Sullivan Headlines Atlantic Council Discussion on U.S.-China Relations
WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was interviewed on Monday by the Atlantic Council’s President and CEO Frederick Kempe regarding the senator’s call for a long-term, bipartisan strategy to address the challenges posed by the rise of China. The Atlantic Council is a premier think tank focused on international affairs offering a forum to “[shape] policy choices and strategies to create a more free, secure, and prosperous world.”
To watch the discussion, click here.
AMBASSADOR PAULA J. DOBRIANSKY: Welcome. I’m Paula Dobriansky, an Atlantic Council board member and senior fellow in the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. I’d like to welcome you to the latest edition of the Atlantic Council’s Front Page, our premier live ideas platform for global leaders.
Today we have the very distinct honor of hosting US Senator Dan Sullivan from the great state of Alaska for a discussion on how to address the challenges posed by China. Senator Sullivan, thank you so much for joining us this evening.
The senator sits on the Armed Services Committee. And prior to being elected to the Senate, he served as Alaska’s attorney general and commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. But let me share some insights about his background that’s so relevant to today’s discussion.
He has worked for almost a quarter of a century on US-China relations in a variety of roles, and let me share a few. As a Marine, he was deployed [as] part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and as part of an amphibious task force to the Taiwan Straits. And this was part of the US response to Chinese provocations on the eve of the presidential elections in Taiwan. And also, as an Alaskan commissioner of natural resources and energy, he traveled twice to China with the goal of seeking to cultivate their interest in Alaska’s energy and natural resources.
But it didn’t end there. He also worked at the White House at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. And I also had the great privilege of working with him at the State Department when he served as the assistant secretary of state for international economic and business affairs. And in those capacities—the economic, trade, business—he also in the executive branch also had a great deal of involvement with the US-China relationship.
So I have to say, again, we are so grateful, Senator Sullivan, that you can join us.
Today’s discussion comes as US-China relations remain tense. China is the foremost geopolitical competitor to the United States since the Soviet Union. It presents a challenge across the domains of trade, technology, governance, and security. And on the other hand, collaborating with China is so important for tackling issues such as global health security, climate change, food security, peacekeeping, and more. Most recently, top US and Chinese diplomats engaged in a rather tense exchange in Alaska, Senator Sullivan’s home. And in fact, he was also in Alaska as these meetings took place.
So it is very fitting that today’s discussion was organized by the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, which has played truly a key role in shaping the Council’s efforts to develop strategies for addressing the China challenge. Most recently, the Atlantic Council released “The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy.” This is an anonymously-written Atlantic Council strategy paper that calls for US strategy toward China to focus on the fault lines among President Xi Jinping and his inner circle, and to strive to change their objectives and behavior—and, thus, their strategic course.
The paper has already started to shape policy debates around China, as it drew widespread attention and conversation among foreign affairs strategists. This is part of a growing body of China strategy work from the Scowcroft Center. In fact, if I may mention, last year Steve Hadley and I had written a strategic insights memo that focused specifically on the China-Russia relationship. The Scowcroft Center also released “An Allied Strategy for China” in December that outlined a comprehensive China strategy with input from experts from leading democratic allies. And then, earlier today, we released “The China Plan: A Transatlantic Blueprint for Strategic Competition.” This is a long-term transatlantic strategy for managing China’s rise.
So as you could see, today’s discussion is really quite timely. And our distinguished speaker, Senator Dan Sullivan, will consider critical questions about the challenge from China, and how the United States and its allies should address it. Given “The Longer Telegram’s” immediate impact on foreign policy debates, the discussion will also turn to that paper and gauge key pillars of a China strategy. We’re also going to address how the United States should approach partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. And finally, I have to mention—because it’s a crucial issue—this evening’s conversation will also address the subject of energy policy, an issue that clearly is important to Alaska and the US economy more broadly, and an area that the senator has been deeply engaged in.
So, like all of you in our audience, I am very, very eager to hear how Senator Dan Sullivan presents his insights and analysis of strategic implications of the China challenge and how to formulate the most effective response. So I’d like to now turn the time over to Mr. Fred Kempe, our president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, who will be moderating the discussion. Over to you, Fred, and welcome.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Thank you so much, Paula. I am so blessed to have the Atlantic Council board members that we have. Paula Dobriansky has been one of our finest civil servants over time. Thank you so much for that, Paula, and thank you for everything you’ve contributed to the United States and to our interests around the world.
Welcome, everyone joining us. We have a global audience for this AC Front Page. We’ve had everyone from the president of France to the leader of the IMF, and tonight we have those tuning in to this program from C-SPAN. So thank you so much for that.
