By Joel Gehrke April 30, 2019 12:00 AM
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s team is developing a strategy for China based on the idea of “a fight with a really different civilization” for the first time in American history.
“This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology and the United States hasn’t had that before,” Kiron Skinner, the director of policy planning at the State Department, said Monday evening at a security forum in Washington, D.C.
Skinner is leading an effort to develop a concept of U.S.-China relations on the scale of what she called “Letter X” — the unsigned essay by George Kennan, who assessed “the sources of Soviet conduct” in 1947 and outlined the containment strategy that guided American strategists for the rest of the Cold War. China poses a unique challenge, she said, because the regime in Beijing isn’t a child of Western philosophy and history.
“The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family,” Skinner said, noting Karl Marx’s indebtedness to Western political ideas. “It’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”
Skinner credited retired Army Gen. H.R. McMaster, who served as White House national security adviser from March 2017 to March 2018, with recognizing the need for a National Security Strategy organized around the return of great power competition with Russia and China. But those two rivals are not equivalent, she said, identifying Russia as a mere “global survivor” that pales in comparison to China.
“We see it as a more fundamental long-term threat,” Skinner told New America CEO Anne Marie Slaughter. “In China, we have an economic competitor, we have an ideological competitor, one that really does seek a global reach that many of us didn’t expect a couple of decades ago.”
Slaughter, who served as the head of policy planning for the State Department from 2009 to 2011, suggested that Skinner was offering the U.S.-China relationship as the “clash of civilizations” outlined in another landmark essay that discussed how geopolitics would change after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Skinner concurred.
“Some of those tenets, but a little bit different,” she answered. “I think we have to take the rose-colored glasses off and get real about the nature of the threat. And, I think we also have to give a kind of respect for, I think, what the Chinese seek to accomplish.”
Trump has made a trade war with China one of the major undertakings of his administration, in pursuit of a trade deal to rebalance the relationship between the world’s two largest economies. U.S. officials have also rebranded the Asia Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific, partly as a nod to China’s surge in Africa and the potential for India to function as a counter-weight to the Communist power.
“Trade is not the only problem and maybe not the biggest in the long run with China,” Skinner said. “But we’re now looking more deeply and broadly at China. And, I think State is in the lead in that broader attempt to get something like a Letter X for China, what Kennan wrote. You can’t have a policy without an argument underneath it.”
Pompeo’s team has rebuked China repeatedly for human rights abuses, especially the hostility to religious beliefs displayed by the regime’s mass detention of Uighur Muslims and the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities. But Skinner suggested that human rights arguments might not be as useful against China as they were against the Soviet Union, which was weakened by a 1975 agreement that allowed Soviet dissidents to cooperate indirectly with Western powers to advocate for “the rights of emigration and religious freedom,” according to the State Department.