Josh Rogin (1) is a foreign policy opinion writer for the Washington Post, a self-declared "agnostic Democrat" and a China hawk. We listened to Bari Weiss interview Rogin on her podcast and which got me intrigued enough to read Chaos Under Heaven, his book on U.S.-China relations during the Trump administration, a book I recommend to others.
Rogin's starting point is that the China regime is a threat to the U.S., a threat that has greatly accelerated under Xi Jingping, and a threat that has compromised many U.S. institutions and public figures. The author puts it this way:
Virtually everyone I interviewed for this book had an awakening story; a moment in their personal or professional lives when they realized that the grand strategic competition between the United States and China was the most important foreign policy issue in the world and the most important project they would work on in their lifetime. Many also said this was an awakening to the aggressive and malign character, behavior, and strategy of China's leadership: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a hundred-year old revolutionary organization that is determined to expand its influence and increase its power, and which has few limits to the methods it will use to advance its own interests.
Put simply, a China that is militarily expansionist, economically aggressive, internally repressive, and increasingly interfering in democratic societies poses enormous challenges for the United States along with all of our allies, friends and partners. The effects are already seen in our national security, our investments, our industries, our schools, our media, and even our elections.
. . . Washington had lost the bet it made twenty years ago, when it had granted China permanent normal trade relations in the hope that helping China expand economically would cause it to liberalize politically and that would lead to peaceful coexistence.I largely agree with this assessment though it was not my view twenty years ago.
The author views the Obama administration as being "played" by China into viewing the relationship being between competitors with room for cooperation while, in reality, China is inherently hostile to the U.S.
We saw this play out in the relative evaluation of Russia v China between the Obama and Trump administrations. The incoming National Security Advisor for Trump, Michael Flynn (2), thought China a bigger threat than Russia; the Obama administration thought the opposite. In her House Intelligence Committee testimony of September 8, 2017 Susan Rice, Obama's NSA, complained about her meeting with Flynn:
"We spent a lot more time talking about China in part because General Flynn's focus was on China as our principal overarching adversary. He had many questions and concerns about China. And when I elicited - sought to elicit his perspective on Russia, he was quite, I started to say dismissive, but that may be an overstatement. He downplayed his assessment of Russia as a threat to the United States. He called it overblown. He said they're a declining power, they're demographically challenged, they're not really much of a threat, and then reemphasized the importance of China." (pp.46-47)
I suppose Rice thought, particularly in the context of 2017, that her anecdote was clever. It doesn't look that way now.
After that setup we move quickly to the Trump administration. Early on, Rogin writes of his invitation to join meetings of mid-level bureaucrats trying get the administration to take a tough line on China, with Josh acknowledging both his sympathy toward them and his access being based on his willingness to write in support of their desired policies.
summarize his take on the Trump administration as making some of the
right steps to reverse the course set by the Bush and Obama
administrations but beset by flawed implementation due to the erratic
nature of Donald Trump and his inability or unwillingness to spend the time needed to understand the details of the relationship between the two countries, though the president's instincts seemed supportive of the hard
liners, as well as unresolved conflicts between those in his administration promoting a much harder approach and those, primarily linked with Wall Street, who favored a more accommodating stance. The hardest of the hardliners were people like Peter Navarro, Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn who, according to Rogin, were willing to blow up the entire relationship while another group centered around Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Matt Pottinger and Robert O'Brien in promoting a more aggressive approach towards resetting the relationship. The Wall Street crowd was lead by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Gary Cohn, a 25-year Goldman Sachs executive who headed Trump's National Economic Council for two years, Larry Kudlow, and other friends of Trump from the Street like Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman who were outside the administration but had the President's ear at times. (3)
Rogin describes the policy arguments and political infighting all under the eye of the unpredictable and erratic President. Given Rogin's personal policy preferences and the nature of this type of reporting generally I can't say whether he gets it all accurately portrayed in every detail but given the personalities involved and what I saw of the administration's actions his overall picture rings true to me.
The book reaches its climax with the Covid-19 pandemic, for which Rogin condemns the China government's obfuscation and obstruction during the initial phases of the outbreak and then in preventing an investigation of the causes (Rogin thinks a lab leak is the most likely source).
Rogin reports that during the early phase (January-February) China and the U.S. tried to cooperate but he relates a February 6 call between Xi and Trump that is startling. According to Rogin, in that call Xi "asked Trump not to take any more excessive actions that would create further panic". He "also told Trump that China had the coronavirus outbreak under control, that the virus was not a threat to the outside world, and that it was sensitive to the temperature and therefore would likely go way when the weather got warmer". Four days later, at a White House meeting with state governors, Trump said, "Now, the virus that we're talking about having to do - you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat - as the heat comes in", without revealing that "a lot of people" meant Xi.
At the same time the administration was being very careful in its public statements because in private discussions China diplomats were threatening the halt of exports of badly needed medical supplies if the U.S. said the wrong things.