For our audience, we encourage you to engage and submit your questions by using the hashtag #ACFrontPage—hashtag #ACFrontPage—or by using the Q&A function if you’re joining us on Zoom.
So, Senator Sullivan, let’s get right into it. Paula—before we go to Alaska, because some pretty important events took place in Alaska last Thursday and Friday and I really want to start with those, but I wouldn’t mind starting with the rich personal history that Paula went into. That’s a lot of China in your background, and you come to the Senate now with that rich background and that rich history. Give us a little bit of a feeling as you went through that background—the Marines, the State Department, the various positions you’ve had in Alaska—how these experiences of China have shaped you to put you in the position you are today.
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN: Great. Well, thanks, Fred, and I appreciate the question. And I really appreciate the great work of the Atlantic Council. Paula, thank you for the very kind introduction. And to the Atlantic Council and all the great members working there, thanks for your great work, whether it’s “The Longer Telegram” that you just put out—so I’m really looking forward to reading the document that you just published today.
So I want to begin just by thanking you and letting you know it’s a real honor to be able to say a few words. And really, we’re all in this together, right? I learn from all of you, from what you’re producing with all your experts, and hopefully, we can all talk about some of the issues and concerns that we have.
So maybe I’ll mention that about issues and concerns, Fred, as it relates to my background, as Paula mentioned, I was first in the region as a US Marine. This was almost twenty-four years ago, deployed as part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, but it was the height of the Taiwan Strait crisis. Now they refer to that as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. The ship that I was on actually was the ship that was ordered to run the Taiwan Strait at the height of that tense moment to show American commitment, American resolve. A lot of people think that was an aircraft carrier. It was actually an amphibious assault ship. Looks like a carrier. It had Harriers, helicopters, and about 1,100 Marines, and a couple thousand sailors. So it was showing American commitment to a very important ally, Taiwan.
But, look, my experience I think in many ways is similar to so many others who have dealt with the Chinese for a long time. As Paula mentioned, I worked at the NSC. I traveled a lot with our then-US trade representative, Bob Zoellick, one of the most strategic thinkers on China, probably, in our government. I was recalled by the Marines again for a year and a half, went mostly to the—to the Middle East, but when I came back I was one of Secretary Rice’s assistant secretaries of state and I was the lead State Department official on what was then called the Strategic Economic Dialogue that Secretary Hank Paulson led for the United States in China. And here’s—and then, as a State official, as Paula mentioned, trying to get the Chinese to be more interested in my state’s economy.
Here’s the issue that I think kind of, in that broad brushstroke, I think a lot of Americans have had a similar kind of experience. And first, I would call it kind of the awakening. Bob Zoellick gave this really great speech about China becoming a responsible stakeholder and part of the international system that the United States really led since the end of World War II, and how this system helped China’s rise—probably helped China more than any other country in the world. So we were essentially saying you need to be part of it, you need to promote it.
Essentially, over the years it’s very clear they have rejected that. They have clearly rejected that. And I think different Americans at different points in their own personal experience have had this awakening that what I refer to as promise fatigue. I’ve been in so many meetings where I’ve seen Chinese presidents and on down promise things to American officials and they almost never follow through. The list is long.
I was in a meeting with the president of the United States, President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice. He pressed Madam Wu Yi, then the vice-premier of China, on intellectual property theft. This is in 2003. She promised the president in the Oval Office China was going to do something about this, all in on protecting intellectual property. It’s worse now than it was in that meeting.
So I think so many Americans have seen the kind of promise of what we thought was going to happen really fade. And to me, what I did when I came to the Senate six years ago was I started giving speeches about China and how we need to focus on China. And to be honest, I was surprised how little there was in terms of a focus.
The good news is you can’t give that speech now. Everybody in DC is focused on China. I think the Trump administration, [with] their National Security Strategy [and] their National Defense Strategy, was a really important beginning to that. And now what I have told the Biden administration, and my Republican and Democratic colleagues, the most important thing we can do right now, the thing that I believe Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party fear more than anything, is a long-term bipartisan strategy dealing with the rise of China that we need to be focused on, in my view, for the next fifty to one hundred years.
So I’m very committed to doing that. I think the work that the Atlantic Council’s doing is contributing to that. But to me, that’s why I’m working very hard on both sides of the aisle—Democrats, Republicans, and this administration—to help them shape what we need.
I think the analogy is very much like it was in 1947. We recognized then we had a big challenge in the Soviet Union. You had the Truman administration working with Republican senators, putting together a strategy that ended up being a long-term strategy—not perfect—that ended up winning the Cold War. I think we can do that again, and I think that could be a huge, important legacy of what this administration’s working on building, what the Trump administration began.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Senator, thank you so much for that, and you really underscored so many of the reasons why we wanted to have this conversation with you today. Promise fatigue, very well said. A long-term bipartisan strategy for the next fifty to one hundred years sounds a lot like what happened after the end of World War II. And so thank you so much for that.
So long-term strategy, fifty to one hundred years, but it starts with what happened Thursday and Friday in Alaska. And I promise our audience we didn’t plan this knowing that Senator Sullivan would be in Alaska with the US principals on the first important meeting of the Chinese-US relationship under the Biden administration, but you were there. A hotel I’ve spent some time in, the Hotel Captain Cook, shut down for ten hours of meetings over Thursday and Friday.
Can you—you met with the US principals after the meeting. Can you give us some insight into what you think that meeting produced? Is it a bad start for the relationship, a good start for the relationship? Is it part of the—is it the beginning of this longer struggle you were talking about?
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN: Well, look, I think—I think it was a realistic start to the relationship, and that’s what we need. We need a realistic assessment of what our differences are, what the challenges are. I would say, though, there’s no doubt that that meeting was about as chilly as the Alaska air outside, which was a nice and chilly winter day on Thursday and Friday.
But in my discussions I had a good, long discussion with Secretary Blinken; the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan; Kurt Campbell, who’s the top China official on the NSC. From my perspective, I actually like the way in which Jake Sullivan talks about dealing with the Chinese. He mentions this issue of making sure we’re doing it from a position of strength. This is actually—interestingly enough, this is how Dean Acheson talked about dealing with the Soviet Union, Fred, in the period in which you and I were just talking. That’s what he said. I think Jake Sullivan has in many ways pulled that from that moment in history, which is a good analog from my perspective, an important one.
So I think first of all, of course, we are proud that the first meeting was in Alaska. But I think it was important to show it was in Alaska. A, it’s on American soil. But for—those of you who have been to Alaska know we are in many ways an Asia-Pacific state. Xi Jinping loves to use this phrase, “Asia for Asians,” which is kind of a subtle way to say: America, get out of here. Well, here’s the fact: We’ve been in Asia as a nation in many ways for over two-hundred years. My state, where I live, Anchorage, is closer to Tokyo than it is to Washington, DC. We are an Asian nation. That’s a given.
But the one thing that I think is critical when they talk about—the administration—how we can deal with China from positions of strength, what I have been pressing them to do—and a lot of this they’re already doing—but first of all is our political divisions. The Chinese clearly, if you read the open-source materials, if you read the intel, they think they’re rising and we’re declining in large measure because of our political divide. My own view: I like to read a lot of history. We’ve had political division since the beginning of the republic; they’re just always on display because we’re a democracy and it’s very transparent. Trust me, the Chinese have political divisions, which is the whole point—one of the big points of “The Longer Telegram.” They just try to hide them.
But I do think that all of us—and I mean the key Republicans/Democrats, working with this administration, coming together on China, which is starting to happen. There’s no doubt about it. And I actually think that is something that the Chinese fear. They recognize in many ways that we are now finally awakened to the challenge. And I would call it a bipartisan awakening. So that’s a position of strength that we all can work on—senators, members of this administration.
Let me give you a couple others. And I—and I’ll touch on, and I’m sure we’ll probably go into more detail, allies.
We are [an] ally-rich nation. Our adversaries—China, certainly, is ally-poor. And clearly, one of the most important strategic advantages we have over China is our network of alliances, the work to deepen the alliances that we have and expand them. And I will commend the Biden administration on their meeting with the Quad recently, the leaders’ meeting with the Quad, and then prior to this meeting with the Chinese meetings in Japan, in Korea with the secretary of defense, with the secretary of state. The secretary of defense then went on to India. I was honored that he gave me a call yesterday to give me a readout of those meetings. So I think they did a really good job stepping up this important position of strength, and I think the Chinese know that it’s a huge vulnerability of theirs.
Two others, though, that I think the administration needs to signal on where they’re going to be because it’s not clear. As a matter of fact, I would say there are internal debates within the Biden administration.
One is our military strength. I’m a member of the Armed Services Committee. I still serve in the Marine Corps Reserves myself as a colonel. We have to—have to—make sure we are continuing to rebuild our military. The second term of the Obama-Biden administration cut defense spending by 25 percent, gutted readiness. I used to chair the Readiness Subcommittee on the Armed Services Committee. We have to build back on our military particularly what’s called the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
The INDOPACOM commander testified in a top-secret hearing two weeks ago and an open hearing two weeks ago. I attended both. He is saying that we have to fully fund this Pacific Deterrence Initiative that was passed in the NDAA last year. I was a co-sponsor of that. We need to do that.
And we also, importantly—and I know we’re going to talk about it—need to take advantage of this great strategic opportunity we have in America with regard to energy. We are the world’s energy superpower now—the largest producer of natural gas in the world, the largest producer of oil in the world, largest producer of renewables in the world. This is an enormous strategic comparative advantage we have over the Chinese, particularly in Asia. And moves which you’re starting to see in the Biden administration to unilaterally restrict American energy production makes zero sense for jobs, for the environment, for our foreign policy and national security. And I have been strongly encouraging all of them to take advantage of this, not to undercut it.
FREDERICK KEMPE: So I did not envision we would get into energy this early in the conversation, but of course it’s natural. That was a terrific answer. I want to get to a bunch of other issues.
But since you’re on energy, I’m going to tee up a question from Ambassador Dick Morningstar, who was the founder of our Global Energy Center and former special envoy on energy for the State Department. You know him well.
But before he asks his question, let me ask mine. In January you did criticize the Biden administration’s decision to issue a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the non-wilderness coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and revoke the 2017 presidential permit authorizing construction of Keystone XL Pipeline, suspend all oil and gas and mining authorizations for activities on federal lands and waters for sixty days. Can the Biden administration have it both ways? Can it compete with China the way it wants to compete on China, be a global leader, and at the same time take these energy actions, which are understandable considering the desire for an energy transition and a cleaner energy future? But what is your answer [to] that? And then I’ll turn to Dick Morningstar after that.
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN: Well, look, I think that the fact that we have this enormous advantage is really important for our economy. A lot of people remember the 2008-2009 recovery. That was driven—that recovery out of the Great Recession was driven by the energy sector, period. Even if you weren’t from an energy state, capital formation, GDP growth, and job growth were driven by the energy sector.
Here is the thing, Fred, that’s often missed. We have the highest standards of energy production in the world, by far. I used to be in charge of it in Alaska. There’s no place on the planet that has higher environmental standards than we do—than the production of energy, for example, on the North Slope of Alaska. You can’t spit chewing tobacco on the tundra without having to report it, trust me. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Venezuela: They don’t have standards even remotely close to us.
So if you need energy—which, of course, we do—why wouldn’t you produce it in the place with the highest standards in the world—America, Alaska? Why wouldn’t you do it with regard to American energy workers? These are really good jobs. And why wouldn’t you do it in a country like ours, where it gives you a comparative advantage?
If we are exporting, for example, LNG to our allies—Japan, Korea, India—the thing that the Biden administration misses—not all of them. Trust me, I’ve talked to pretty much every one of them. Our country reduced greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 to 2017 by almost 15 percent. That’s more than any other major economy in the world by far. How did we do that? It was primarily the revolution in natural gas. If you want to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, to me the—and trust me, we’re going to be putting some material out on this. I’d love to come brief the folks at the Atlantic Council. It’s a plan that’s going to be very data-driven. The best way to do that from a global perspective is to get clean-burning Alaskan natural gas or clean-burning lower-48 natural gas to our allies, to the Indians—heck, in my view, even to the Chinese if they want to purchase it. That will do more to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions than almost anything you can imagine.
So it is a win-win-win-win with no downside. The idea that you would unilaterally constrict the production of American energy, putting Americans out of work during a recession—and if you do that, all we’re going to do is import more gas from Russia, from Venezuela, from Saudi Arabia. It makes no strategic sense. I believe that many members—senior members of the Biden administration recognize this. There is an internal fight going on on this issue. The president reportedly said in a meeting with labor leaders recently that he’s all in on natural gas. So let’s see.
But I’m going to keep pressing this. It makes sense. And for a whole host of reasons, we should not be unilaterally disarming ourselves on this great comparative advantage that the Chinese know we have. And I think it, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, is really important.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Thank you for that.
AMBASSADOR RICHARD MORNINGSTAR: Thank you, Fred. And thank you, Senator Sullivan, for your comments, and I really do—I really do agree with them.
We at the—our Global Energy Center published a report just a few years ago where we emphasized the importance of LNG exports as a national security tool. And certainly, exporting LNG gas to China is important—liquified natural gas to China is important for the United States, ultimately important for Alaska.
As you pointed out, we have a lot of issues with China right now. Is the question of exporting gas to China—is that an issue that can be compartmentalized and dealt with separately from other issues, or do we have leverage and should we be tying it into other issues? How do you think that works? China will act in its interest, and hopefully, it’s in its interest that they want to import natural gas from the United States—LNG from the United States.
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN: Well, look, Ambassador, thanks for your question. And when I worked at the State Department, the BTC Pipeline, that I know you played a critical role in, was another example of Caspian energy, working with our allies in a way that helped energy security but was a hugely important geostrategic move that the United States did to undercut the Russians. And so, to me, energy plays a huge role, and you are the really foremost leader on that policy. I want to thank you for that.
AMBASSADOR RICHARD MORNINGSTAR: Thank you.
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN: But to your question, my view would be the opportunities that we have to export Alaska LNG—my state’s been exporting LNG to Asia since the late sixties. A lot of people forget that. We were essentially really the first exporters of LNG anywhere out of Cook Inlet in Alaska to Japan in the late sixties. We have, obviously, huge, gigantic, massive reserves of conventional—you don’t even really have to frack it—natural gas on the North Slope of Alaska with our giant oil fields. That, I think, can be an enormous benefit not just to Alaska and the American economy as you develop that, but to our allies.
So my priority would be to our allies. Certainly, the Japanese need and want more natural gas, LNG. So do the Koreans. And I’ve been over there many times to discuss these. They’re trying to diversify their supplies, which as you know they get a lot from the Middle East, Qatar. They get a lot from the Russians. They get some from our good allies the Australians. But Taiwan also is looking at significantly importing natural gas. And even India, as well.
So, for example, one idea that I think has a lot of promise is when you look at the next phase of initiatives that we have with the Quad. And again, I commend President Biden on his elevating the Quad. That’s the Quadrilateral Security relationship—India, Japan, Australia, and the United States. Started in the George W. Bush administration. President Trump elevated it more. President Biden has even elevated it more. But if you see an opportunity there, think about it. Two exporters of LNG, America and Australia; two countries that need LNG, Japan and India. To me, there’s an enormous strategic opportunity there.
But once our allies have the supplies they need, would I be fine with exporting LNG to China? Absolutely I would. It would certainly help reduce our trade deficit with them. It could bring cooperation on an important issue. It would dramatically help China reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. I mean, when you look at the numbers, their numbers on greenhouse gas emissions are going through the roof. Ours, as I mentioned, are declining. Theirs and India’s are going through the roof. This would help that issue globally, as well.
So I think you focus on our allies first. But if there’s a capacity and interest from China—and I know there is; I’ve been over there to talk to them about it—I think it would make sense to do that as well.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Thank you so much, Senator. And thank you for your question, Ambassador Morningstar.
So there’s some interesting news today worth commenting on. The US, the UK, the European Union, and Canada all announced sanctions against Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim community in China. All three sets of sanctions announced on Monday target officials associated with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps paramilitary organization; the Public Security Bureau in that province, which contracted with major Chinese companies to build mass detention camps. This is the first time China has sanctioned—sorry, EU has sanctioned China on human rights since 1989.
How significant is this? Because we were talking about working with friends and allies to shape this. You’ve said this is our unique strength vis-à-vis China. Coming right after the Alaska meetings, how significant do you see this move?
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN: I think it’s very significant. And I think the fact that the United States was working on these efforts closely with our allies, particularly our European allies—and the Atlantic Council, of course, knows a lot about our European allies. But in my discussions with them, some of our European allies are hedging a little more as it relates to their views on China, and they’re hedging a little more because of what is the huge Chinese market.
One of my good friends in the Senate, Angus King from the great state of Maine, has this phrase that he’s used that I’ve kind of—I’ve kind of copied that China doesn’t have allies; they have customers. And you start to see that in the way in which countries behave because, let’s face it, if you just look at another really important ally of ours, Australia, China has been singling them out in many ways with economic coercion, almost an economic blockade on some of their key exports. And I think it’s really important as we work with our allies to get them to work with us on these kinds of issues, which are not easy to make the decision to do them given the leverage China has over countries with regard to its market.
But from the US side, I think it’s also important that we stick up for our allies. And I think our allies appreciate that. I’m sure it’s not a surprise to all the people participating today that the secretary and Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell in their meetings raised the issue of the Canadian hostages, the two Mikes as we’re calling that, and the issue of economic coercion as it relates to Australia. So that’s what it means. That’s the importance of working with our allies.
But I think the announcement today, that it had broad—and getting the EU on board on some of these issues, as you mentioned, Fred, it’s not been since 1989 since that happened—
FREDERICK KEMPE: That’s right.
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN:—is a really important development. And again, it’s an area where the Chinese are very vulnerable and they know it. When you saw their leadership on live TV lecturing Americans, lecturing the world about their, quote, “democracy,” they don’t have a democracy. We all know that. And human rights? This is where they know they’re vulnerable as it relates to the rest of the world, and I think it’s an area that’s appropriate to press on.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Such a good answer.
We’re getting a lot of questions in. I invite others to bring in questions.
Let me give you a comment rather than a question, Senator Sullivan, from—it says from Nobuo Tanaka, who I think you must know: Dear Dan, as former executive director of the IEA I could not agree more with the importance of natural gas in Alaska. Japan started imports of LNG fifty years ago. Isn’t that interesting? But now for [carbon-neutralizing] our economies, we have to consider importing hydrogen out of gas rather than liquefying it. So just an interesting comment.
The other thing I think—
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN: Well, I just want to say that—
FREDERICK KEMPE: Yes?
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN:—Nobuo Tanaka is a great friend of mine and he did a great job as the chairman of the International Energy Agency. I was the US board member at the time as an assistant secretary of state, and we were good friends and saw eye to eye on a lot of issues. And so I’m glad he’s watching.
FREDERICK KEMPE: No, this is a wonderful community that we’re able to bring together through this—through the virtual means.
I do need to share with you a couple of questions that are skeptical.
There’s Harlan Ullman, a senior advisor to the Atlantic Council, who believes we tend to overexaggerate threats, and he’s really questioning what is the real threat to the United States from China at the moment.
Harley Schlanger is saying you’re talking about a new Cold War, regarding “The Longer Telegram,” and he says this comes from an American unilateralist outlook. We violated international rules ourselves. He talks about Iraq. What gives us the right that China must adhere to rules that we violated?
So I’m sure we’ve heard these sorts of questions before, but I think it’s right to question at the onset of a new era. And you’ve talked about this as a new era. The threat is quite different than the Soviet Union’s threat—less military, perhaps more ideological. Take those two questions together and deal with the skepticism of whether China is as big of a threat as it’s—or maybe more precisely, in what way is China a threat?
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN: Look, I would take it—I would take it from the perspective that I tried to outline when I—when you asked me the first question, kind of my own development in my different work over the years with China. But what I’ve found is that my experience is so similar to so many other American/European officials that I talk to. And what do I mean by that?
There was, of course, the US opening—the Nixon-Kissinger meetings—that began the relationship. There was essentially kind of a semi-alliance as it related to the Soviet Union, and there was always this notion that as China opened up and developed that it would become kind of part of the system from which its rise dramatically benefited from. And again, I don’t always see eye to eye—he’s just written a great book that I’m reading right now, but former World Bank President Bob Zoellick and US trade rep and deputy secretary of state—but I would—if your listeners haven’t looked at the speech he gave on the responsible stakeholder, it was really kind of saying: All right, China. You’ve risen. This system that we put together and we’ve led—the United States—is something that’s benefited you. You need to kind of own it more, be a responsible stakeholder, abide by the rules that you’ve agreed to.
And you know, I went to China a number of times after that speech and it was very interesting, Fred, because it was clearly the case that the Chinese were contemplating this offer. I saw meetings where the president and everybody down the line—they’re very disciplined, by the way, on using the same talking points—talked about responsible stakeholders and the importance of it. That approach has clearly been rejected.
One of the things I do, I read a lot of the translated Xi Jinping speeches. I read the intel on what they’re doing. “The Longer Telegram” talks about the differences within the Communist Chinese Party. But a couple things. Everybody’s had this awakening—most people have—that they’re not only not going to be part of the system that we think has helped lead to their rise—it has—but that they are now putting forward a very strong system in which they’re going to compete with us. It’s an authoritarian system, not just at home but abroad. And when you look at their military conduct, you look at the coercion that they’ve undertaken with other countries, I think it presents an enormous long-term challenge to the United States.
It’s not the same as the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But I have mentioned in speeches that I think it’s its own Cold War. We need to recognize it, we need to prepare for it, and we need to work with our allies to deal with it.
So I recognize that some people disagree with that. But in the stretch of time I’ve dealt with the Chinese, particularly on these issues of reciprocity, promise fatigue—you know, Xi Jinping sat in the—stood in the Rose Garden with President Obama in 2015, said they weren’t going to do any more intellectual property theft and they weren’t going to militarize the South China Sea. That was a promise he made standing next to the president of the United States. Those are broken within months, and this is the regime we’re dealing with?
We’re going to have to cooperate, as Paula mentioned, but the challenges are very real. And the good news is Democrats and Republicans in the Congress have awakened to this, and I think there’s an opportunity to really put together a strategy—long term, bipartisan like we did in 1947—that ultimately is going to result in promoting our freedom and prosperity, that we—that’s what we need to do.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Senator Sullivan, we’re going to have to do another one of these we’re getting so many questions in—(laughs)—so many good questions.
Let me—we did want to talk about “The Longer Telegram,” so let’s do that. It was an anonymous former senior official. We didn’t say what government. We didn’t say what gender. We just said it was somebody who was pretty, pretty gifted in [their] knowledge of China. You went on the Senate floor. You talked about it a bit, and really a brilliant—and anyone who wants to search this online, it really was a brilliant ten, fifteen minutes where you talked about China and the strategic threat.
