The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The ‘long duel’ between the U.S. and China is escalating

Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi speaks at U.S.-China talks in Anchorage last week. (Frederic J. Brown/Pool via AP)

If, as seems likely after the exchange of insults between Chinese and American diplomats in Anchorage on Thursday, confrontation continues and indeed escalates between the Chinese Communist Party and the United States, American politics will return to contours not seen since the end of the Cold War.

Last week’s collision between China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan had one great advantage. It makes it much more likely that the engagement-appeasement instincts of the Obama years are strangled in the cradle in the Biden administration. President Xi Jinping, the CCP’s iron-fisted leader, has pushed the party to ratchet up its demands and further exploit the pandemic it helped unleash on the world through negligence and coverup.

As described in Post columnist Josh Rogin’s brilliant new book “Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi and the Battle for the 21st Century,” the CCP has let the mask slip (or be torn off) during the Trump years. There is now no denying the genocide of the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, the brutal repression of freedom in Hong Kong, the government’s massive and sinister influence operations aimed at U.S. institutions and international organizations, its tech war waged via stealth and theft, and its vast military buildup. The clash in Alaska is of a piece with this rapidly accelerating bullying across the globe. Anyone who reads Rogin’s book will experience what he terms an “awakening” as to the reality of a Marxist-Leninist superpower on the march.

Josh Rogin: How covid hastened the decline and fall of the U.S.-China relationship

As a result, President Biden will have little choice but to carry on the policies Rogin attributes to the “hard-liners” of the Trump years. Rogin separates these serious national security specialists from two other factions: the oddball collection of wacky “super hawks” and the eager-to-please-the-CCP Wall Street gang inside and outside the Trump White House. The “whole of society” approach — uniting all levels of government with allies, the private sector and the public against Chinese predations — that Trump-era hard-liners advocated wouldn’t have been a natural fit for former secretary of state John F. Kerry or former national security adviser Susan Rice, whose hapless “diplomacy” in the late Obama years is skewered by Rogin. But Biden simply can’t retreat now in the face of Chinese aggressions. He will have to stand up not just for Japan, Australia and India — our “Quad” allies — but also for Taiwan and an expanded U.S. Navy. Anchorage should set the stage for all that will now follow.

The rising conflict also affects the GOP. Would-be presidential nominees who bring legitimate national security credentials to the table will find themselves at a significant advantage in a campaign already begun. That’s a small group including former vice president Mike Pence, former secretary of state and CIA director Mike Pompeo, and Senate Intelligence Committee members Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). (Three former ambassadors, Richard Grenell, Nikki Haley and Robert C. O’Brien, are also in the hard-liners camp and have been reported to be mulling runs for the White House.)

If China’s aggression becomes the issue of first importance, though, Republican governors who hope to run in 2024 have one card to play: Congress has just gifted them billions of no-strings-attached dollars in the vast stimulus bill. As Rogin details, conflict with China requires massive U.S. investment in artificial intelligence and quantum computing, as well as hardening cyber and power networks in every region of the country. Returning supply chains to the United States, increasing industrial capacity and investing in shipyards in need of rebuilding (and the manufacturing that supports them) are all projects that savvy governors can embrace. Red-state governors who direct their recovery dollars to dual purpose investments that serve their states’ and the country’s “whole of society” approach to the CCP will lessen the gap between themselves and their credentialed rivals.

The “long duel” with the CCP has been out in the open since a series of speeches in the latter half of the Trump era, beginning with an address from Pence in October 2019 and ending with one from Pompeo last July with the birthplace and grave of Richard Nixon as his symbolic backdrop. (Disclosure: Pompeo delivered his speech at the invitation of the Richard Nixon Foundation, of which I am president and CEO.) Pompeo finished a months-long roll back of 30 years of illusory “win-win” approaches to China with the terse admonition regarding the Communists in Beijing who one-upped even Ronald Reagan’s sturdy Cold War diplomacy by modifying Reagan’s “trust but verify” admonition about the Soviets into Pompeo’s formulation for the CCP: “Distrust and verify.” Anyone who reads Rogin’s book will need little proof of the wisdom of the adage, given the genocide in Xinjiang, the repression of Hong Kong and the coverup in Wuhan. It is later than you think, and America’s edge is narrower than it has ever been.

Read more:

Fred Hiatt: China might be right about America. But what are its leaders so afraid of?

The Post’s View: One simple reason U.S.-China relations are bad: Beijing’s hostage-taking

The Post’s View: The Biden team began exactly the reset we need on China

David Ignatius: China is convinced America is in decline. Biden has a chance to change that.

Max Boot: After a contentious meeting, there are six things Biden must do to counter China’s rise