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Reforming the National Security Council to confront the China challenge

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The China challenge looms large for President-elect Biden’s national security team. As Washington prepares for the transition, it is clear that one of the Trump administration’s legacies will be its work overturning long-held assumptions about China’s so-called peaceful rise. Regrettably, policymaking entities within the government have yet to catch up with this new reality, so much so that the U.S. risks entering into this new era with a Cold War mindset, and little more than a counterterrorism toolkit. If my previous inter-Agency experience is any indication, reforming the National Security Council (NSC) to more effectively address the China threat will be key to our success.

The NSC and broader inter-Agency process have been on life support for years. The Project on National Security Reform revealed that NSC systems created before the invention of the cellphone or internet remain largely intact. Too often, the NSC’s convoluted process has been jettisoned when inconvenient, typically in response to fast moving crises. Other times, the arcane coordination structure became the source of logjam, and micromanagement. Mr. Biden and his team experienced these problems firsthand when confronting issues ranging from China’s militarization of the South China Sea to Syria and even Afghanistan. At the end of the day, sound foreign policy deliberations by presidents from both parties have often been made in spite of NSC’s process, rather than because of it.

Within the government, organizational charts matter. Beyond bestowing responsibilities, they also denote proximity to power and prioritization. What’s clear is that the China issue no longer fits neatly within the NSC’s structure. Falling under the East Asia Directorate, the organizational chart treats China as a regional, rather than transnational threat. This may have made sense in years past, when China was primarily focused on threatening its neighbors and managing internal stability. Today’s China is a different beast, as evidenced by Mr. Biden’s decision to label Chinese President Xi Jinping a “thug.” There is also no indication that Xi intends to rethink his strategy of undermining American values, undercutting Western influence, and reshaping the world order to advance China’s priorities.

It is clear that on everything from Beijing’s overseas military expansion and political interference to its debt trap diplomacy and rampant trade violations, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ambitions are not limited to East Asia. China’s COVID-19 deceptions, including its undue influence over the World Health Organization (WHO), further exemplify the transnational threat posed by China’s corruptive governance model.

What’s more, China’s military-civil fusion strategy employs Chinese firms as an extension of Beijing’s national security apparatus. Its robust efforts to establish market dominance in 5G, artificial intelligence, and other technologies demand a Western response that entails enhanced public-private partnerships which the current NSC system cannot sustain. The same applies to China’s sophisticated efforts to interfere in our political affairs and those of our allies, not to mention the risks stemming from China’s leverage over aspects of American supply chains.

Simply put, continuing to treat China like a traditional threat runs the risk of degrading our government’s ability to devise, coordinate, and execute effective countermeasures. One novel solution would be to establish a separate, multi-disciplinary NSC China Directorate responsible for overseeing both whole-of-government and whole-of-industry strategies to address the China menace. While this would disrupt traditional NSC and State Department power structures, it would be consistent with Mr. Biden’s belief that China’s strategy cuts across traditional geographic, diplomatic, economic, military, and intelligence domains.

By consolidating these functions within a single, super directorate, the White House could ensure a consistent approach to addressing Chinese activities around the world, as well as those occurring domestically. NSC meetings, say on China’s military pursuits in Africa, should be co-chaired by a China and Africa expert, ensuring that subsequent policies recognize China’s grand ambitions, as well as the regional dynamics at play. Eliminating these organizational silos should also facilitate better responses to challenges which do not lend themselves to ad hoc solutions, including the threat posed by Chinese technology companies like TikTok.

More focused NSC command and control could also help foster improved bureaucratic and messaging alignment across executive branch agencies and departments, including those not typically involved in national security decision-making but whose interests are nevertheless impacted by China’s actions.

This new operating directive should also include robust efforts to counter China’s growing influence at the UN and entities, like the World Trade Organization (WTO). Additionally, it would support broader efforts to devise economically viable industrial policies aimed at blunting China’s technological ambitions and reinvigorating American innovation.

Holding ourselves prisoner to frameworks built for a different era makes little sense. Instead, let’s design structures capable of sustaining our country through this prolonged period of tension with China. Mr. Biden has an opportunity to do just that — a new approach is needed if he is to succeed.

Craig Singleton is a national security expert and former diplomat who currently serves as an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) for its China Program. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.

Tags Debt-trap diplomacy US-China relations

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