While the media frequently reduces U.S.-China relations under the Trump administration to a so-called “trade war,” the U.S. federal government has, after decades of willful blindness and neglect, embarked on a multifaceted mission to reorient the relationship towards America’s national interest.
This underappreciated, revolutionary effort was borne of an almost intuitive understanding by President Trump, increasingly accepted across the national security and foreign policy establishment, that China itself is engaged in a multifaceted—and malign—struggle to achieve global superpower status, at the cost of our people, and ultimately our freedom.
Seemingly with each passing week, a new story emerges illustrating the magnitude of China’s ambitions, and the litany of issues such ambitions present for the free world. Recently, many recoiled at the ghastly revelations of the Uighur concentration camps of Xinjiang, which, on top of the chaotic and bloody scenes from the streets of Hong Kong, have underscored the totalitarian nature of a Communist regime that the rest of the world has effectively been underwriting. If this is how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) treats its own citizens, and those in its orbit, how will it treat the rest of us should it achieve global dominance?
China’s Illicit Efforts
With respect to China’s efforts abroad, consider just a few recent stories in the areas of espionage and foreign influence:
- A purported Chinese spy defected to Australia, revealing to authorities remarkable details regarding alleged political and societal influence operations, evincing widespread infiltration of civil society institutions in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Australia. Whether the specific allegations are proven, it is undeniable that China has sought to influence nearby foreign countries, and beyond. (With respect to China’s efforts in Australia in particular, which implicate the entire Anglosphere, see Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion).
- Northwestern University faced a major backlash from Chinese nationalists over student support for Taiwan, and Columbia University cancelled a panel discussion on “Panopticism with Chinese Characteristics: The Human Rights Violations by the Chinese Communist Party and how they affect the world,” according to organizers “because a Chinese student group threatened to stage a protest outside the venue on campus.”
- The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report demonstrating that “American taxpayer funded research [of upwards of $150 billion per year in the sciences] has contributed to China’s global rise over the last 20 years…[with] China openly recruit[ing] U.S.-based researchers, scientists, and experts in the public and private sector to provide China with knowledge and intellectual capital in exchange for monetary gain and other benefits…undermin[ing] the integrity of the American research enterprise and endanger[ing] our national security.”
- This dovetailed with a New York Times report indicated rampant theft by Chinese actors of biomedical secrets from U.S. academic centers.
- The Department of Justice (DOJ) indicted a Chinese national who worked as an imaging scientist at Monsanto on charges of economic espionage recruited under one of China’s programs highlighted in the report.
- Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a former undercover Central Intelligence Agency officer in China and other parts of Asia, was sentenced to 19 years in prison for “conspiring to communicate, deliver and transmit national defense information to the People’s Republic of China.” Lee joined several other American intelligence officials who had been convicted on Chinese espionage-related charges in the last year-plus. Chinaliquidated America’s spy network on its mainland between 2010-2012, potentially due to the efforts of a mole in U.S. intelligence.
These data points alone highlight China’s illicit efforts to influence foreign governments and neutralize dissent abroad, achieve substantial gains in business, science, and technology and advance their national security interests while threatening those of their competitors, namely the United States.
The scope of these efforts tied to merely one element of China’s arsenal speaks to something sorely missing from the public discourse: A realization of the overall scope of China’s ambitions—and the myriad ways it is pursuing them—and the fact that the ultimate ambition is hegemony. Absent a widespread understanding of these issues in the American public, there will never be the popular groundswell needed for the relentless, comprehensive effort needed to counter the threat of a China itself engaged in such all-encompassing effort.
Or, as former Speaker Newt Gingrich puts it in Trump vs. China: Facing America’s Greatest Threat, his recently released book:
We have not had the national debate we need to build a sustainable, long-term, military-diplomatic-economic-political strategy. Matching China’s military developments will require a sense of urgency and a commitment of willpower and resources that cannot occur until the American people the news media, and our representatives in the Congress have had a thorough national debate about the nature, scale, and frightening implications of China’s buildup.
Trump vs. China should serve as a major contribution to any such debate. In fact, it is a prerequisite for it – a comprehensive but accessible primer on the major areas of competition between the United States and China, a roadmap for how to win and what the stakes are for the liberty and security of every American should we fail.
Gingrich’s book covers China’s pursuit of its grand strategy in every domain: Land, sea, air, space, and information. While China frequently casts efforts such as its Belt and Road Initiative as driven by the interests of its civilians, as Gingrich makes clear the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) strategy is dedicated to furthering the party’s power and privilege, and ensuring its survival above all else.
Gingrich provides needed historical and cultural context that gives insight into the CCP’s thinking. He contrasts its strategies with the United States’s by comparing the Chinese board game “Go” versus the Western board game of chess.
One takeaway from the book is that the prudent way of evaluating the Communist regime’s efforts is to assume that they are “dual-use” – that is, while they may have a civilian component, they also have a political/military function, contributing to the party’s strategy for dominance. Economic growth, for example, then should not be thought of as an end in itself for the benefit of the Chinese people, but a means for the CCP to achieve its priorities. That Americans broadly may not yet see things this way illustrates the importance of Gingrich’s book.
