A Policy Agenda for Strategic Competition with China
After much anticipation, the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party held its inaugural hearing on February 28. Chaired by Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI), the bipartisan committee demonstrated a high degree of top-line consensus on concerns about the power and influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), both here in the United States and around the globe.
Given its exclusive focus on China, it is in a privileged position to move the policy debate onto more prioritized, specific, and, ultimately, impactful terrain. The increasingly negative views of China amongst the American public, shaped in no small part by Beijing’s increasingly illiberal politics at home and aggressive foreign policy abroad, mean that the committee comes into being with a clear mandate and one that it should use to find effective means to improve U.S. national competitiveness and counter those aspects of Beijing’s behavior that run counter to U.S. interests. Even where disagreements occur over China strategy, and they surely do, there are a number of key areas where there is common ground the committee can capitalize on.
Yet, while the consensus is real, there are several points the committee might consider as it looks to future hearings.
First, Chairman Mike Gallagher used his opening remarks to raise the stakes on the bilateral relationship to an “existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century.” While it is undeniable that Beijing’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons poses a specific and potential existential threat, the adoption of this framing for the overall “strategic competition” will likely alienate many who share concerns over Beijing’s behavior, but who do not see the relationship through such an apocalyptic lens. This caution is most evident when talking to our closest allies and partners, none of whom have an appetite for a rivalry premised on the total defeat of one side or the other.
Second, in its totality, the overall tone of the hearing painted a picture of an America that was weak in the face of CCP power and resolve. When members of Congress call the CCP the “threat of our lifetime,” they are, inadvertently, bolstering Beijing’s own propaganda narratives that “the East is rising while the West is declining.” Moving forward, it will be important for the committee to strike the right rhetorical balance between confidence in U.S. resilience, power, and international influence with concern over areas where Beijing is either catching up or overtaking the United States. Indeed, one of the best things the United States can do to bolster its deterrence of Beijing is to both speak and act with genuine confidence.
Finally, against the backdrop of rising anti-Asian racism and violence, the committee has the potential to become a leader in discussing the challenge presented by the influence activities of the CCP and its United Front Work Department with precision and clarity. If the discussion on the important topic is not approached with the utmost care and specificity, it will almost certainly contribute to a hostile political climate for U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and visitors of Asian descent. The public questioning of Representative Judy Chu’s (D-CA) patriotic loyalties is just the latest example of what can occur when the brush strokes of “Chinese influence” is too wide. There are also troubling signs that the national-level discourse is impacting local politics, with the Texas Senate Bill 147 seeking to ban Chinese citizens from purchasing land, irrespective of evidence of wrongdoing.
Looking forward, the committee might consider four possible pillars around which to shape an agenda of research and hearings. Pushing a serious debate about how to address gaps in U.S. power and influence, while creating a smart and enduring strategy for addressing the many challenges Beijing poses to the liberal international order, could go a long way to better positioning the United States for its long strategic competition with China.
- Talent and Innovation
- How can the United States develop and attract talent to boost its national competitiveness?
- What investments need to be made to the existing workforce to prepare it for the industries of the future?
- What reforms need to be made to the education system (university, high school, but also K-12) to better prepare students to enter STEM fields?
- What role can subnational governments play in building innovation ecosystems?
- What reforms need to be made to the immigration system to better facilitate talent inflows?
- Peace and Security in the Indo-Pacific
- How does the United States respond to Beijing’s gray zone pressure tactics against Taiwan, and across the Indo-Pacific more broadly?
- What is the best way to sustainably deter Beijing from attacking Taiwan? Are there credible nonmilitary tools the United States and other like-minded countries can bring to bear?
- Are there new types of security architecture that would allow the United States to deepen its engagement with partners and allies?
- What investments and reforms does the U.S. military need to make to better position itself for the challenges of the next 10 to 20 years?
- Democratic and Economic Resilience
- What is the most effective way to respond to China’s robust tool kit of economic coercion?
- What is the most effective way for the United States and other affected countries to respond to the CCP’s overseas influence activities? How can this response minimize the negative impact on innocent Americans, permanent residents, and visitors?
- Recognizing the realities of partisan politics, are there ways, nonetheless, for the United States to strengthen and improve the credibility of its democratic institutions?
- How can the committee move beyond the old “decoupling” debate to offer a new framework for economic relations with China that squares both economic and national security realities?
- Shared Global Challenges
- How can the United States bolster the resilience and effectiveness of existing multilateral institutions? How can it lead conversations on new global governance architecture?
- Where and how can the United States help other countries respond to, and adapt, to the growing number of challenges around economic development, public health, and climate change?
- How can the United States better exploit its economic heft to improve its influence in the Global South (and, by extension, limit or constrain Beijing’s)?
These are just a small sampling of the themes and questions the committee might take up in the coming months. For most of these questions, there is not yet a settled path forward, even though there is broad agreement that they need answering. In this, the committee comes into being at a critical juncture and, if it shapes its agenda correctly, can truly position the United States for success in its strategic competition with China.
Note: On a recent airing of the Sinica podcast, I was discussing what I felt was a normalization of innuendo and imprecision in conversations on influence operations conducted by the CCP’s United Front Work Department, which, I believe, will potentially contribute to a further rise in Anti-Asian racism and violence. In the moment, without adequate forethought or consideration, I compared this to some of the classic tropes of anti-Semitism, which have been used to suggest hidden Jewish influence over world affairs. This was the wrong analogy and an offensive one too. A key difference is that Chinese influence operations under the United Front are real, whereas anti-Semitism is grounded in baseless hate. My intention had been to raise awareness about Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) violence, not to minimize anti-Semitism, which I abhor and condemn, but that doesn’t excuse the mistake. I apologize for any offense I caused.
Jude Blanchette holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.