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Opinion Trump’s China hawks are loose and not wasting any time

National security adviser Robert C. O'Brien at the White House on Oct 18, 2019.
National security adviser Robert C. O'Brien at the White House on Oct 18, 2019. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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PHOENIX — As President Trump speeds toward an election during a pandemic, an economic crash and domestic unrest, he is blaming China for his and America’s troubles. With no more deals in sight, Trump’s attitude shift has freed the China hawks on his team to launch a new, widespread campaign against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its ideology.

Former national security adviser John Bolton’s book describes Trump as purely transactional and self-interested when it comes to China, willing to sell out the Uighurs or Hong Kong in exchange for soybean purchases to bolster his Midwest election prospects. But several officials say Trump has evolved on China since Bolton left, especially because of how Beijing handled the covid-19 crisis.

After the Trump administration spent three years trying to shave a couple hundred billion dollars off the trade deficit, the coronavirus pandemic has easily cost the U.S. economy several trillion dollars. Officials say Trump feels burned. Even if Beijing comes through on its purchasing promises, it won’t make a dent in the overall economic damage that could have been avoided if China had contained the virus or, at least, been honest about it.

Global Opinions writer Josh Rogin has obtained a 2018 U.S. diplomatic cable urging Washington to better support a Chinese lab researching bat coronaviruses. (Video: Josh Rogin/The Washington Post)

“We had hoped that through our sincere trade negotiations China’s overall behavior would change. It became very clear to the American people with the Wuhan virus outbreak and China’s global response, that China is not going to change its behavior,” national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien told me in an interview. “The Chinese have weaponized covid, they are trying to take advantage of this crisis to displace the United States as the leading global power.”

On Wednesday, O’Brien gave a speech in Phoenix that was among the toughest anti-CCP speeches a senior U.S. official has given. O’Brien attacked the CCP’s character as well as its actions, in stark language that harks back to Cold War times.

“America, under President Trump’s leadership, has finally awoken to the threat the Chinese Communist Party’s actions pose to our way of life,” O’Brien said in his speech.

He called the bipartisan American assumption in recent decades that China would liberalize, “the greatest failure of American foreign policy since the 1930s,” and attributed that failure to not recognizing the CCP’s basic ideology. O’Brien compared Chinese President Xi Jinping to Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, both in terms of his communist Marxist-Leninist ideology and the CCP’s determination to control every aspect of people’s lives — and not just in China.

O’Brien’s diagnosis of the CCP is not new. What’s significant is that the national security adviser to the president could make such a speech. It’s likely no coincidence he made it in the swing state of Arizona, where Trump appeared earlier the same day and used the racist term “kung flu.”

But underneath the politics, there’s much more going on.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray each will deliver their own anti-CCP speeches in the coming weeks, also likely outside Washington. Each of their agencies is working on new initiatives to push back on various Chinese bad actions throughout the summer.

Several counter-CCP operations that had been held back are now being put into effect. The State Department announced new restrictions on Chinese state-controlled media outlets, labeling them foreign missions. The State Department is finalizing steps to respond to Beijing’s assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy as other agencies review their relationships with Hong Kong. The FBI is stepping up its investigations into Chinese economic espionage and cybertheft. The Justice Department is expanding its prosecutions of researchers who secretly take CCP money through the Thousand Talents recruitment program.

Trump is planning to invite India, Australia, South Korea and maybe Brazil to join the Group of Seven countries for an expanded group meeting alongside the upcoming summit, officials said. They won’t call it a “counter-China coalition,” but that’s the idea.

The previous stark divide between the more hawkish and dovish officials on China in the administration’s senior ranks is becoming more porous. National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow joined with O’Brien when the White House directly intervened last month to stop billions in federal employees’ pensions being invested in Chinese companies.

Trump announced a new financial review committee to determine whether to ban all Chinese firms that don’t follow U.S. regulations from raising capital in our markets. The fact that it’s led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and includes Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton (a former legal adviser to Alibaba) is breeding skepticism. But if these officials try to protect China’s and Wall Street’s interests by not taking action, Trump might step in and overrule them.

Trump often mixes his personal interest and the national interest, so it’s hard for the rest of us to separate them when his administration acts. But these moves to call out the Chinese Community Party for what it is and protect ourselves from what it does — regardless of Trump’s motivations — are important and overdue.

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Read more:

Josh Rogin: Covid-19 has brought Trump’s warring China factions together

Josh Rogin: The world is waking up to the character of the Chinese Communist Party

John Pomfret: The Trump administration’s China policies are ironically bolstering Beijing

Mitt Romney: America is awakening to China. This is a clarion call to seize the moment.

The Post’s View: How China’s authoritarian system made the pandemic worse