New legislation would repair many flaws in White House strategy.
Since World War II, the White House has dominated U.S. foreign policy. Yet Congress is showing the real leadership in policy toward China today. The Trump administration has set a pattern of breathing fire toward Beijing but failing to assemble a strategy as encompassing as the threat China poses. So it has fallen to the legislative branch to build a more competitive policy. With new legislation dubbed the Strategic Act, four Senate Republicans are taking the right approach.
This follows a series of piecemeal actions by Congress. In 2018, a bipartisan coalition saw through the Build Act, meant to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and combat the Trump administration’s denigration of soft power. In 2019, Congress passed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, in response to an issue — China’s escalating campaign of brutalization toward its Muslim minority — on which the president had been shamefully silent. This year came the Taipei Act, aimed at shoring up Taiwan’s diplomatic position, and the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which requires the punishment of Chinese officials and banks that help destroy that city’s autonomy. Now, Senators Jim Risch, Cory Gardner, Mitt Romney and Todd Young have offered the Strategic Act, which envisions a comprehensive response to a comprehensive challenge.
The Strengthening Trade, Regional Alliances, Technology, and Economic and Geopolitical Initiatives Concerning China Act is one of those bills with a ghastly name that produces a nifty acronym. Although the bill nominally aligns with President Donald Trump’s agenda, it appears to have been born of frustration with his policies. “We will increasingly be in the rearview mirror unless we combine with other nations that abide by the rule of law,” Romney said last week. But under Trump, “America looks like we don’t care about bringing the world together.” The Strategic Act seeks, implicitly, to address several critical flaws that have kept the administration from competently practicing its own competition policy.
The first of these is strategic loneliness. The most confounding aspect of Trump’s diplomacy has been his penchant for fracturing the democratic world, even as he engages in a competition that America can win only with democratic solidarity. The overarching goal of the Strategic Act is to create a better basis for multilateral balancing. The U.S. would lead a “tech coalition” to thwart China’s bid for technological dominance, help allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region develop or acquire the military capabilities they need to hold Beijing at bay, and pursue deeper economic cooperation — rather than trade wars — with other countries that are concerned about Chinese predation and coercion.
Second, the bill seeks to improve Trump’s clumsy approach to the U.S.-China economic relationship. This approach has been the strategic equivalent of a meat cleaver, featuring the use of tariffs as an all-purpose tool of economic statecraft along with meaningless threats to “cut off” the relationship altogether. The Strategic Act suggests trying a scalpel. It would require stricter scrutiny of Chinese gifts to American universities, the involvement of U.S. corporations in Beijing’s dystopian social credit system, and the finances and operations of Chinese corporations using U.S. capital markets. It would authorize the State Department to work with consultants to help American corporations move their operations out of China. Most critically, it calls for a multilateral approach to setting export control standards, similar to the framework the U.S. and its allies developed for dealing with the Communist world during the Cold War.
Third, there is the administration’s capricious approach to international organizations. Trump’s State Department has intermittently blocked China from grabbing the leadership of obscure but important institutions such as the World International Property Organization — even as Trump himself has opened doors for Beijing by quitting or handicapping the United Nations Human Rights Council, the World Health Organization and other international bodies. This bill calls for a new State Department “UN Integrity Office” that would lead the fight for influence in the organizations that make global rules. It also calls for the U.S. to work within the World Trade Organization to address unfair Chinese trade practices, in contrast with Trump’s campaign — which has alienated American friends — to render that organization irrelevant.
Fourth, the Strategic Act confronts the problems of bureaucratic disarray and neglect of non-military tools. It is a cliché to call the Trump administration undisciplined, but the reality is that strategy works only when the bureaucracy is capable and relatively unified. This measure would require every U.S. department and agency to make a senior official responsible for coordinating competition with Beijing. It would also invest in the diplomatic, intelligence and development expertise the government needs to keep pace.
Finally, the legislation addresses a troubling trend toward competition without guardrails. Many U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region initially welcomed a harder U.S. policy toward China, but have since been alarmed by the near-total breakdown of meaningful diplomacy. Precisely because the struggle between the U.S. and China will be so intense, it is critical to find ways to limit that rivalry. A U.S.-China Strategic Nuclear Dialogue that would reduce the risks of misperception and miscalculation would be a useful counterpart to the intense military modernization that the U.S. will need in order to maintain a favorable balance of power.
It is fitting that the Strategic Act was introduced the same week that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a high-profile speech on U.S.-China relations. Pompeo grabbed the headlines by declaring, rightly, that the root of the problem is the nature of the Chinese regime. But his speech also showcased the pathologies — pointless insults lobbed at American allies, insistence that the free world follow Washington’s lead even as Trump divides democracies — that have left the administration with little to show for three years of “competition.” The Strategic Act got much less press than Pompeo’s speech did, but it offers a more detailed, constructive agenda for action.
Others are thinking the same way. The Strategic Act may have borrowed its “tech coalition” idea from a proposal mooted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who may well have adapted it from an idea that Joe Biden offered up a year earlier. Aspects of the Strategic Act — such as its call for a more united economic front — overlap fairly well with Biden’s platform and dovetail with ideas that U.S. allies have been pushing for years. There is a lot of creative thinking going on about America’s China policy, and it’s becoming possible to discern the outlines of a winning strategy. The critical question is when the U.S. and the democratic world will have a leader to carry that strategy forward rather than hold it back.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.