Pushing back against China — without igniting war

February 14, 2024
Graham Allison (from left), Meghan O’Sullivan, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, and Rep. Mike Gallagher discuss strategic competition between the U.S. and China.  Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer


By Christina Pazzanese | Harvard Staff Writer
February 14, 2024

If the U.S. wants to protect the global order and avoid armed conflict with China, its biggest geopolitical rival, the nation’s leaders need to use every tool in its national security toolbox as deterrence, including smart, effective economic strategies.

“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois about the guiding philosophy of the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition Between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party. Krishnamoorthi, the ranking Democrat, leads the committee with Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the Republican chair.

During a talk Monday evening at Harvard Kennedy School, the two congressmen said the committee’s focus is to communicate the importance of protecting and advancing U.S. interests on economic and political matters like Taiwan’s independence, intellectual property theft, what the U.N. has characterized as “crimes against humanity” involving the minority Uyghur population, and to serve as a policy “incubator and accelerator” for House leadership to develop future legislation.

A self-described “China hawk,” Gallagher described the committee’s overarching strategy as defensive, not offensive.

“We’re trying to defend the status quo from authoritarian aggression, or we’re trying to reduce or eliminate the worst behavior of the regime like a genocide in Xinjiang [home to the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs]. There’s no one who’s talking about some offensive strategy” like regime change, he told moderators Meghan O’Sullivan, director of the Belfer Center and Jeanne Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, and Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard.

However, with China pursuing a goal to displace the U.S. as the dominant superpower, the U.S. cannot just sit back and protect the status quo. We must “compete aggressively” and understand clearly today how we would respond economically should China invade Taiwan, Gallagher said.

“We have a well thought out theory on the conventional military side, and to some respect, even on the strategic military side, but not on the economic and financial side,” said Gallagher, who joined the House in 2017 and announced last weekend that he would leave office when his current term ends in January.

Krishnamoorthi said polling shows Americans want the federal government to stop the flood of fentanyl from China into the U.S., to thwart its cyber hacking, and to curtail the dumping of cheap goods into the economy that drive U.S. companies out of business. But taking an extreme line on trade and other economic issues also creates potential new risks.

“We obviously have to work on deterring conflict, but I think that if we adopt a Cold War mentality, I’m concerned that we’re going to trip into something else,” he said.

The committee put out an economic report in December outlining the steps the U.S. should take domestically to bolster economic competition with China and the rest of the world, such as fixing the immigration system to encourage talented foreigners to remain, investing more in applied scientific research, and ensuring the American workforce has the technological education and vocational skills to staff, for example, a new $32 billion Taiwanese semiconductor chip-making plant in Arizona, Krishnamoorthi said.

Most importantly, he added, the U.S. — including Congress — needs to avoid “xenophobia” and “anti-Asian hate” and do more to foster closer relationships between people of Chinese descent in the U.S. and in Asia.

Gallagher said he’s “skeptical” such efforts will do much to improve China’s behavior, but he “understands the logic.”

“To win this competition, or just to have a coherent strategy at all, we need deep language, regional, and cultural expertise, something the U.S. military has not done a good job cultivating historically and a model the House Intelligence Committee appears to now favor, as well.”

China is going through its own serious economic troubles right now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are less likely to move militarily on Taiwan. The U.S. needs to be ready and not shy away from taking action if it becomes necessary out of fear it seems too aggressive, said Gallagher.

“When it comes to Taiwan, there’s something fundamentally different in my mind about helping an existing and flourishing democracy, one of the freest societies in the world, defend itself from authoritarian aggression,” he said.

“I view it as we’re waking up and defending ourselves from the economic warfare that the CCP has waged against us for decades, or the ideological offensive they’re launching every day on our social media platforms, which, by the way, aren’t allowed inside of China.”

The committee is not advocating policies simply to hurt China, Gallagher added. “I think the Chinese people are often hurt by the regime, particularly when we look the other way toward egregious human rights abuses.”

Photos by Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer