Discover more from Breaking Beijing
Where Did All the China Hawks Go?
The Consensus is Gone
For a solid two-ish years, we really had a good thing going. If it wasn’t Congress pressing the administration to actually sanction the CCP, fund Pacific operations, and pour concrete, all the while traveling to Taipei under feckless threat of war by the PLA, it was POTUS himself declaring that the US would defend Taiwan on three separate occasions. The John Kerry-types were drowned out by the more rational hawks on the NSC, and the House set up the bipartisan Counter-CCP Committee under Chairman Mike Gallagher. Meanwhile the CCP struggled internally as zero-Covid failed and led to mass protests, Xi felt the need to purge the PLA and others, their economy and birth rates tumbled, and their best friend Russia launched a war that ruined what was supposedly a model fighting force. There were plenty of policy fights, both public and private, and we certainly didn’t get everything we wanted, but we were making more progress in those two years than we had in the twenty prior. For a short time, it was a bipartisan policy to stand up to the CCP. Unfortunately, in the last few months it has become a bipartisan policy to avoid championing such a cause with any sort of vigor and seriousness. Both red and blue have become fragmented by competing interests from commerce and security to isolationism and overconfidence. The House sits in shambles as a result of a GOP civil war, the various departments of the Biden administration are running competing and often contradictory China policies, and candidates on the 2024 campaign trail can’t do enough to deflect from questions on China policy and pivot to whatever insane ideas ChatGPT invented for them. If we continue down this path, we are in danger of squandering all that we have worked for to fight the CCP, and risk ceding the near-term advantage back to a PRC that itself is struggling internally but certainly not out of the fight.
Thanks for reading Breaking Beijing! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
A Turn Towards Isolationism
Let’s start with Congress, specifically the House. We all knew it would end like this: Kevin McCarthy ejected from the Speakership, the inmates running the asylum, and the national security wing of the GOP at risk of being permanently drowned out by isolationist, bigoted culture warriors more interested in being friends with Putin and bombing Mexico than they are actually defending freedom on the world stage. A lot of focus in the House has been on Ukraine aid, which is in itself important to a strong national security and China policy, but left out of it is the shifting power politics concerning the influence of the Counter-CCP committee and hawks in general. The Speaker Pro Tem is no fan of the committee’s outbound investment restrictions, and it’s unclear if Speaker frontrunners Reps. Steve Scalise or Jim Jordan are remotely interested in actually focusing on a serious foreign policy as opposed to perpetuating the culture war cycle and budget cuts championed by the House Freedom Caucus. This is after the HAC-D zeroed out funding for certain critical missile systems for the Pacific, and last spring’s budget negotiations capped and cut (in real-dollars) defense spending for the next two years. The Senate will undoubtedly strip some of the House’s more radical suggestions out, but they’re struggling to govern themselves with many of the same competing interests and party-internal divides.
Regardless of the CCP Committee’s fate, the real future of our foreign policy rests in Ukraine aid and the war itself. A victory for the Pro-Putin isolationists will only provide them momentum, and when the time comes to help Taiwan, the CCP will undoubtedly play the Putin influence playbook, and isolationists who’ve been quiet on Taiwan will suddenly start arguing against coming to Taiwan’s aid. You can already see that on the campaign trail which I’ll get to in a moment, and from certain “hawkish” pundits who are more interested in punishing our allies like Taiwan for not marching in lockstep with us than actually defending them. That’s how the anti-NATO sentiment under Trump began, and then quickly pivoted to adoration of the Putin regime. That is my real fear. And I suspect that, going forward, every administration is going to be fragmented by various interests with regards to the CCP in the same ways we are seeing today across the Legislative and Executive branches, instead of red vs blue.
A Fragmented Administration
Last year, I championed (with some critiques) the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy. A year later, some parts of the administration are full steam ahead and others have charted their own course. The Commerce and Treasury Departments seem more interested in investing in the PRC and minimizing our economic separation from a hostile PRC regulatory body than in shoring up the arsenal of democracies and friend-shoring that we need to in order to be resilient in the face of PRC economic warfare. I will say, the administration has had some success in bringing new investment and jobs from allies home (and they deserve credit for this), but that only goes so far when the economy is globalized. On the other hand, the NSC and DOD are forging new friendships and strengthening old ones across the Pacific through AUKUS and other tech agreements, while expanding our partnership with Japan and building new military facilities and cooperation in the Philippines. Despite what some may say, the DOD is actually capable of managing the Ukraine fight while building out our forces and facilities in the Pacific. I may disagree with some methods and visions of the present DOD leadership, but they have the right intent: get ready for war. We have a long way to go and DOD can’t do it all by itself, no matter who’s in charge.
I get it, the PRC is starting to stumble and you’d rather focus on easier problems, but that doesn’t mean you take your foot off the gas and give Beijing the chance to get back up! Keep the pressure on, challenge the strength of the governance model, their economic stability, their belligerent diplomats and propagandists. If we can’t keep our shit together, at least ensure the bad guys keep screwing up. We always underestimate how resilient our enemies are and become overconfident at the first sign of success. Just like with Ukraine, the US-China Cold War is gonna be a slog. Just because it’s inconvenient to have to factor that in doesn’t mean we can avoid it.
The Campaign Trail
I can’t quite tell if all the campaign politicos had a meeting where they all agreed that being a China hawk is a bad talking point or if they all genuinely don’t have solutions (or both, probably both). Watching the 2024 debates and campaign trail, I think I saw more detailed China policy plans in 2012 and 2016 than from today’s current crop of GOP candidates. I mean, when they all pivoted to talking about bombing Mexico and chasing Fentanyl dealers a la Clear and Present Danger instead of defending Taiwan and standing up to Xi, I almost spit out my bourbon. There are deflections and then there’s intellectual crisis. The former party of national security is in crisis over what should be a layup for them. Very few, if any, of the candidates actually want to talk about China beyond the broadest slogans. And very few, if any, seem to be to the right of President Biden on defending Taiwan. Which, going into this primary season, I was expecting to use as the baseline for a politician’s stance on China.
I know plenty of strong China policy advisors on both sides of the aisle, I know they exist, and I know they want in on the game, and yet their advice is nowhere to be found on the campaign trail. No wonder GOP donors are in a panic of the current crop of candidates, it’s like letting the freshmen squad play varsity for the title game. Of course, this is what you get when you enable Trump for four years and let the isolationists into the circus. And I know what some of you will say, “oh but if X person gets elected, they’ll bring in the right people to get up to speed!” That’s what you all said about Trump, and even the hawks he brought in couldn’t stop the chaos or cozying up to dictators. We shouldn’t vote for people based upon their staff, the American people certainly don’t. I know I’m old-fashioned but I want competent, intelligent leadership.
If you’re going to ask me who is the leading China hawk on the campaign trail, well on record and rhetoric alone, the bar is low, but I’d have to say President Biden. Commerce and Treasury are certainly doing work to undermine that record, but at the end of the day, Biden is the one on record repeatedly stating he will defend Taiwan, AUKUS happened under his watch, we have stronger partnerships with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, and it’s very clear the PRC doesn’t like him. Not to mention the Dems don’t take the isolationists in their party very seriously (for now). I have a policy that I don’t endorse during primaries, and I certainly don’t endorse based upon who might staff a particular candidate, but when you look at the rest of the field, YIKES.
So where did all the China hawks go? Well, many of the loudest ones weren’t ever really hawks, merely politicos of convenience. That was always to be expected, but also expected was China as the primary security threat and topic of debate. Foreign policy is very rarely at the top of a voter priority list, but there is hierarchy within the national security debate that should have placed China (and specifically the defense of Taiwan) at the forefront. Quite simply, the real hawks have become an inconvenience in an environment where vicious culture wars, budget cuts, and isolationism are more popular and win the polls. The second the stakes got real in late 2022, a lot of folks ran for the hills. I know many of the hardest working, best hawks who aren’t in the limelight are either waiting for their shot to work in a future administration or are toiling away at their desk in a political environment averse to their policy recommendations. I don’t want to take away from their work, but it seems like those in charge and those aspiring to be, certainly do. And that is what should keep you awake at night.
If you enjoyed this article, check out my novel, EX SUPRA. It’s the story of a US-China conflict after years of failed policies and isolationism. Recently nominated for a Prometheus Award for best science fiction novel, it’s the story about the war after the next war. From the first combat jump on Mars to the climate change-ravaged jungles of Southeast Asia, EX SUPRA blends the bleeding edge of technology and the bloody reality of combat. In EX SUPRA, the super soldiers are only as strong as their own wills, reality is malleable, and hope only arrives with hellfire. Follow John Petrov, a refugee turned CIA paramilitary officer, Captain Jennifer Shaw, a Green Beret consumed by bloodlust, and many more, as they face off against Chinese warbots, Russian assassins, and their own demons in the war for the future of humanity.
Thanks for reading Breaking Beijing! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.