Former President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE and his national security team accomplished more in four years to awaken America and the world to the Chinese Communist threat than did eight previous administrations over four decades.
Now, Congress is considering legislation that effectively would declare a new Cold War with China. The Strategic Competition Act, co-authored by Sens. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Spending bill faces Senate scramble Republicans raise concerns over Biden's nominee for ambassador to Germany MORE (D-N.J.) and James Risch (R-Idaho) is “an unprecedented, bipartisan effort to mobilize all United States strategic, economic and diplomatic tools … to compete effectively with the People’s Republic of China.”
It enshrines in legislative language the comprehensive bill of particulars against Beijing leveled by the Trump administration in a series of speeches led by Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceFormer Sen. Bob Dole dies at 98 Haley has 'positive' meeting with Trump Haley hits the stump in South Carolina MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoHaley has 'positive' meeting with Trump No time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Psaki: Sexism contributes to some criticism of Harris MORE. In October 2018, Pence charged that “Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence … benefit its interests in the United States [and] change the international order in their favor.”
At the Nixon Library in July 2020, Pompeo said: “America can no longer ignore the fundamental political and ideological differences between our countries, just as the [Chinese Communist Party] has never ignored them. … We must start by changing how our people and our partners perceive the Chinese Communist Party. We have to tell the truth. We can’t treat this incarnation of China as a normal country just like any other. … [T]rading with China is not like trading with a normal law-abiding nation.”
Other Trump administration officials issued specific charges against China’s multiple violations of international law and norms on human rights, economics and security. Trump himself focused on the trade issue, imposed tariffs on Chinese products, and said he wanted a “fair and reciprocal” outcome to negotiations with China. In January 2019, he announced that “China must open its market to U.S. financial services, manufacturing, agriculture and other sectors. … Without this, a deal would be unacceptable!”
The Phase 1 trade deal did not accomplish all those goals before the pandemic and the U.S. election intervened. The Biden administration retained the Trump tariffs, urging Beijing to honor its limited Phase 1 commitments and advance the more substantive trade objectives sought by Trump and his team.
The Menendez-Risch legislation almost sets up a Congress-Executive Branch contest on who can be tougher on China: “There has been no shortage of discussion in recent years about the need to reimagine our nation’s competitive posture towards China. There has, however, been a lack of results — until today.”
That minimizes the revolutionary Trump administration initiatives on trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea, intellectual property and human rights. The Biden team has mostly ratified and adopted them, while alternately weakening and strengthening some elements — the recent security and nuclear submarine collaboration with Australia and the United Kingdom was a strategic breakthrough (though Washington seriously mishandled relations with France).
Passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the legislation will help keep this administration on a responsible national security path despite the natural inclinations of Biden and his major appointees. The authors see it as “the first of what we hope will be a cascade of legislative activity for our nation to finally meet the China challenge across every dimension of power, political, diplomatic, economic, innovation, military and even cultural.”
But it will take far more than a flood of new laws to meet the hydra-headed Chinese threat to the entire international system. The bill accurately describes Beijing’s goal as more ambitious than merely matching America’s economic and military might: “The PRC is reshaping the current international order, which is built upon the rule of law and free and open ideals and principles, by conducting global information and influence operations.”
To cope with the breadth of China’s existential challenge, America and like-minded countries must mount the kind of moral and ideological fervor — or at least awareness — that saw the Free World through the Cold War. But Beijing aims to keep the international community constantly off-balance and diverted from mustering a unified defense by pressing its advantage directly within Western countries.
As the bill warns, “The PRC is promoting its governance model and attempting to weaken other models of governance by undermining democratic institutions … and using disinformation to disguise the nature of the actions.”
That battle is now very much in the balance, and clearly winnable with the right exertion of vision and will from U.S. leaders and common sense and patience from the American people. But it will mean the political left and right in this country — and elsewhere in the West — must resist the allure of easy, often hate-filled, appeals from their own extremists who, wittingly or unwittingly, serve the purposes of foreign powers.
Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang know they cannot defeat the United States, separately or together, but they believe America can defeat itself by perverting its perceived strengths into self-generated weakness — when diversity and dissent become irreparable division, freedom of speech becomes an avenue of visceral attack, political rivals become mortal enemies, and each side sees the other as threatening the very survival of the republic. Foreign disinformation campaigns foster precisely such domestic distortions.
Republican and Democratic leaders must not allow external enemies to turn Americans against each other. Irresponsible and corrosive rhetoric by political leaders on both sides fosters distrust of U.S. institutions and rends the fabric of American society.
Trump is the most visible participant and target in this dangerous turn of events. Victimized during his entire presidency by false narratives alleging foreign meddling in his campaign and administration, Trump delivered his own fusillade of accusations against political opponents. Both sides went beyond the normal hurly-burly of American politics and recklessly chose to erode the people’s faith in the institutions that sustain our system of governance. This is dangerous territory and opens the door to intervention by America’s true enemies, who watch gleefully as Americans tear themselves and their system apart.
As a former president with tens of millions of followers, Trump has a special obligation to speak and act responsibly and with due regard for how his words and actions are perceived not only by Americans but by friends and adversaries around the world. He seems oblivious, for example, to the shocking effect of his recent statement suggesting that until the results of the November election are somehow reversed and he is magically returned to office, Americans should not participate in future elections. That is an abandonment of democracy and weakens the nation against the China threat his administration worked so effectively to counter. Hopefully, he will reconsider his approach and his opponents will do the same.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.