The 2020s are now calling for a new foreign policy to deal with a cold war that’s been going on for a decade.
During the final debate of the 2012 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia, not al Qaeda, the greatest geopolitical threat to the U.S. The media swooned after Mr. Obama quipped: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” As war rages in Ukraine, Mr. Romney’s answer looks prescient and Mr. Obama’s critique petty. Yet in truth, both men were wrong.
America’s greatest geopolitical threat, then and now, is the Chinese Communist Party. Under Hu Jintao the party had already launched a new cold war against the West in 2012, initiating the Scarborough Shoal crisis as part of its systematic militarization of the South China Sea. The Chinese were also stealing hundreds of billions of dollars in American intellectual property and trade secrets in what National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander called “the greatest transfer of wealth in human history.” If you had asked Mr. Hu or his predecessors to name the biggest geopolitical threat facing China, they wouldn’t have hesitated to say the U.S. Since 2012, the Communist Party threat has grown more acute, as has the risk of war with China over Taiwan, a war that has the potential to make previous world wars look restrained.
Yet how the U.S. deters war with China in the short term and wins the new cold war in the long term has received little attention as a 2024 campaign issue, in part because of publicity surrounding the endless stream of indictments against Donald Trump. The country needs a real, substantive presidential debate on China policy. The Republican candidates who show up in Milwaukee this week have an opportunity to differentiate themselves on the threat from China.
Americans need to know where they stand on at least three pressing issues. First, TikTok, which is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, is close to becoming the dominant media company in the U.S. This is untenable. Imagine if in 1961, right before the Cuban Missile Crisis, we had allowed Pravda and the KGB to purchase the
New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC and NBC. The Biden administration withdrew Mr. Trump’s August 2020 executive order banning TikTok. Legislative action has stalled in part because the company has spent millions lobbying Congress. The debate moderators should ask candidates whether they would ban TikTok, and how exactly they intend to succeed where prior efforts failed.
Second, as a recently launched investigation by the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party has revealed, Wall Street is funneling U.S. capital into Chinese companies on at least six different U.S. government blacklists. Americans’ retirement plans may well be funding Chinese stealth jet fighters, aircraft carriers, artillery shells and even advanced nuclear technology. The Republican Party is divided on how to regulate outbound capital flows, with some favoring few restrictions or simple transparency measures and others arguing to force state and local pension funds and university endowments to stop investing in China. The presidential candidates should be asked: How can we stop Wall Street from putting American service members in danger, subsidizing our own destruction, and funding the Communist Party’s genocide in Xinjiang?
Third, how can we prevent World War III? Congress has made building a 355-battleship Navy “as soon as practicable” official U.S. policy. Yet the Biden administration’s plan would cut the Navy to 280 ships by 2027, the date Xi Jinping has told his military to be ready to take Taiwan. The American military is also now dealing with an unprecedented recruiting crisis. Meanwhile, Beijing has embarked on the largest peacetime naval buildup in history. China now boasts the largest fleet in the world and is on track to field a 400-ship navy by 2025. Mr. Xi has repeatedly stated his desire to take Taiwan “by force if necessary.” Perhaps the most important question any debate moderator can ask: What will the candidates do to deter Mr. Xi from invading Taiwan in the near term and to rebuild the U.S. military in the long term?
The best policies to address the Chinese Communist Party’s threat to the U.S. and promote peace in the Indo-Pacific will determine who passes the commander-in-chief test. For Republican candidates struggling in Mr. Trump’s shadow, this is their best opportunity to differentiate themselves. Mr. Biden remains blinded by his party’s belief that climate change, not China, is the biggest geopolitical threat facing the U.S. As a result, his administration is reviving diplomatic and economic engagement with China as a core pillar of American grand strategy. This approach has a decadeslong record of failure.
Republicans on the debate stage should state an alternative grounded in the lessons of recent history as well as a realistic assessment of how Marxist-Leninist regimes respond to appeasement. The Republican presidential nominee should understand the threat the Chinese Communist Party poses to America and be able to articulate it. The nominee must tout the superiority of the American system and why, after we get our act together, freedom will be the victor.
Mr. Gallagher, a Republican, represents Wisconsin’s Eighth Congressional District and is chairman of the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party.
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Appeared in the August 22, 2023, print edition as ‘GOP Candidates Need to Talk About China’.