Finally becoming aware that he was being misled by Xi, on March 18 President Trump referred to Covid-19 as "the Chinese virus", although it was only in mid-April that administration officials first stated publicly that a leak from the Wuhan lab was a possible origin of the pandemic (statements triggered by a April 14 column in the Washington Post by Rogin based upon his obtaining a document leaked from his government sources).(4)
It remains unclear to me what the Biden administration posture on China is. In fact, it may be unclear to the participants.
What is the nature of the threat?
I spent a lot of time in China between 2000 and 2011. At the start I was cautiously optimistic, but by the end of the decade my views were changing. And since the ascension of Xi Jinping it has become evident that rather than China becoming part of the existing world economic system it is seeking to reshape that system to both protect the role of the Chinese Communist Party and to dominate that system. The levers it controls are much broader and more effective than the Soviet Union, which was a military power but an economic and technological pygmy.
The intertwining of China with the global economy has enabled China to make global companies advocates for its policies, continually promoting even deeper economic ties. This was a phenomenon I recognized during the decade I spent involved with that country. My responsibility was running global environment and safety programs that were consistently applied no matter where we operated. In that role, I was increasingly interacting with social responsibility "stakeholders".(5) In our meetings they seemed to believe that multinational companies would be able to influence China government policies on environment and safety. After a few years on the ground in China, my view was the opposite. I knew that any global company would, if China said "jump", ask "how high?". These NGO stakeholders had the power equation reversed. It remains true. American and European companies fear the China government much more than that of the United States. They've been converted into lobbyists for China.
It is difficult enough for manufacturing companies to disentangle from complex global supply chains centered on China, even if they want to, but the American financial services sector is engaged in active collaboration with the regime. Americans investing their savings and retirement accounts into managed plans are often investing in China companies whether they know it or not. Virtually every large American bank and financial services company is strongly linked to China or working to improve those links. And they know who calls the shots. Recently, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, quickly apologized for making a joke that offended the Chinese Communist Party, something he would never do in similar circumstances in the United States.
Just as in the Trump administration, the Wall Street crowd wields power in the Biden administration. In the case of Biden, while Goldman Sachs plays a role, as it does in all administrations, it is BlackRock execs who are most closely tied to both the administration and China. BlackRock, the largest money manager in the world with $7.8 trillion under management, was recently approved as the first foreign-owned company to operate a wholly-owned business in China's mutual fund industry, a move that drew criticism from George Soros who called it a "tragic mistake" that would "damage the national security interests of the U.S. and other democracies". Brian Deese of BlackRock (I worked with his mother many years ago) runs the National Economic Council and Adewale Adeyemo is #2 at the Treasury Department. The White House Office of Presidential Personnel, which manages all political appointments for the administration, is run by Catherine Russell. From 2009-13, Russell was Chief of Staff to the Second Lady, Jill Biden, and began working as a staffer for Joe Biden in 1987. Russell is married to Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor to President Obama from 2010 to 2013 and currently Chairman of the BlackRock Investment Institute, the firm's global think tank. Donilon's brother Mike is a Senior Advisor to President Biden.
The issues around disentangling ourselves from China are complex. I don't understand all of them, nor their implications. I hope someone does. Just as we have levers with China, China has levers with us. I do know the failure to take control of our own actions will just result in a deeper dependence on China. Here is one example. If the U.S. were to try to greatly expand its development of solar and wind power and the use of batteries, technologies requiring enormous quantities of metals and rare earths, it will face a choice. Either expand domestic mining and milling operations or become dependent upon China, particularly for rare earths, letting that country determine our future.
For further reading on China:
Let's get this out of the way right now. I'm continually
getting confused between Josh Rogin, Seth Rogen, and Joe Rogan. They
need to caucus and decide who has to change their name. Please guys, do this for me.
(2) Yes, I know, he's nuts. How much of that was always there and how much induced by the Mueller gang's persecution which broke him financially and apparently emotionally, I can't tell. But he was correct in his relative assessment of Russia and China.
(3) Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump make only passing appearances in the book but my sense is that their views were probably closer to the Wall Street crowd. One can only imagine what a real press would make of Hunter Biden's China connections.
(4) The chronology also undermines the retroactive attempt to
pin discussions of the lab leak theory on Trump's "xenophobia". We now
know that on January 31, 2020 virologists were communicating among
themselves, and with Dr Anthony Fauci, that a lab origin was possible.
After Fauci arranged a conference call (the details of which remain unknown) a couple of days later, the same scientists, on February 4, completely ruled out a lab
origin and then began the media campaign denouncing anyone believing
such a release was a possibility as a conspiracy theorist and racist. With the revelations of NIAID's relationship with the EcoHealth Alliance it is evident that the conspiracy and racist charges were deliberately made to divert attention from the connections between the Alliance, Fauci and the Wuhan lab. All of this happened before references by Trump to the Wuhan or China virus.
(5) "Stakeholders" in this context refers to self-appointed NGOs who actually don't care about the future of a particular company but have larger ideological goals in mind.