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As CIA Sets Up New Center for Intel on China, Where Is Congressional Dissent to Escalating Tensions?

Web ExclusiveOctober 12, 2021
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In an extended interview about U.S.-China relations, Amy Goodman and Juan González speak with Ethan Paul, a former reporter with the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong who is now with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. China’s military said Monday it conducted beach landing and assault drills in the province across from Taiwan. This comes as the CIA has set up a new mission center focused solely on China. On Thursday, CIA Director William Burns described China as “the most important geopolitical threat facing the United States.” Paul says there has been almost no “meaningful dissent among Democrats” in Congress about “the need to make sure that we don’t let this beast run out of control.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue our look at U.S.-China relations amidst the growing tensions between China, Taiwan and the United States. China’s military said Monday it conducted beach landing and assault drills in the province across from Taiwan. This comes as the CIA has set up a new mission center focused solely on China. On Thursday, CIA Director William Burns described China as, quote, “the most important geopolitical threat facing the United States.”

For more, we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with Ethan Paul, research associate at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, where he focuses on U.S.-China relations. He’s a former reporter with the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. His recent piece is headlined “Biden doesn’t understand the 'new Cold War.'”

Ethan, as we continue from Part 1 in our conversation, let’s talk about the CIA director talking about this, the biggest geopolitical threat right now is China, and what exactly this mission is that the CIA has set up.

ETHAN PAUL: Sure. Well, Nicholas Burns announced that the China Mission Center would be set up in the CIA, which would help frame the agency’s overall approach, not only to China, but to its overseas operations, in general. I would say two things on this front. Number one is that this is only the latest step by the Biden administration, and going back to the Trump administration, in a broader effort to transform the federal government itself, to reorient itself around so-called competition with China. We have seen new institutions, new offices, new organizations be created in the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, which has been accused of profiling Asian and Chinese Americans, the Department of Commerce and, most recently, the State Department and the CIA.

And so, I think, you know, in thinking through what is going on here, I think the metaphor I continuously come back to is the federal government’s response to 9/11 and the global war on terror. What we saw in the years after that was a similar transformation. You saw the Department of Homeland Security be created. You saw powers be expanded for the NSA and other agencies. And not only were these powers ultimately abused, but, you know, it kind of creates a momentum within the federal government itself that makes it difficult to reassess and think about, “Oh, should we withdraw from Afghanistan or Iraq? Are we winning?” I worry that we’re going to end up making these same mistakes as we set out on this so-called competition with China.

The second quick point I would make is that not only is this transformation happening, but I have seen little to no meaningful dissent among Democrats in the Congress concerned about, you know, are there any — you know, will there be any abuses of power here? Will the CIA and State Department be setting their own China policies? There has been no statements from congressional Democrats talking about oversight and the need to make sure that we don’t let this beast run out of control. This is very concerning to me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ethan, when they talk — when our leaders talk about the geopolitical threat of China, are they talking about China — are they really talking about China threatening the United States? Or are they talking about China challenging the continued world supremacy of U.S. economic power? Because it doesn’t seem to me that there’s anything that’s going to be able to stop China, at this point, from eventually surpassing the economic production power of the United States, if only because it’s four times — it has four times the population of the United States, and it is increasingly technologically advanced.

ETHAN PAUL: Sure. So, I mean, I think you can look at the world and see very clearly that China itself is not a threat to the United States. China has no military bases in our backyard, no alliances, and we have these two wide oceans on our left and right, and weak neighbors to our north and south. We are incredibly safe, you know.

And you’re right. What China is, in fact, challenging is America’s 75 years of global dominance, not only economically, but also in the Asia-Pacific. China has undergone a massive military modernization campaign over the last few decades, you know. But at the end of the day, what — this was inevitable. You know, as countries like China and India rose and started to take on a greater share of global economic growth, they were inevitably going to balance and push back against the United States.

You know, the key question we need to ask ourselves is: How are we going to ensure that this process ends well, you know, particularly for everyone in Asia? I have not seen many Americans in Washington asking themselves these questions. And so I worry we’re starting on an open-ended, uncertain-where-we-are-headed competition that is really about containing something which cannot be contained, which is China’s economic and political influence.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the Republican Party’s transformation on this issue? After all, it was Richard Nixon who initially normalized relations with China, and many Republican-backed corporations have benefited over the past 50 years from opening up the China market. Yet you have people like Tom Cotton, Nikki Haley, Marsha Blackburn and other Republican leaders increasingly demanding more confrontation with China.

ETHAN PAUL: Sure. So, I think, you know, parts of the Republican Party are searching for what their post-Trump identity might look like. And I think there’s a significant portion, including the ones you mentioned, but also people like Congressman Mike Gallagher, Senator Josh Hawley — there’s a clique in Congress that is basing their identity on confronting China. And, you know, I think this is for a couple of reasons. One is because it allows — it gives, you know, the vision of American hegemony and primacy a new lease on life, a new reason to continue existing. It also allows Republicans to play up the racial conflict, which I think was at the heart of Trump’s presidency. But at the end of the day, this goes beyond just the Republican Party. We’re also seeing, among organizations like Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, a similar embrace of China as a new central theme of their identity and their critique of the left here at home.

What I would say is that I think this presents the greatest danger for the U.S. and China, going forward. And what I mean by that is, if a Republican president is inevitably elected in a few years, I think they’re going to turn the institutions that Biden and Trump left them and turn up the heat on China, because China has been baked into their political identity. And so, when you see, you know, a possible President Cotton, President Haley, President Blackburn, if they were to do something such as recognize Taiwan unilaterally, or some other destabilizing action that moves away from the status quo, that’s when we would really see U.S.-China relations take a hot turn. I’m not so worried under Biden. I am more worried about, you know, the direction the Republican Party is taking it — and will take it, when they get back into power.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what the Taiwan Relations Act is?

ETHAN PAUL: Yeah. So, in 1979, the U.S. and China established diplomatic relations. And for that to happen, the United States said, “OK, we no longer recognize Taipei as the government of China. We now recognize Beijing. And we acknowledge that the two sides have this political disagreement and would like to see it peacefully reunified.” At the same time, there were some promises made to Beijing about, you know, removing American troops, removing the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, lowering arms sales over time, etc.

And so, what the Taiwan Relations Act was, was the congressional response to the deal that Washington cut with Beijing. Congress looked at it and said, “We don’t like this. We think this sells Taiwan out.” And so the Taiwan Relations Act dictates, you know, what the United States — what U.S. policy towards Taiwan has been since it was passed in the ’80s. And that involves maintaining unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan, continuing to sell it military equipment, and being very concerned if there were to be a unilateral change across the status quo. This is the foundation which has kept the stability across the Taiwan Strait for the last 40 years. It is now being eroded by both Beijing and Washington. And I think this is the hottest flashpoint for the two sides, going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the transformation taking place in the U.S. federal government, in DOD, the Pentagon, CIA, Department of Justice, reorienting themselves, focusing much more on China, and what this means for policy and possibly from cold war to hot war?

ETHAN PAUL: Sure. So, you know, as I mentioned, we’ve seen — going back to the Trump administration, we saw various parts of the federal government transform themselves. The Department of Defense opened a new office specifically focused on China. The Department of Justice and the FBI started what’s called the China Initiative, which seeks to ferret out so-called Chinese influence in academic and research institutions. We saw the Department of Commerce, you know, really bolster its focus on China during the trade war. And now during the Biden administration, we’ve seen the State Department announce new offices and institutions focused on China. And most recently, we’ve seen the CIA.

And so, when — the federal government is a massive institution. And so, when all of these transformations are happening simultaneously, it creates a momentum in policy, very similar to the momentum we saw in the global war on terror and in things like the War on Afghanistan, that makes it very difficult for dissenting voices to be heard, for alternative perspectives on the relationship to be engaged, and, ultimately, for U.S. policy to be changed.

But I would also note that this goes beyond just the federal government. You can also look at, you know, the Air Force and the military-industrial complex. They are also increasingly embracing China as a central part of its message. Air Force Secretary Kendall is very famous for saying that his — the weapons he wants are designed to scare China. Companies like Lockheed Martin have embraced great power competition as a way of selling the need for continued funds from Congress. And beyond that, you know, we’ve seen a new — up-and-coming and legacy journalists and intellectuals, we’ve seen tech companies, we’ve seen academics, all almost overwhelmingly embrace this overall confrontational message that is being created around China.

And there is little to no — and I cannot emphasize this enough — there is little to no meaningful dissent about the direction that U.S. policy is being taken, what our goal is, how we’re going to maintain stability and peace in Asia over the long term. And, you know, this is particularly a problem, in my view, among Democrats in Congress, in the House and Senate. I know of no Democrats who have staked out a meaningful dissent position on China. You know, there’s been hundreds of bills introduced seeking to escalate tensions. I know of no bills that have been introduced seeking to relax or manage them. And so, until the Democratic Party wakes up, there will be no — there will be no one in Washington who will be able to resist this. And I think they might wake up when it’s too late.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you: How do you — how do progressives and supporters of human rights — how are they able to support the — or oppose the crackdowns on democracy activists in Hong Kong and the actions of China against the Uyghurs, while at the same time opposing the belligerents and the confrontational policies toward U.S.-China relations?

ETHAN PAUL: Sure. So, you know, I think anyone who wants to see a world that isn’t defined by new Cold War needs to take the direction that China has headed under Xi Jinping very seriously. I mean, I think — I lived in Hong Kong for a year, after the national security law took effect, and I saw, from my own eyes, how civil society, that had long existed in that city, was being smothered slowly, day after day. In Xinjiang, as well, we’ve seen a massive — what I would consider a crime against humanity take place, you know.

But at the end of the day, we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We need to be able to say, “Look, China, Beijing is increasingly brutal in how it treats places like Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and also Taiwan.” At the same time, the kind of escalatory path that we are headed on offers no future for the world.

And also, I would add that while the West and Washington are not to blame for China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, when you have this overwhelmingly unitary, unified nationalist message that Washington is embracing around confronting China, this reinforces the same chauvinistic, nationalist forces in China itself. And, you know, that can contribute to an environment where China does continue to crack down in places like Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

You know, I would say, going forward, we need to kind of have this — have a Hippocratic oath. We need to find the best ways of adapting and mitigating the kind of rights abuses that China is doing, without making the situation worse. And I’ll give you one example. In the Strategic Competition Act that the Senate passed, there are calls to liberalize America’s visa policy towards Hong Kong. And this, to me, would be a significant step, steps that countries like Australia, the U.K., Canada have already taken and have more robust policies towards. At the same time, there’s also provisions in the bill that seek to allocate a couple million dollars to promoting democracy in Hong Kong.

You know, avoiding this kind of outward appearance of interfering in what China views as its core internal affairs is — you know, we need to avoid doing stuff like that, because it only securitizes Hong Kong in the eyes of Beijing, and it only contributes to — it only provides further justification for people like the Hong Kong security force to crack down in Hong Kong. And so I think we need to think about how, you know, we can adapt to China’s growing rights abuses and the inevitability of its power, without doing further harm to those we’re trying to help.

AMY GOODMAN: Ethan Paul, we want to thank you so much for being with us, research associate at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, former reporter with the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. We’ll link to your piece, “Biden doesn’t understand the 'new Cold War.'”

To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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