HIMES: A Better Way to Think about China

By Jim Himes, US Congressman Representing Connecticut’s Fourth District

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s trip to China is an opportunity for Congress to step up its game on more intelligently addressing the strategic problem of our generation: how to work with China on areas of deep common interest even as we challenge its dangerous and destabilizing behavior. Today’s angry saber-rattling is insufficient and dangerous.

Since the Trump administration, it has become bipartisan orthodoxy that China is at the root of many of America’s ills. Members of Congress compete to sound hawkish on China, trotting out stale Cold War analogies and thinking of ever more detailed ways to isolate 1.4 billion people. Congress is planning for conflict without considering the global devastation and tragedy such a conflict would cause. The talk may be of deterrence — to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, to bellicose activity in the South China Sea, to continued cybercrime and IP theft — but deterrence can look a lot like preparation for war, which is a perspective we need to understand.

China, of course, bears real responsibility for deteriorating relations. Its provocative overflight of the continental U.S. with a surveillance balloon and the daily aggressive acts by its Air Force and Navy intensify long-held anger over its pilfering of intellectual property, its abuse of its Uighur minority and its ham-fisted repression of political dissidents. China’s establishment of a “no limits partnership” with Putin’s murderous regime raises profound questions about how it will use its superpower status in the future.

The trick for Congress is to moderate its pugnacity with an appreciation for how critically intertwined we are with China, particularly economically. This fact is what makes Cold War analogies so foolish. The Soviet Union was never meaningfully integrated into the world’s economy. In contrast, last year the US and China set a new record for trade, totaling $690 billion. If that trade were eliminated, the shock to our economies in terms of unemployment and inflation would exceed that of the Covid era. Our allies are even more enmeshed. Germany, so critical to economic stability in Europe and the campaign to support Ukraine, is China’s largest trading partner.

Neither should we lose sight of the hideous human tragedy that would be loosed in a military conflict with China. The real possibility of bombed cities, sunken aircraft carriers, downed pilots and tens of thousands of casualties, and the potential use of nuclear weapons should temper bellicosity on both sides. This is a moment for statesmanship.

Following Secretary Blinken’s visit, I believe there are several steps members of Congress could take to reduce the dangerous risk of miscalculation or thoughtless drift into conflict.

First, we must make it amply clear to China that we do not wish to roll back its economic progress or to deny it the respect and privileges due a sovereign nation, and especially to a nuclear armed global power.  Whatever one thinks of the means used to achieve it, Chinese economic progress has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty and turned them into customers for America’s products and services. This unprecedented growth benefits the people of China and generates jobs, exports and prosperity on an international scale.

It’s common to say that our quarrel is with the Chinese Communist Party, not with the Chinese people. We should add that while we will guard against economic predation and the development of advanced aggressive capabilities for China’s military, we cheer the enrichment of the Chinese people and the economic opportunities thus generated.

We should applaud, not denigrate, the Chinese brokering of a diplomatic understanding between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US cannot and should not be the only global leader responsible for addressing the world’s trouble spots. We should use this Chinese initiative to drive home the point that we support China when it acts reasonably and responsibly to buttress a rules-based international system or to dampen dangerous flashpoints.

Second, the best response to China’s predatory belt-and-road initiative is to recommit ourselves to economic engagement in those regions of the world, particularly Africa, Latin America, and the Indo-Pacific, where we have been long absent. When we won’t even fill ambassadorships in these regions, much less promote trade and investment, we send a signal that the Chinese are the only game in town.

We should offer soft-power engagement to those accustomed to seeing Americans primarily in a security capacity. The State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs has multiple initiatives intended to build academic, economic, and cultural relationships around the globe. We should expand programs like these, and grow new ones in spaces where the United States excels. We could establish cyber centers of excellence, so our partners are prepared when they face ransomware attacks; address the STEM shortage in the developing world; and facilitate public-private partnerships to connect startups in the US with organizations and governments abroad. 

Third, we must double down on remaining the global leader in technology and innovation. China is a peer competitor in innovation, but it has neither the educational institutions, the start-up culture nor the deep capital markets enjoyed by the US. We must nurture these advantages even as China self-sabotages by attacking multinationals and native businesses and their leaders inside China. Congress can help in this endeavor, building on last year’s bipartisan CHIPS Act, which has spurred new investment in advanced semiconductors. We should demonstrate that our prosperity and China’s is best served by open, rules-based cooperative engagement in almost every sphere.

Finally, we should build on Secretary Blinken’s trip to re-establish lines of communication at every level. When the next balloon mishap occurs, it should not take days to get military commanders and diplomats together to take down the temperature and prevent misunderstanding. Political leaders and civil society should take the time to understand the point of view of our Chinese counterparts and adversaries. Understanding is not the same as agreeing.

There is of course much that China must do to calm the waters. Military flexing and diplomatic belligerence, however rooted in some sense of historical grievance, serve no purpose but to increase suspicions and the likelihood of a deadly mistake. At heart, China must recognize that its future prosperity and power lies not in destabilization and belligerence, but in principled engagement, fair trade, and global stability. Those are our interests as well, and Congress would do well to keep them in mind.