What will it take? You said long term, but the thing that really set this “Longer Telegram” apart was its focus on Xi Jinping, focus on the leader. And you said while democrats—in your comments on the floor you said, quote, “While [democracies] are resilient and adaptive and self-renewing, there are many vulnerabilities embedded in China’s perceived strengths. One-man rule creates acute political risk.” Can you talk a little bit about “The Longer Telegram,” why it attracted you? And then this piece of what does one focus on in this longer strategy that the United States needs to guide with its allies.
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN: Well, look, I want to commend the Atlantic Council again for publishing that. I thought it was really, really serious—I read the whole thing—really serious work and the kind of work that we need. I’m not saying it was perfect. I’m not saying it’s exactly the answer. And I’m sure many of the Atlantic Council’s senior officials aren’t saying that either.
But what I’ve found is that—again, I’ll just give a little bit of my kind of time in the Senate. When I—when I got to the Senate, as I mentioned, I was very surprised. This was six years ago. I’m just starting my second term. But I was very surprised how few people—senators were talking about China. It was al-Qaeda. It was ISIS. And don’t get me wrong. I’m a marine. I’ve spent time out in the Middle East. I understand the threat that those countries have posed. But it was really surprising to me how off the radar screen the rise of China was and what we were trying to do about it.
So what I’ve done, I’ve given a number of speeches, but when I’m seeing things that I think were very noteworthy, I’ve gone down on the floor and said, hey, look, look at this. My colleagues, Democrats, Republicans, take a look at this. I did that—you might remember there was an Atlantic piece by Professor Graham Allison at Harvard about the Thucydides Trap. This is before he wrote the book called “Destined for War.” Right when that was published, I read that and I said, this is good. I’m not sure I agree with it 100 percent, but it’s good stuff. So I went down on the floor and I talked all about Graham Allison’s Thucydides Trap Atlantic piece.
I’ll tell you a really interesting story. I was second-year in the Senate, I think, because—my senior Senate leaders of—John McCain was a real big mentor of mine—knew that I cared a lot about these issues. I gave that speech and I was—on the Thucydides Trap—and I was invited to a meeting right after to meet with Xi Jinping. He was in a meeting with Senate leadership, and somehow I got asked to be in the meeting even though I wasn’t part of Senate leadership. In fact, I was two years in the Senate. And Xi Jinping looked at all of us, and a couple of my Senate colleagues had seen my speech. They said, hey, Dan, what were you talking about? I said, oh, it’s this new article by Graham Allison. It’s pretty good. I explained what the Thucydides Trap was. Xi Jinping in this meeting with US senators said the number-one thing we need to avoid is the Thucydides Trap.
FREDERICK KEMPE: (Laughs.)
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN: In the meeting. And I had just given a speech on it. So I can’t say I disagreed with him.
But so when I saw “The Longer Telegram” it struck me in very much the same way. As a matter of fact, I was very honored that John McCain before he passed—and we’ve lost a great American, of course, who knew Asia—he asked me to take over the chairmanship of the International Republican Institute. And in one of my first speeches as the new chairman, I said, I think we’re in this analogous period of 1947 and we need the strategic thinking that like came out of “The Long Telegram,” the Kennan one.
So I’ve been calling for that. And when I saw what the Atlantic Council produced, I was immediately struck. And I read it, and then I decided I thought it was important enough to let my Senate colleagues know about it. A number of them have read it. But I thought the insight about focusing on the fractures within the Chinese Communist Party was very important.
You know, some people have actually criticized that, saying, well, look, if you’re giving a speech and a strategy that’s fully focused on trying to crack the leadership cohesiveness, that if China knows you’re going to do that it’s not like you’re going to get very far with them. But I think it raises a really important point that everybody talks about Xi Jinping’s anticorruption strategy where all these senior leaders have been going to jail. Is it an anticorruption strategy or is it cleansing the leadership of his rivals?
I had—in one of my many trips to China I met with Bo Xilai. That was a clear rival to Xi Jinping. He’s now in jail for life. So it’s clearly, I think, a vulnerability that they have.
The other thing I thought that was really important about “The Longer Telegram” piece was how it says we need to be very clear about declaring what our red lines, are and stick to them, and what our strategic interests are. Some people don’t like that kind of focus. I actually think that it helps keep the peace, not the opposite way, if you’re very clear on the articulation of what the strategic red lines are for the United States. And I thought the piece “The Longer Telegram” articulated those red lines and strategic interests very, very well.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Senator Sullivan, thank you so much for that answer.
