Leading the charge: A conversation with Rep. Mike Gallagher
Congress’ new point man on China explains the art of deterrence, selective decoupling, and how to get tough while avoiding war.
On Jan. 10, the U.S. House of Representatives took the dramatic step of voting to create a new Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy soon chose Rep. Mike Gallagher, a 39-year-old former Marine, to lead the committee. A few weeks ago, Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin, spoke with The Catalyst’s Editor-in-Chief, Jonathan Tepperman, about his agenda and the best way to resist Chinese aggression. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why was it necessary to create the Select Committee?
Two reasons. One was to inject a sense of urgency into America’s competition with the Chinese Communist Party [CCP]. I think if you look at America’s experience and at the American way of warfare in particular, you’ll see that we have a gift for mobilization and improvisation after a crisis occurs. You can look at the pandemic through that lens. What we’re not as good at is mobilizing prior to a crisis. But we want to prevent a massive conventional conflict with China before it’s too late, and that requires us to explain to the American people why this matters. What are the stakes? Why should someone in Texas or Wisconsin care about the threat posed by the CCP?
That’s the first thing. On a more practical level, this is a whole-of-society competition: No one congressional committee owns the issue. So we need a committee that can play a coordinating function and ensure we can get stuff done, even in a divided government.
What is the Biden Administration doing wrong on China that you aim to fix? Some commentators argue that Washington is already pushing Beijing too hard.
The Biden Administration is divided. Some members of the administration have a realistic view of the threat posed by the CCP and recognize that we need to invest in hard power west of the international dateline to deter China. But there are others in the administration who think that the preeminent threat we face is climate change and that we need to cooperate with Chinese President Xi Jinping to deal with that.
Now, why do I think that latter camp is wrong? One, I don’t think Xi really cares about climate change, or that he’ll abide by commitments made at climate conferences. Two, China is probably the worst bad actor when it comes to the environment. I’m not just talking about carbon emissions, I’m talking about ravaging the world’s fishery. So this idea that we have of a shared interest in doing right by the environment is profoundly naïve.
The final point involves which theory of deterrence you believe in. I believe that only hard power deters hard men like Xi. The administration believes in what the Pentagon calls “integrated deterrence”: the idea that you can substitute nonmilitary power, soft power, for hard power. I think that’s a utopian view of the world.
What are the specific policy changes you hope will come out of your committee?
I think there should be three pillars to our grand strategy vis-a-vis China. One is traditional military competition, hard power, and there we need multiyear appropriations for critical munition systems that need to be prepositioned in the Indo-Pacific. One of the lessons of Ukraine, and of every war game I’ve played, is that we’re going to burn through a ton of munitions. And if they’re not there before the war starts, they’re not going to deter that war.
The second line of effort involves ideological competition. Human rights go in this bucket. One of the things we can do in this area is make sure that the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is fully implemented and that companies aren’t exploiting any loopholes. Americans are not going to spend money onshoring textile manufacturing, but we should know if the clothing we buy is being made with slave labor amidst a genocide in Xinjiang.
The third line of effort is the most complex. It’s what I call economic statecraft, or what others refer to as “selective economic decoupling.” There, we’ve tried to beef up the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to scrutinize China’s investments in this country. And I think the next phase is going to be: What guardrails can we place on American money flowing into China? Do we want to allow U.S. investors, for example, to invest in Chinese AI companies or other companies that may be building things designed to kill Americans in a future conflict?
Some experts caution that decoupling will hurt the American middle class by raising the price of the cheap Chinese consumer goods that have done so much to improve Americans’ standard of living over the few decades.
I think there’s something to that argument, which should remind us of two things. First, the decoupling must be selective – it can’t be complete. Admittedly, it’s hard to draw the line. Some areas are obvious; we don’t want to be dependent on China for the processing of critical minerals or for advanced pharmaceutical ingredients. But I don’t have a problem if Wisconsin farmers sell their soybeans to China, or if Wisconsin manufacturers like Kohler sell sinks and water faucets to China; I don’t see a national security nexus there. I do, however, think that U.S. companies, and Apple in particular, should understand that there are true economic risks posed by the threat of a war over Taiwan, and that to discount those risks is a dereliction of fiduciary responsibility.
Second, you can’t selectively decouple without simultaneously increasing your economic engagement and technological partnerships with the rest of the world. And it should not be just the free world, as that’s traditionally defined. We also have to get closer with some nontraditional partners, including communist countries like Vietnam. There’s no trade agenda right now in Washington in either party, and that’s a huge gap in our overall strategy. My hope is that if we selectively decouple but also simultaneously get aggressive on the proactive trade agenda, we can minimize the costs for average Americans.
You mentioned Taiwan. Do you think the United States should abandon its long-term policy of strategic ambiguity and instead make it explicit whether or not it would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese invasion?
I’ve made the argument for clarifying strategic ambiguity; I think doing so would have a stabilizing impact across the Straight of Taiwan. I will concede, however, a point that [former Trump Administration Deputy National Security Adviser] Matthew Pottinger and others have made – that strategic capability matters far more than strategic clarity. In other words, when it comes to deterrence, what matters more than what you say is whether you actually put weapons in the Philippines, or Japan, or Taiwan. The credible ability to deny an invasion in real-time is more important than a rhetorical commitment from the president of the United States, as powerful as that might be.
How do you respond to the argument that your select committee, and the Biden Administration’s tough rhetoric on China, will only further convince Beijing that Washington is determined to block China’s rise, as so many Chinese officials already believe?
We now have decades of evidence showing that all the attempts made by Republicans and Democrats to assuage every concern of every CCP official, and to constantly reassure them that we’re not interested in a new cold war, didn’t work. It didn’t reduce China’s aggressive behavior. So to double down on the engagement hypothesis, having seen it fail for two decades, would satisfy the literal definition of insanity. That said, we should have sensible channels of communication with China. How long have we been trying to set up a crisis communication channel so that we don’t have some military miscalculation? At least since the Trump Administration. And the CCP keeps rejecting our advances.
What I think does create a risk is if we have a say-do gap. When President Biden goes out there and says, as he has on four occasions, “We will defend Taiwan,” I like that. But we then need to make sure that we actually have the ability to defend Taiwan. If you want to deter President Xi, convince him that he cannot conquer Taiwan, then make it so. Then you can argue about signaling.
Why did you change the name of your committee from the Select Committee on China to the Select Committee on the CCP?
That gets to a part of your previous question. A lot of this depends on how I conduct myself as chairman and how the committee conducts its work. The reason I asked for the name change is that we have no quarrel with the Chinese people – the threat comes from the Communist Party. And what the CCP fears more than anything else, apart from American hard power, is its own people.
You have a Ph.D. in the history of the Cold War. How has that shaped your view of what U.S. policy toward China should be?
I certainly see lessons that we can derive from the old Cold War. For example, I think we have to reimagine a lot of our national security bureaucracy in the way we did in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But I also think there are important differences between the old Cold War and this one, the most obvious being selective economic decoupling. We never had to decouple from the Soviet Union, because our economies didn’t really interact in the first place. That makes the CCP a more formidable foe than the Soviet Union ever was, because China enjoys a dominant or near-dominant economic position, and they have a concerted strategy to control the commanding heights of critical technology.
Let me make one final point: People have to reconcile themselves to the idea that there are worse things than a cold war. By denying that we’re in a new cold war, we may stumble into a hot war, and that would be a lot worse. But if we get our act together and wage this new cold war very aggressively in the economic and ideological domains, we can prevent that hot war from ever starting.