Why Can’t Democrats Explain Themselves on China?


ap poll biden china 22065

Vigorous competition would be a healthy version of a U.S.-China relationship, he said. But he did not sound convinced that Biden’s catch phrase fully addressed the status quo, since a competitor like the People’s Republic of China can become an “adversary” if they break the rules to win.

“We have to protect our interests and we have to protect our values,” Krishnamoorthi said, even as “our businesses and our supply chain are interdependent with the business and technological ecosystem within the PRC.”

Krishnamoorthi and a small group of Democrats will bring that layered worldview to the select committee when it holds its debut hearing on Tuesday. Conceived by the new Republican House majority and approved by a bipartisan vote as a wide-ranging investigative body, the committee is also a crucial opportunity for Democrats to explain their perspective on China for the American people.

Up to this point, they have ceded too much of the political discourse on China to the right.

If both parties agree that China poses a uniquely complex threat, only one has made it a daily obsession. Across the GOP’s warring factions, the Chinese Communist Party is a menace that nearly all can agree to despise; lawmakers voice that sentiment in sober floor speeches and frothing rants on Newsmax. The challenge for levelheaded Republicans on the select committee, led by Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, will be keeping the paranoid right from overwhelming their work.

An important job for Democrats will be clarifying their own policies with a message that makes sense to regular people.

Krishnamoorthi, a 49-year-old lawyer who is also a senior member of the intelligence committee, is sensitive to the task. He said he consulted veterans of the Jan. 6 committee about their methods of commanding public attention, with an eye toward using witness testimony and multimedia to engage a mass audience. In his Chicago-area district, Krishnamoorthi said he encounters many constituents alarmed by China’s human rights abuses, underhanded economic tactics and militancy toward Taiwan. But few voters can shape that swirling fog of concern into a coherent picture.

That fog emanates, in part, from the White House.

To people following his policies closely, Biden’s China strategy is clear enough. He has imposed painful restrictions on China’s tech sector and pressured European allies to do the same. He has deepened military alliances with China’s neighbors and promised to supply Australia with nuclear submarines to strengthen its defenses. His administration is weighing new limits on American investment in the Chinese economy. It is an approach aimed at forcefully undermining Chinese power while leaving some room for dialogue on matters of shared concern, like climate change and the war in Ukraine.

But Biden has neglected the job of articulating all that to voters in plain English. He has explained one policy at a time, but he has not defined a bigger picture that is clearer than “competition, not conflict.”

Sometimes that verbiage is risibly inadequate, like when Kamala Harris told my colleague Eugene Daniels, after the Air Force downed the spy balloon and the secretary of state canceled a trip to Beijing, that nothing needed to change in U.S.-China relations.

“We seek competition, but not conflict or confrontation,” Harris insisted. Those tumultuous events, she said, were “very consistent with our stated approach.”

On some subjects, that “stated approach” has been cryptic. Over and over, Biden has pledged to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack. He did so at a news conference in Japan, in an interview with 60 Minutes and in a town hall on CNN. But every time, Biden’s advisers have walked back his comments under cover of anonymity. “Strategic ambiguity” is fine as policy-planning jargon, but Americans deserve to know whether there is a good chance of open war with a nuclear power inside this decade. They might reasonably expect to have some say in the matter.

Then there was Biden’s “Fawlty Towers” moment in the State of the Union speech: the outburst that reminded me of nothing more than John Cleese’s sitcom hotelier losing it before a group of German guests he was determined not to offend. Biden followed his script for a while, enunciating tight phrases about resolute competition with China (don’t mention the new Cold War!) until the polite façade collapsed. Like Basil Fawlty breaking into a flamboyant goose-step, Biden erupted in a shouted taunt: “Name me a world leader who would change places with Xi Jinping! Name me one!

What were Americans meant to draw from that?

There are occasional moments of piercing clarity when people close to Biden shed the opaque language of diplomacy. An example came last week when on a conference call with several columnists the secretary of commerce, Gina Raimondo, described the strategic imperative to make the United States a tech-manufacturing superpower.

On the call, Raimondo urged a “national mobilization” to build America’s semiconductor industry into a global force. After she invoked America’s World War II-era drive for nuclear technology and the Space Race of the 1960s, I pointed out that those happened in the context of America facing off against evil empires. Should Americans understand the semiconductor campaign in similar terms?

“That is the point,” Raimondo answered. “We want the American people to make that link, because that’s the reality.”

She predicted: “There’s going to be two separate tech ecosystems: one led by America with our allies, consistent with our values of openness, transparency, respect for human rights — and another.”

I guess the lesson is: If you want a picture of the future, ask a member of the cabinet.

Biden’s China strategy would probably make for good politics if Americans understood it. Yet it has mostly existed in a space outside politics — in a world of policy memoranda and formal strategy documents and distant events like the Munich Security Conference. As it is, a sizable majority of the country disapproves of how he is handling relations with China: 58 percent in a new AP-NORC poll.

It does not take a world-class diplomatic mind to understand why Biden would avoid giving a forthright account of his tough-on-China policies in a speech to Congress. There is a limit to the rhetorical provocations China will tolerate while maintaining even a tenuous working relationship.

But it also does not take a world-class political mind to see the perils in Biden’s coded approach.

One lesson of the Trump era was that danger lies in the gap between studied elite consensus and visceral public opinion. A policy that is smart and careful and invisible to the untrained eye cannot easily survive a brute attack from a motivated adversary. Good ideas need to be explained and defended if they are to win out over crude and offensive ones.

And when it comes to China, crude and offensive ideas abound. Look no further than the proposal in Texas to ban Chinese nationals from buying property. That is but one manifestation of an ugly, reactionary mood that continues to intensify.

That phenomenon weighs on Krishnamoorthi. The committee, he said, must shun “rhetoric that could end up being discriminatory toward Chinese-origin people or Asian-origin people.”

“That can really infect the conversation and endanger people,” he told me. “That’s what we saw, unfortunately, with President [Donald] Trump.”

There is another risk, too, in Biden leaving the full extent of his China strategy unexplained: that unwanted events could take the country by surprise. If Biden and his party aim to counter China’s power without prompting an open clash, there is always the risk that they will misjudge how far they can go. Or that China could initiate a conflict for its own reasons, regardless of their precautions.

In our conversation, Krishnamoorthi sounded most worried about a collision over Taiwan. He told me he is confident the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense and the result would be “nightmarish” for China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army.

“Suffice it to say, there are various scenarios that don’t end well for, in my opinion, the PLA and the CCP,” Krishnamoorthi said. “But it would be a horrible situation for the world.”

These are risks that Americans ought to understand. If Biden won’t explain them, it is incumbent on other Democrats — like Krishnamoorthi and Raimondo — to take up the challenge.

It is a job too important to be left up to the president.

#Democrats #Explain #China
( With inputs from : www.politico.com )

Leave a Comment