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Rep. Mike Gallagher (@RepGallagher) (R-WI) is a leading China hawk in Congress, where he serves on the Armed Services Committee, with a background in U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence and as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
I had Rep. Gallagher on the podcast to discuss his views on what China really wants, to the parallels between the CCP and the Soviet Union, and the relevance of the Cold War paradigm, to ideological warfare and the challenges America faces in waging it, countering Chinese influence across all sectors of American life, Huawei and whether America needs a national industrial policy, Taiwan, and much more.
What We Discussed
- The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ultimate goals, and the relevance of its Communist ideology to them
- Why China poses a greater threat to the U.S. than the Soviet Union during the Cold War
- The imperative to wage ideological warfare against the CCP, and the challenge America faces in its arguable lack of moral clarity about its mission
- Countering CHina’s influence over U.S. corporations, academic institutions, our media, etc.
- How to triumph in 5G, and more broadly in strategically significant technological areas against the CCP, and whether we need a national industrial policy
- Rep. Gallagher’s assessment of China’s military might
- Whether America should recognize Taiwan
- The aims of the new congressional China Task Force
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
I’m Ben Weingarten, and this is Big Ideas with Ben Weingarten, a podcast where we talk with exceptional thinkers and doers about the most important ideas and issues of our time, and all time.
I was first introduced to this episode’s guest, Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin’s Eighth Congressional District, by way of a seminal article he wrote in The American Interest back in May of 2019 titled “The Sources of CCP Conduct,” that is, Chinese Communist Party conduct.
This was a deeper, and more rigorous piece than one sees from most elected officials, and I found it to be both provocative and compelling.
Congressman Gallagher is a fellow millennial—but don’t hold it against him, or me—who joined the Marine Corps the day after graduating from college, serving as an intelligence officer for seven years on active duty, and later held the position of lead Republican staffer for Middle East, North Africa and Counterterrorism on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is now in his second term in the House.
There, he has distinguished himself as one of the most thoughtful China hawks in Congress.
Given his youth, pedigree, and commitment to this issue, I suspect he is poised to be one of the leaders of the movement to comprehensively counter the Chinese Communist Party, in an effort thwart its quest for what I believe to be its aim of global hegemony, for years to come.
As such, I was most pleased to have the opportunity to speak with Congressman Gallagher in early June about a variety of issues, from what China really wants, to the parallels between the CCP and the Soviet Union, and the relevance of the Cold War paradigm, to ideological warfare and the challenges America faces in waging it, countering Chinese influence across all sectors of American life, Huawei and whether America needs a national industrial policy, Taiwan, and much more.
Our conversation was supported in part by The Fund for American Studies via its Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship program, under the auspices of which I am currently researching and writing a book on U.S.-China policy, and the sea change in it effectuated by the Trump administration. That project is tentatively titled: “Unseen Revolution: The Bold Transformation of America’s China Policy.”
If you like the conversation you’re about to hear, I hope you’ll consider SUBSCRIBING to, RATING and REVIEWING the podcast in the iTunes store or wherever else you’re listening to us.
And if you want to find out more about the show, you can visit our website at benweingarten.com/bigideas and follow me on twitter @bhweingarten.
And now without further adieu, my conversation with Congressman Mike Gallagher.
Ben Weingarten: Which is, what in your view does the Chinese Communist Party ultimately seek to achieve, and if it were to achieve it, what would that mean for the lives of every American?
Rep. Mike Gallagher: That is a great question, I think the question in many ways. I would say in the near-term, at least it’s obvious to me that their objective is to achieve dominance in INDOPACOM, which by extension means undermining the U.S.-led alliance system in their near abroad, in INDOPACOM. And I think over the long-term, it is related to a broader objective, which is to completely discredit not only the leadership of the United States, but just the model of democratic capitalism, such that it is seen as inferior and inept around the world, and by extension, the CCP system of techno-authoritarian governance in near total control is seen as superior and competent and an attractive model for non-aligned countries over the world.
…And I think what’s under-appreciated in that is just the ideological component of it.
I mean, no doubt that General Secretary Xi and his closest confidants are highly practical, and willing to suit ideology to their practical proposes. But I do believe…personally believe that everything the CCP does—military competition, economic coercion, diplomacy—supports its ideological war with the West. And you can just look to Xi’s own speeches for evidence that that’s true. In 2013, his first major speech to the CCP central committee he said that…he talked about how he’d studied the collapse of the Soviet Union and concluded that the cause of its collapse was insufficient commitment to the party, and by extension its ideology.