In the way of immediate threats, one of Gingrich’s most trenchant arguments concerns the ramifications if China is able to control the all-important fifth-generation (5G) technology on which the Internet of Things and all communications will run. Beyond the danger of Huawei’s dominance in this area, and America’s as yet unsuccessful effort to dissuade several critical allies from contracting with Huawei to build their 5G networks, Gingrich highlights the ways in which complacent actors in the federal government and private sector have hamstrung our ability to compete in telecommunications.
Equally troubling are the national security challenges Huawei poses. Beyond the potential for the Chinese Communist Party to surveil those communicating via its infrastructure and hardware the world over, as Gingrich notes, “Huawei and China are astoundingly quick to offer surveillance systems in countries where a major strategic American military presence exists. How can we protect our troops and our interests if they have to operate within Chinese surveillance technology built on Chinese-power networks?” Gingrich provides recommendations for how to compete in telecommunications while ensuring security.
Another important argument concerns the battle over freedom of navigation in the seas, whereby trillions of dollars in commerce flow. Gingrich warns regarding China’s efforts to claim de facto control over the South China Sea, in which it has built and militarized islands, that America’s unwillingness to develop and implement a robust response beyond increased freedom of navigation operations will leave us with “a Chinese fait accompli.”
Gingrich, long an advocate of U.S. efforts in space, makes a compelling case that it may well be the most important domain of competition against China’s strategy of civil-military fusion. To give one example of its importance, as a recent Scientific American article noted, America’s GPS system, which plays an integral role in every one of the 16 infrastructure sectors the Department of Homeland Security has designated as “critical,” is highly vulnerable to attack, the consequences of which would be catastrophic.
Meanwhile, “U.S. rivals do not face this vulnerability. China, Russia and Iran have terrestrial backup systems that GPS users can switch to and that are much more difficult to override than the satellite-based GPS system.” China’s anti-satellite capabilities alone should give us major pause, and the Trump administration’s Space Force plans more praise.
Another (unfortunately) recurring theme Gingrich has harped on throughout his career—particularly poignant in context of the U.S.-China competition—concerns the stifling nature of our bureaucracy. As Gingrich writes in Trump vs. China, “if we can build a consensus about dealing with the Chinese communist totalitarian dictatorship, we will discover that we have more internal challenges than any mobilization effort since the Revolutionary War.”
This is no understatement. Gingrich adds:
Our current problem is the exact opposite of the Founding Fathers’ mobilization problem. We have the largest entrenched bureaucratic structure in American history. The massiveness of our rules and regulations, the growth of lawyers as the dominant definer of acceptable government behavior, and the defense of entrenched public and private interests, all will be vastly more difficult to navigate and coordinate with than in 1860, 1939, or 1946. Our own systems, habits, interest groups, and bureaucracies may be a bigger problem than the threat from China’s communist system.
Gingrich adds that even to the extent we engage China in the manner he recommends: “There is a grave danger that all of our vast expenditures and massive professional bureaucracies will find it easier to engage in war posturing, while retaining the habits, doctrines, and organizational structures that make them comfortable and that they are used to living with.”
Fixing Our Own Problems
On top of the sclerotic nature of an entrenched administrative state, and the recalcitrance of much of a private sector with a vested interest in maintaining the China status quo, as the always insightful David Goldman highlighted in a recent article at First Things:
There is only one effective way to come to terms with China’s rising economic power and global assertiveness, and that is to strengthen the United States. I have long argued for a return to Reagan-style investments in basic R&D driven by frontier defense technologies in order to counter China’s drive for technological leadership. As former House Speaker Newt Gringrich (sic) argues in his new book Trump vs. China, ‘It is not China’s fault that in 2017, 89% of Baltimore eighth graders couldn’t pass their math exam. . . . It is not China’s fault that too few Americans in K-12 and in college study math and science to fill the graduate schools with future American scientists. . . . It is not China’s fault the way our defense bureaucracy functions serves to create exactly the ‘military-industrial complex’ that President Dwight Eisenhower warned about.’
Gingrich warns, “There is every reason to believe that China is catching up rapidly and may outpace us. This is because of us not because of them.”
Gingrich raises many other issues worthy of exploration, including the relatively less advantageous position America is in versus today’s China than the Soviet Union at the onset of the Cold War—including our inextricably intertwined economics, Chinese influence in U.S. society, and the bloat of our federal government—and the challenge posed by facing an authoritarian, centralized regime with our free system based in separated powers and federalism (not to mention frequent elections). Political pressures, and the nature of our governmental system, arguably make coordination, mobilization, and consistency in effort more difficult.
Throughout Trump vs. China, Gingrich leads his chapters with quotes from President Trump and CCP General Secretary Xi contrasting our nation’s respective visions, values, and principles. This is a helpful reminder that we must know ourselves and our adversaries if we are to protect and preserve our liberty. Gingrich’s book is required reading for all who take Sun Tzu seriously—which should be every American.
Indeed, it is essential reading for anyone who seeks to see the full mosaic of challenges and threats that will define and shape U.S. national security and foreign policy, and frankly, the survival of America as a free, powerful and sovereign country, for generations to come.