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Why China Matters Heading Into 2024

When it comes to China, we did it to ourselves, but they sure did it to us, too. 

(Wikimedia Commons)

Adapted from an address to the National Conservatism Conference 2021.

ORLANDO– At a bar in the Magic Kingdom I am re-evaluating my life. 

My dealer’s-choice compatriots in imbibement are dropouts, strip club bouncers, MMA fighters, and the owner of some sort of shipping company now on the business end of the backlog out of Long Beach I witnessed last weekend in California. My main amigos are 31 and 25, two kids apiece, and as I sheepishly ask for receipts for a future expense form, they pay in real American money (which they apparently have slabs of). This for-whatever-it’s-worth magnet high school graduate is wondering if he’d have just been better off a North Florida high school quitter.

As one in my line of work brutally—though apparently welcomely—does, I query my (bar top) left flank on their thoughts on our esteemed body politic. Donald Trump has changed Palm Beach, the strip club bouncer can report, and in his larger-than-life day job as an MMA fighter, he’s sanguine about his league’s lack of a vaccine mandate. Say what you will, this is a man who definitely puts his mouth where his money is. This all while the Gatorland business magnate explains that Mr. Trump, had indeed, been the “greatest jobs president God ever created,” as the future president famously guaranteed in 2016. 

He thinks Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping sleep more soundly at night because President Joe Biden, unlike Trump, had never run a business. Trump’s commercial bankruptcies are a sign of backbone, not belligerency. And as if it’s at the tip of everyone’s tongue, my man declares, that’s because, and I quote: “He came back.” I try to keep the chit-chat geopolitical, and I show the duo a picture of Boris Johnson, and they think I’m pulling an outright fast one on them that the man is a world leader. My credibility is only sealed by my blue-check status, so charmingly and instantly verified: I am, indeed, a knight of the roundtable. 

But then it gets interesting. 

As the Wu-Tang Clan (not Chinese) grimly concluded of American life back in the Clinton administration, Dogecoin rules everything around us. The man of commerce, clad like a veritable local nobleman in an actually-great Planet Hollywood sweatshirt (another Bill Clinton years throwback), confirms as much. He says he didn’t need that PPO loan two springs ago. He says, as Theodore Roosevelt said of William McKinley, that the kids younger than us are soft as chocolate eclairs. No one works. His prospective employees live off Mountain Dew and Nerds Rope paid by EBT cards in the heart of Covid-19 American Empire. Just when I think I’m about to get a Galtian masterstroke of a close, he confesses: Money is the root of all evil, but he just wished people worked. 

This is all to say, that life is complicated, man. (All due respect to my fellow panelists.) It is poorly suited to neat philosophical tie-ups: If such a thing exists, “real” American life is lived by, as maybe we would all live it, more often than not, by talented high school dropouts.  

Which brings us to the coming, inevitable clash of the two largest and more successful empires in the history of the species—and how we should feel about it! And, moreover, how powerful people—real deal, living presidential candidates, folks—the bigshots, feel about it. 

First and foremost, I would like to fend off the contention, popular in the esteemed circles of those slightly younger but irretrievably different than me, that the People’s Republic of China is somehow, and I quote, “based.” Whatever strategic merits of the Communists of West of the mouth of Yangtze, and whatever faults of the small-d democrats east of the Seal Rock Inn in San Francisco, rooting for China in 2021 as an American is a little like rooting for the captain of the football team in high school, against yourself. 

“Yes. I deserve to lose.” As Charles Bukowski said, there is only so much time for “declaimers against reality.” And these, I’ll say it, panda-hugging sentiments, surely, are not held by my friends at the bar. 

Still, it is impressive what China has managed to achieve. 

“What do we do to the Middle East?” asked the Stalin historian Stephen Kotkin. “We bomb them. Why? Because they can’t do anything.” And “What do we do to Russia? We sanction them.” Continued the Princeton poobah, “Why? Because we can’t bomb them.” Finally, “What do we do to China?… Absolutely nothing.”

And he said this before Covid-19. 

But if for no other reason than China’s knowing complicity in, if not, friends, outright directed release of, the most deadly virus in a century—I submit that’s about to change. President Biden has thus far proved a bizarro Trump: Just as Trump was on Russia (the most anti-Russian administration since Reagan for understandable fear of appearances of impropriety), the new president is more hawkish than generally expected (perhaps poised to be the most anti-Chinese Communist administration since Nixon’s needed but now outdated opening). 

On many fronts, Biden has picked up where Trump left off: the trade war and a commitment to Taiwan being two scores. 

China may well invade in the coming years (if not the coming year) because of a rightful impression that this is still the best they’re going to get: any Republican successor will be tougher. “We developed (and ultimately, I declassified) a comprehensive strategy for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific to confront the [People’s Republic] and we changed the bipartisan consensus on the Chinese Communist Party and China’s rise,” former National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien told me for this address. “It will be 45’s greatest legacy.”

And speaking of people who would like to be 47. 

As I score it, there are two main camps of folks who could plausibly become the 2024 Republican nominee on the subject of China. 

The first is what I will call “the traditionalists.” These are the folks most comfortable working within the GOP Old Guard. They may bandy about the language of realism and restraint, but when it comes to it, they prefer the old medicine to some newer, better drugs. Mike Pompeo. Nikki Haley. Mike Pence. I won’t score any of the participants of this conference. 

This set may have fallen out with another former national security advisor called John Bolton, but get them liquored up at Epcot and I’d be surprised if they disagreed with his central diagnosis, recently given. “It’s certainly the highest priority to focus on the threat of China,” quothe Bolton. “I consider it existential in this century.” (Glad he’s getting on it.) “Not just for the United States, but for the West as a whole. But that doesn’t mean you can disregard other threats, and Afghanistan and the broader Middle East are excellent examples of that.”    

John Bolton (Oh, I just remembered he was a participant at the last NatCon… oh, well, no moratorium on that) … is going to John Bolton.

The second set of potential GOP 2024 hopefuls I will call “the realigners.” One could imagine a Tucker Carlson or dare I say Steve Bannon talking differently, as they have, for instance, on Afghanistan. Recognizing that the last 20 years have largely been a mistake means asking the question: What is it, exactly, this country’s foreign policy has been these last 20 years? And how might we radically improve it drastically in a nationalist direction, seeking to, yes, conserve something approximating an American way of life? 

I have no idea what Glenn Youngkin believes on China, by the way, but if a quite welcome coup does occur in the Old Dominion tomorrow, I was reminded by a very nice man at 2 a.m. in the 24/7 Hilton snack lounge in a Youngkin hat to Google “Glenn Youngkin Caryle China” and that Youngkin is licking his chops to run in 2024. Folks, people in politics … are people in politics. I assume half this room wants to be president.  

I will close on this: Critics of a reasoned but forceful China policy frequently complain, “we did it to ourselves.” True enough, but as Covid-19 proved, they sure as hell did it to us, too. 

Geostrategic fact will soon enough become domestic political reality. 

about the author

Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.

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