And so, I think Xi has gone to school on where the Soviet Union has failed, and believes he can succeed where it failed. And in order to avoid that same fate, the CCP not only demands absolute loyalty and service of its absolute leadership, but a firm commitment to the lofty ideals of Communism, where Xi talked about “treading the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics with resolve,” “Revolutionary ideals reach higher than the heavens.”
So that’s my take on the whole thing…I’m not a China scholar. I’m just a legislator trying to understand this stuff, but I think within the China scholar community, I sense a divide between whether their goals are merely regional, to dominate their sphere of influence, or whether they have global ambitions. And I sort of side with the latter camp, based on what I’ve read.
Ben Weingarten: Since you raised the Soviet Union, I think in drawing a parallel between what we face today versus what we faced at the dawn of the Cold War, and then as it proceeded, I would suggest that there are three key differences, and I’d be curious to know what your view is on this perspective. The first being obviously that China today is arguably substantially stronger vis-a-vis the U.S. than the Soviet Union ever was. And I’m sure there could be debate on that, but I think by any number of metrics, I think that’s a fair argument. The second is that unlike with the Soviet Union, we have integrated to an amazing extent with China and accommodated China’s rise, so there is sort of an intertwined relationship that has created a new kind of mutually assured destruction. And then the last point is, during the Cold War, there were true liberals, Democrat liberals, who were nevertheless ardent anti-communists. Today, I would suggest that there’s a greater and greater proportion of those on the left who really do view America in the same kind of rhetoric that the Chinese Communist Party would propagate, of, we’re an evil, occupying, imperialist, deplorable sort of power. What do you make of that comparison?
Rep. Mike Gallagher: Well, I like that framework. I think maybe we could take each in turn. I mean, the first point I think is most obvious, but it’s not just Russia. I mean, I think the CCP economically is the single greatest challenge our nation has ever confronted when you look at the scale of it, compared with other 20th century adversaries. I mean, it’s very sobering. I think in 1917 imperial Germany’s economy was about 36% of U.S. GDP, in ’43 Nazi Germany represented 26% of U.S. GDP, and imperial Japan about 14%, and in the ’80s the Soviet Union’s GDP was still only 40% of the American economy. So, as far back as 2014, China was 60% of the American economy, and that gap has steadily shrunk. And under the lens of purchasing power parity, which is especially important for looking at what our respective defense budgets can buy, for example, China has already overtaken the US.
I think it’s fair to say we’ve never been involved in a great power struggle with a country whose economy is so evenly matched with ours, and then, what is more, the CCP has been working on a non-stop basis to not only steal intellectual property in defense-relevant fields, such as AI [artificial intelligence], robotics and telecommunications, but also to siphon off our industrial power.
And I think that gets to your second point, which is an apposite one. We’ve abetted the rise of China, and we never had to consider the question of selective decoupling from the Soviet Union because our economies didn’t interact. To the extent we did, we thought about selective economic engagement at various times throughout the Cold War to advance our own short-term objectives, or to buy that off for acquiescence in other areas like arms control. And today, as the coronavirus crisis I think reveals better than anything else, we are in the opposite situation. We find ourselves dangerously dependent on the largesse of the Chinese Communist Party for basic things like pharmaceuticals, medical device manufacturing and rare-earths [metals], to name a few. And I think this then creates a vast network of special interests that do not want to see us take a more confrontational approach to China, perhaps most prominently expressed on Wall Street, which has made a ton of money off Chinese capital and cheap Chinese debt, but also just our broader consumer economy. We’ve all grown fat and happy off cheap Chinese crap over the last two decades. And so that’s why I think this question of selective decoupling is going to be the most important question, and also the most difficult question for us to answer over the next couple of decades.
And then, to your third point, which as I understand it was the fact that there are a lot of…Well, I don’t want to mischaracterize it. Would you say that there are a lot of fellow travelers in America that don’t really think that we’re the good guys?
Ben Weingarten: Yeah, I think another way that I would put it is, we may have triumphed over the Soviet Union, but the ideological battle that the Soviet Union engaged in continued, and the inroads that were made by the hard left throughout our institutions continued and are bearing poisonous fruit today.
