaign in similar terms?
“That’s the point,” Raimondo replied. “We want the American people to make that link, because that’s the reality.”
She predicted: “There will be two separate tech ecosystems: one led by the United States with our allies, consistent with our values of openness, transparency, respect for human rights, and another.”
I guess the lesson is: if you want a picture of the future, ask a cabinet member.
Biden’s China strategy would probably be good policy if Americans understood it. However, it has existed primarily in a space outside of politics, in a world of formal policy memos and strategy documents and distant events like the Munich Security Conference. As it is, a large majority of the country disapproves of how it is handling relations with China: 58 percent in a new AP-NORC poll.
It doesn’t take a world-class diplomatic mind to understand why Biden would avoid giving a direct account of his heavy-handed China policies in a speech to Congress. There is a limit to the rhetorical provocations that China will tolerate while maintaining even a tenuous working relationship.
But it also doesn’t take a world-class political mind to see the dangers of Biden’s coded approach.
One lesson from the Trump era was that the danger lay in the gap between the studied elite consensus and visceral public opinion. An intelligent, careful, and invisible to the untrained eye policy cannot easily survive a brutal attack by a motivated adversary. Good ideas need to be explained and defended if they are to trump crude and offensive ones.
And when it comes to China, crude and offensive ideas abound. Look no further than a proposal in Texas to ban Chinese citizens from buying property. That’s just one manifestation of a nasty, reactionary mood that continues to escalate.
That phenomenon weighs on Krishnamoorthi. The committee, he said, must avoid “rhetoric that could end up being discriminatory towards people of Chinese or Asian origin.”
“That can really infect the conversation and endanger people,” he told me. “That is what we saw, unfortunately, with the president [Donald] Triumph.”
There is also another risk that Biden leaves the full scope of his China strategy unexplained: that unintended events could catch the country by surprise. If Biden and his party seek to counter the power of China without provoking an open confrontation, there is always the risk that they will misjudge how far they can go. Or that China could start a conflict for its own reasons, regardless of its precautions.
In our conversation, Krishnamoorthi seemed more concerned about a collision in Taiwan. He told me that he is confident that the United States would come to the defense of Taiwan and that the result would be a “nightmare” for the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army.
“Suffice to say that there are several scenarios that, in my opinion, do not end well for the PLA and the CCP,” Krishnamoorthi said. “But it would be a horrible situation for the world.”
These are risks that Americans need to understand. If Biden doesn’t spell them out, it’s up to other Democrats, like Krishnamoorthi and Raimondo, to take up the challenge.
It’s too important a job to leave to the president.