Their effort is controversial both due to the message and the messengers. A concerted pushback against Beijing is long overdue. But their effort runs the risk of politicizing what should be a unified national effort.
The leaders of Committee on the Present Danger: China include Reagan administration official Frank Gaffney and former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, and its members include several former defense and intelligence officials. They are sounding an alarm about the China threat and framing the U.S.-China relationship as an existential struggle between two civilizations that have irreconcilably opposed plans for the world order.
According to this new group, the United States has no choice but to make the containment and eventual ending of Chinese Communist Party rule the premier mission of U.S. foreign policy — essentially engaging in a new Cold War.
Gaffney is often accused of being an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist. Bannon is an unabashed champion for far-right populism inside the United States and abroad. Both are fervent supporters of President Trump. At the committee’s first policy roundtable Tuesday, Gaffney referenced the history of the committee, which campaigned against communism in the 1950s and 1970s.
“At that particular moment, there was something called the Evil Empire,” Gaffney said, adding that the committee helped form a national policy “which, in due course, did bring down a totalitarian communist regime that sought the destruction of this country and the enslavement of the rest of the world.”
That is the model that the new committee seeks to emulate, Gaffney said.
“If you draw the comparison with the Cold War, we are right now in the moment just before [U.S. diplomat George] Kennan wrote the Long Telegram,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich said at the event. “We haven’t had a wake-up call, we don’t understand what the problem is, we don’t understand what the scale of the response is going to have to be. And we are losing.”
The idea that the United States and China are engaged in a great-power struggle for global preeminence is not new. Vice President Pence told me in November that we risk entering a new Cold War and that China must change its behavior to avoid that scenario. Many have since echoed this view.
On Tuesday, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan told Fox News that China is the No. 1 threat to the United States economically, diplomatically and militarily. “It’s a world we need to confront,” he said.
The Committee on the Present Danger: China is taking the idea to a new level in two respects. First, it is calling for broad disengagement with China on economic and diplomatic matters and essentially rejecting the idea of negotiating an accommodation with the current regime in Beijing. “There is no hope of coexistence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the country,” states one of its guiding principles.
Secondly, although on its website the group identifies as “non-partisan” and says it “takes no ideological point of view” and seeks only a facts-based examination to educate the American people, several speakers could not resist injecting their political agendas.
Gingrich blamed a lack of public awareness of the China threat on the “infantile nature of the current news media” and the “academic left.” He also promised to resurrect the effort of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was formed to root out fascist and communist sympathizers in the mid-20th century.
Bannon, who gave the keynote speech, attacked the “globalist elite” and the “party of Davos” for supporting the Xi Jinping regime and argued that Trump’s populist, anti-establishment revolution is part of the U.S. response to the China threat.
“What Donald Trump is reinforcing is the Westphalian system,” Bannon said. “These are two systems that are incompatible. One side is going to win, one side is going to lose.”
Two GOP lawmakers spoke at the event, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), but no Democrats. If the committee is correct that this is the most important threat our country has ever faced, a more bipartisan, less politicized approach is in order, said Joshua Eisenman, assistant professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, who attended the event.
“The speakers are right that this is a ‘systems battle’ and that China is the United States’ principal foreign adversary and a threat to the liberal international order,” he said. “But that is precisely why we must resist the urge to politicize our China policy and instead build a broad bipartisan coalition to confront China’s interference at home and an international coalition to constrain it abroad.”
Many members of the committee are serious scholars, former officials and experts who feel their long records as China hawks are being vindicated as the Communist Party’s behavior gets worse and worse. The committee is right to sound the alarm, and its members have real contributions to make.
But we need to have an inclusive, national debate and then marshal all willing parts of our system for a coordinated and comprehensive strategic response. The stakes are too high, and the risks too great, for anything less.