Rep. Mike Gallagher: That’s interesting. I… Well, let me say… So I do think… And this is, I just wrote an op-ed in the [Wall Street] Journal about why we’re in a new cold war with China, and why that comparison is a good one, but what I did not say in that op-ed, and what I fundamentally believe—and maybe this gets to your point—is that one of the biggest differences between, let’s say, the late ‘40s and the early ‘50s and the present day, is that while we have a…hawkish consensus emerging on China right now, I don’t think we have any consensus on the righteousness of our cause. In other words, we don’t… There’s a lot of people in this country who don’t necessarily believe that Western liberalism as led by a strong United States of America are the good guys, and that the Commies are the bad guys, right?
…And there’s correspondingly no appreciation for what America has done in the world since the end of World War II, and how important it is for America to remain leader of the free world. And I do think perhaps there is a subtle—there is a connection between that, and what you mentioned in terms of the corruption of higher education, and just the basic lack of a civic education in K-12 education, which hopefully would create an appreciation for American values, and why American values are superior. In other words, you can’t wage ideological warfare effectively if you don’t think that your ideology deserves to win that war. So I don’t know if that’s gonna answer your question, but I never really thought about it before.
Ben Weingarten: Yeah, no, I think… And I think you get at it in a very elegant way, and I think in some sense it’s the most important question because if you assume that we have the capability to triumph in this battle, but we lack a will, the capability’s for naught…[It implies that the] biggest challenge…[is] our own ideology, mindset, worldview as a country…
Rep. Mike Gallagher: Can I just add a point? Can I add a real quick point?
Ben Weingarten: …Absolutely.
Rep. Mike Gallagher: …If you assume that the CCP’s ideology or its model of governance is benign, then why invest in capabilities to counter it? What’s the big deal if they dominate Asia, or if they dominate all the international organizations that we built in the ‘40s and the ‘50s? If they’re just benevolent overlords, or responsible stakeholders, then it’s not worth trying to counter their influence…because maybe we can learn a thing or two. Now, that’s not what I believe, but I do think there is a significant group of people that believe that.
Ben Weingarten: So related to that, given China’s influence over U.S. corporations, academic institutions, and even our media, through its dollars most directly, what can be done legislatively or otherwise to unwind a relationship that gives China such enormous influence and leverage over us?
Rep. Mike Gallagher: Well, I do think, at least on the university front, I do think we are waking up slowly and belatedly to the way in which higher education has been corrupted. I think the recent decision by the Trump administration to revoke or crack down on visas for PLA-affiliated researchers is a great move. I think the various pieces of legislation we’ve had on eliminating the influence of Confucius institutes in American colleges is a positive development. And there’s more we can do there. But I do think you’re right to suggest all of this is bound up in money, and people want to make money.
And I think there’s a few bigger things we need to be looking at. One is just the transparency of our capital markets in general. Obviously, the Trump administration made a great decision recently to change the way that the federal savings plan was invested so that money wasn’t going into Chinese companies, and defense companies [in particular], that could build things that could be used against us in future wars. But I think there is more we can do in terms of just simply subjecting Chinese companies to the same reporting standards that we subject American companies to because listing in an American index is not a right, it’s a privilege.
So that’s one area. I think in terms of things Congress can do to set a better ethical example, it would be wise to reform the Foreign Agent Registration Act process and…the Lobbying Disclosure Act…It’s almost like a loophole that allows people to elide fairer disclosures, but nonetheless lobby on behalf of foreign powers. So this is a situation that results in people like Samir Jain, President Obama’s former cyber security head at NSC [the National Security Council], lobbying on behalf of Huawei without having to register as a lobbyist on behalf of Huawei. So there are easy ways in which we can reform those laws to ensure that former high-level government officials, including former members of Congress, can’t act as shields for the Chinese Communist Party, and collect a paycheck advancing the interests of a government that is often hostile to our own.
What else can we do? I do think that the most difficult part of this is the cultural part…which is related to the university problem, but it obviously is bigger: the NBA, it’s Hollywood…it’s the set of economic and cultural incentives that lead the producers of Top Gun: Maverick to remove the Japanese and Taiwanese flag from Mav’s jacket. That’s a difficult nut to crack. I have suggested we have a simple industry standards where, like…having a rating for a movie, you just have a disclaimer saying, “Hey, this was subjected to Chinese Communist Party censors,” something like that. Senator Ted Cruz has a piece of legislation that would prevent the U.S. military from working with movies that bow to Chinese Communist Party censorship. But at the end of the day, it’s hard for us to proscribe—and I’m not sure we want to get into the business of proscribing—the content that Hollywood produces. But it would be nice to see just simple codes of conduct emerge in these industries that say, “Hey, this is how we’re gonna do business, and we’re not gonna be censored by the CCP just because we want to make money in a country that has 1.4 billion people. But that’s a very difficult thing to do.
And the same is true with the NBA. What’s interesting about the NBA question to me is that when that whole scandal broke out, I sent a letter with some of my colleagues to the NBA Commissioner, and if you look at the list of signatories, it wasn’t just me, Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, the “usual suspects”—it also included AOC. I’m not sure there’s another issue in American politics that unites that wide a range of different people.
Ben Weingarten: How do we ultimately triumph in the competition over 5G? And relatedly, given China state-backed efforts to dominate every major technological field, which they are very open and upfront about, and their willingness to lie, cheat, steal and operate on a completely uneconomic basis to win, how does our relatively free market approach triumph?
Rep. Mike Gallagher: Great question. Well, I do think the coronavirus crisis has brought the threat posed by the CCP into sharp relief for a variety of our allies. There’s some fascinating polling from the Henry Jackson Society, a UK conservative think tank, that suggests views are shifting in ways that will help our cause on 5G. So I think 80% of Brits want the [Boris] Johnson government to push for an inquiry into the Chinese government’s handling of coronavirus. And the same poll found that by a margin of 40 to 27%, the Brits oppose Huawei’s inclusion into their 5G network. And that’s why you sort of seeing this shift from Prime Minister Johnson on that decision, which is a positive development.
We also had an announcement from a leading Canadian telecom company a couple of weeks ago that Huawei would not be building Canada’s 5G network, and of course you know our friends in Australia have been ahead of us on this issue, and they’re suffering retaliation right now for pushing for an independent inquiry to the coronavirus origin, and the complicity of the CCP.
So I think there is a way in which the so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy is backfiring on the CCP right now, and it creates an enormous opportunity for us to get on the same page as our allies when it comes to 5G. And if we can’t convince our Five Eyes allies to get on the same page, then I just think we’re gonna lose the competition. I mean, Five Eyes is where it all starts, and it’s the beating heart of the free world that’s the inner core of our entire alliance system, and I guess I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going in the right direction. But we’ve made a purely defensive case so far, right, so we’ve basically just been going around the world for three years saying, “Huawei’s bad, Huawei’s bad, Huawei’s bad, you can’t trust them.
And that’s right. It’s true. We have…any number of reports from the Wall Street Journal to cyber companies doing very detailed analysis of Huawei tech, take your pick, House Intelligence Committee reports telling us all the same thing…
Benjamin Weingarten: From [eight] years ago…
Rep. Mike Gallagher: …That was back when the Intelligence Committee did stuff related to intelligence. …But…that’s not enough. In some ways, Boris Johnson had a legitimate gripe when he said, “Okay, but the non-Huawei alternatives aren’t as attractive because they don’t offer an integrated solution.” Like Nokia, and Ericsson, have better tech, but Huawei effectively offers you 5G in a box. You don’t have to work with anybody else. And of course, they can now compete on price because they get massive subsidies, so I think the only way we can figure this out is it might require us to adopt a little bit of industrial policy. And I know that is kind of heretical, given that your question was about the free market, but I do think we’ve got to find some light touch way for like-minded countries, free world countries, to collaborate so that we can out-compete with Huawei, not only from a counter-intelligence perspective, but also from a price perspective and a quality perspective.
And I think we have a narrow window right now to do that. I’d be lying to you if I said I had figured out a way to do it, but something like a digital development fund, or even a world in which we’d have to revise some of our anti-trust laws to allow greater cooperation in this space, but it’s making that positive case, that offensive case, that I think is the next phase of this 5G fight.
Ben Weingarten: Given your military background, I’m curious to know, generally, what’s your assessment of China’s military prowess and intelligence capabilities, and related to that, do you share my view and do others in Congress, your colleagues, share the view that ultimately China doesn’t really ever want to get into a kinetic war with the U.S.? Far better from their perspective to in effect win without firing a shot–in part, I would argue, by the supply chain vulnerabilities that they can exploit and that the Trump administration has demonstrated in at least one report that it had put out regarding the holes in our manufacturing and defense industrial base.
Rep. Mike Gallagher: Well, on the first part, the honest answer is I don’t know. This is a military that has invested heavily in ships, rockets in particular, all sorts of equipment, training, and has made remarkable modernization strides, but has not been tested in a meaningful way. In other words, we don’t know if they can fight, and the reality is, they don’t know either. And we have a military that is struggling to invest in modernization, and a bureaucracy that’s struggling to deliver a 21st century military, but has phenomenal recent combat experience. Now, that’s primarily for a low-end fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, as opposed to a high-end fight in INDOPACOM, but it’s nonetheless useful, and I could tell you from a military perspective, there’s no substitute for that type of combat experience. So I think it’s fair to say we just don’t know.
