Written by Ana Swanson
In a ballroom across from the Capitol, an unlikely group of military hawks, populist crusaders, Chinese Muslim freedom fighters and followers of the Falun Gong has been meeting to warn anyone who will listen that China poses an existential threat to the United States that will not end until the Communist Party is overthrown.
If the warnings sound straight out of the Cold War, they are. The Committee on the Present Danger, a long-defunct group that campaigned against the dangers of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, has recently been revived with the help of Stephen Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, to warn against the dangers of China.
Once dismissed as xenophobes and fringe elements, the group’s members are finding their views increasingly embraced in President Donald Trump’s Washington, where skepticism and mistrust of China have taken hold. Fear of China has spread across the government, from the White House to Congress to federal agencies, where Beijing’s rise is unquestioningly viewed as an economic and national security threat and the defining challenge of the 21st century.
“These are two systems that are incompatible,” Bannon said of the United States and China. “One side is going to win, and one side is going to lose.”
The United States and China have been locked in difficult trade negotiations for the past two years, with talks plagued by a series of missteps and misunderstandings. Trump has responded to the lack of progress by steadily ratcheting up U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods and finding other ways to retaliate. China has responded in kind.
The two sides now appear far from any agreement that would resolve the administration’s concerns about China, including forcing U.S. companies operating there to hand over valuable technology. Even if a deal is reached, the two sides are busy constructing broader economic barriers.
In addition to placing a 25% tariff on roughly half the goods China exports, the United States has restricted the kinds of technologies that can be exported to China, tried to cut off some Chinese companies, like telecom giant Huawei, from purchasing U.S. products and rolled out hurdles for Chinese investment in the United States.
U.S. intelligence agencies have also ratcheted up efforts to combat Chinese espionage, particularly at universities and research institutions. Officials from the FBI and the National Security Council have been dispatched to Ivy League universities to warn administrators to be vigilant against Chinese students who may be gathering technological secrets from their laboratories to pass to Beijing.
The administration paints the crackdown as necessary to protect the United States. But there are growing concerns that it is stoking a new red scare, fueling discrimination against students, scientists and companies with ties to China and risking the collapse of a fraught but deeply enmeshed trade relationship between the world’s two largest economies.
“I’m worried that some people are going to say, because of this fear, any policy is justifiable,” said Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The climate of fear that is being created needs to help generate the conversation, not end the conversation.”
Anti-China sentiment has spread quickly, with Republicans and Democrats, labor union leaders, Fox News hosts and others warning that China’s efforts to build up its military and advanced industries threaten America’s global leadership, and that the United States should respond aggressively. Skepticism has seeped into nearly every aspect of China’s interaction with the United States, with officials questioning China’s presence on U.S. stock markets, its construction of U.S. subway cars and its purchase of social media networks.
Yet there is little agreement on what America can or should do. The United States has tried for decades to entice and cajole China to become a more open society, but the Communist Party has steadily tightened its grip over the Chinese people and the economy. U.S. leaders now face a choice of whether to continue down a path of engagement that could leave the country vulnerable to economic and security threats — or embark on a path of disengagement that could weaken both economies and might one day even lead to war.
An increasing number of people in Washington now view the decoupling of the two economies as inevitable — including many of the members of the Committee on the Present Danger. At an inaugural meeting in April, Bannon, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich,and others issued paeans to Ronald Reagan — a former member of the group — and were met with standing ovations as they called for vigilance against China.
They praised Reagan’s Cold War victory over the Soviet Union and his doctrine of “peace through strength,” but there was also an air of inevitability that war might come, only this time with China.
Bannon was just off the plane from Rome, with a slight shadow of a mustache and his silver hair brushed back. Clad in a black button-down and long black suit jacket, he thumped the podium as he described China as a rising power and the United States as a declining power that would inevitably clash.
“This is the defining event of our time, and 100 years from now, this is what they’re going to remember us for,” he said.
The administration has placed Chinese tech companies on an “entity list,” essentially blacklisting them from doing business with American firms. In keeping with a law passed last year, the administration has increased its checks of Chinese investment, including of minority stakes in U.S. companies. In June 2018, the administration began restricting visas for Chinese graduate students in sensitive research fields like robotics and aviation. And the United States has begun barring Chinese academics from the United States if they are suspected of having links to Chinese intelligence agencies.
“They’re not the Soviet Union. But this kind of government control, statism, never works for long,” Larry Kudlow, the White House chief economic adviser, said in a July 16 interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group. The possibility that China could collapse like the Soviet Union has “always been an undercurrent” in the trade war, he said.
The new Cold War has not been one-sided. Many of the changes in Washington have been triggered by a darker turn in Beijing.
China has increased its scrutiny of U.S. firms, and many U.S. companies and their employees in China now fear reprisal. In addition to detaining millions of Chinese Muslims, democracy activists and others, Chinese authorities have jailed foreign diplomats, academics and businesspeople — prompting some to cancel or delay trips to China.
China is also projecting its power abroad, funding global infrastructure and constructing an archipelago of artificial islands with giant air bases reaching almost to the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia. Beijing has made it clear that it intends to help its companies dominate the industries of the future, from artificial intelligence and supercomputers to aerospace equipment. Its policies have sought to replace imports of high-tech products with Chinese-made goods, pressuring multinationals to move factories from the United States and resulting in the loss of American jobs.
The Trump administration and the Committee on the Present Danger have been careful to say their targets are the Chinese government and the Communist Party, not the Chinese people. But the distinction can be a difficult one to make. In the rush to protect against new threats from China, the line between preparedness and paranoia is sometimes unclear.
At a Senate hearing last year, Christopher A. Wray, the FBI director, said the Trump administration was trying to “view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat,” adding, “I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.”
Many Chinese people and their defenders have bristled at the implication that the entire Chinese society poses a national security threat.
Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association for American Universities, said American universities were working hard to remain vigilant to espionage threats, but that they thrive on openness and access to talent and science from around the world — including from China.
“The situation with China is different than the Cold War,” he said. “The concern with the Soviet Union was primarily military. Now it’s a concern about economic competitiveness.”