And then for the second part of your question, I agree, I think mostly, right, I think they’re…Neither of our countries wants to get into a conventional war, and certainly not a nuclear war. I think it’s a scary prospect for both sides, but why would they need to resort to that when they can achieve their objective through gray zone tactics, right, and through, sort of, economic coercion and foreign interference as opposed to conventional invasion. And I do think they don’t have ambitions to occupy foreign countries in any military sense, but rather to assimilate them economically and ultimately culturally, or, I don’t know if that’s the right word. But at least sort of integrate them into their network of vassals and tributary states.
The possible exception to that might be Taiwan. I think…I believe, and again, I’m not a regional specialist, just sort of based on what Xi has said, I think Taiwan is his legacy issue, and I think reunification of Taiwan with the mainland, while they would prefer to do it via political warfare or economic warfare, I do not think they will hesitate to do it with military force, if they believe they can get away with it. In other words, if they can pursue a fait accompli strategy before we can mobilize a response, and at a time when they question our resolve, and the willingness of Americans to go to war to defend Formosa, then I think they wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.
Ben Weingarten: Do you think recognizing Taiwan should be on the table? And should lawmakers actually be making the case to the American people today that Taiwan is worth defending?
Rep. Mike Gallagher: Well, I tried to make the case a few weeks ago in an op-ed…It is insulting to me when you haven’t memorized the brilliant prose that I’ve poured forth in recent weeks.
Ben Weingarten: I have read through those articles…
Rep. Mike Gallagher: You’re one of the few, or the only one. I was talking with Josh Rogin the other day for an article, and he was like, “Oh, you wrote a big piece on CCP conduct a couple of years ago.” I’m like, “Dude, if you didn’t read that then nobody read that. Like, you’re the only person that would possibly be interested.” Okay, now I’ve forgotten your question. Oh, Taiwan. Yes, so I guess what I proposed there, and what I still believe is, I think it’s time to clarify our declaratory policy on Taiwan, or our policy of strategic ambiguity, and just make it clear that we will come to Taiwan’s defense if China tries to take over Taiwan.
But I think in the more immediate, we need to work with Taiwan to field the weapons systems that would make any attempt to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force impossible. I think the administration has made some progress on that front in the last month by selling some INF non-compliant missile systems to Taiwan. I view those as key. I view us getting out of the INF as perhaps the single best thing we’ve done from a military perspective in INDOPACOM in the last three years.
So I think there’s a variety of steps in between Congress changing our policy with respect to Taiwan and doing nothing. And I think Taiwan…The way in which Taiwan has handled the coronavirus crisis has been a useful counterpoint to the way in which the CCP has handled the coronavirus crisis, and just the success of Taiwan from a political perspective, I think vitiates the entire existence of the Chinese Communist Party and, as [Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew] Pottinger put it in his May 4th speech, it sort of destroys the notion that democracy doesn’t work in China.
Ben Weingarten: So you’re seated on the new congressional China Task Force. What are the concrete goals, if any, for that group, and can you report at all on its progress?
Rep. Mike Gallagher: …We already completed an interim report on the origins of coronavirus, but the final report will come out at the beginning of October. The committee is organized into five sub-committees. We can think of each of those as kind of a chapter in this final report, but what we hope to do, and I think what every commissioner, or task force member, rather, is aligned on is, there’s so much being written about China, there’s so many reports that get produced by think tanks every single day, we don’t just want to add another one of those to the mix. And it’s really not our role to do some super in-depth academic treatment of the Chinese Communist Party. We’re legislators, and so we want this report to be a call to legislative action. And so I would suspect each chapter will end with a list of ten pieces of legislation in that area that we think are productive and could be passed tomorrow.
And what I think will be interesting about that is, one, that legislation already exists. There’s tons of legislative work going on in this area. And two, it’s mostly bipartisan. I mean, you know, the Uyghur Bill just passed, like 425 to 1, and the strongest champion was Ilhan Omar, if you can believe it. So, even though the Democrats have chosen not to participate in this commission, presumably because they don’t want to shift the narrative away from blaming Trump for coronavirus, ultimately, I think the product will be a sort of bipartisan plan of action for how we get tougher on the CCP.