We could probably talk an hour and a half on “The Longer Telegram,” an hour and a half on the questions that are coming in. But I’m going to talk to—I’m going to turn to Dr. Miyeon Oh, the director of our Asia Security Initiative in the Scowcroft Center. And she sees to it that we keep our allies together, which isn’t always easy, in Asia. And Miyeon, Dr. Oh, let me turn to you for your question.
MIYEON OH: Thank you so much, Fred. And thank you so much, Senator, for sharing your insight and experience.
And I’d like to turn to you for a question about US supply chain policy, which you have been a strong voice for reinvigorating it. Last fall you called US supply chain dependence on China outrageous and argued that China has calculated attempt to keep supply chain dependent on them has to stop. Last month, President Biden [issued] an executive order on America’s supply chain to conduct a policy review in two phases of the targeted critical industries of semiconductors, batteries, rare earths, and pharmaceuticals. And we know that the Biden administration said that it is looking for proactive, multistakeholder assessment and subsequent targeting of specific technologies as the key to a successful US supply chain strategy. So I’d like to ask, what do you see as the most important priority for US supply chain policy both domestically in terms of reshoring and overseas working with partners and allies? Thank you so much.
SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN: Thank you, Dr. Oh. And I think this is another example of a real strong area where we can make some important bipartisan progress.
And I think the pandemic, of course, from a health perspective, economic perspective, jobs perspective, have obviously really challenged our country. It really challenged my state, for example, particularly on the economic side. But it also highlighted areas of vulnerability that I think we weren’t as a nation so aware of. And the one that you are talking about, securing our supply chains and how over-reliant we were on China in a whole host of areas—you mentioned pharmaceuticals. That’s, obviously, a big one. You know, during the pandemic PPE was another one. And it didn’t help when the Chinese at certain points actually threatened us with their—you know, they knew that they had a kind of comparative advantage relative to us and what we needed with regard to the supply chains.
I’ll tell you when I saw I forget which official talked about really trying to hurt us because they had that advantage, I said that’s the dumbest thing that guy could have done but probably the best thing for America because it wasn’t an official like me saying we’re vulnerable. It was a Chinese senior official saying and here’s how we’re going to take advantage of you Americans during the pandemic. Outrageous, really stupid on their part, but that drove a lot of senators together on this issue. So I applauded the Biden administration’s executive order. As you know, the Trump administration was very focused on this as well.
I think one of the most important areas we need to look at in addition to pharmaceuticals is critical minerals. And this is rare earth, this is lithium, this is a whole host of critical minerals that we are over-reliant with regard to China. Some of these go into our defense systems, F-35s, and other things. Some of them go into the areas of renewable technology, cellphone technology. And here’s the thing, we have a lot of these. By the way, as late as—as recently as the 1980s the United States was some of the biggest producer and processors of these critical minerals. Why we outsourced this all to China over the last three decades, that’s water under the bridge. But in my view, we need to fix it.
And the reason I’m starting to see bipartisan support—I had a provision in the NDAA every year that I could never get passed, and last year I got it passed. As a matter of fact, I got it overwhelmingly passed in the committee and it became part of the NDAA. It’s a ten-year strategy to get us off reliance on China with these strategic and critical minerals.
So we need to work with our allies on this—Australia, Canada. But again, I give credit where credit’s due, but I push back a little bit. The secretary of commerce just in the last couple days had meetings with Canadian suppliers, essentially kind of saying, hey, you guys can supply us with all this. Well, we’ll get some from Canada, but you know what? We need it from America, too. My state’s got plenty of strategic and critical minerals if we could just get permitted, which has been difficult, if we can just get—and I’m going to be a little political here—some of the more extreme environmental groups who don’t allow you to produce or mine for anything in America with their litigation—it hurts us.
And once again, it’s the same argument with oil and gas. My state mines. The mining that we do in Alaska, we have the highest standards on the environment of any place on the planet Earth—way, way higher than how they produce and refine in China. So if we need these things, why would we outsource them to a country like China who threatens to cut us off with them and trashes their environment when they produce them? We shouldn’t.
We should be focused on this here. I think it’s a really good bipartisan opportunity. I hope the Biden administration is serious about it. And I hope that they don’t say, you know what, we’ll just do this in Canada, not America. That would be the wrong answer.
FREDERICK KEMPE: That’s a terrific place to close. You’ve given us a lot of time.
Miyeon, Dr. Oh, what a great question. Paula, what an amazing introduction, Ambassador Dobriansky.
Senator Sullivan, your voice is such an important one in the Senate, one of the most experienced, knowledgeable people in international affairs, particularly dealing with China. Insightful and timely. We could not have planned that you just flew back from Alaska and the first meetings of the US administration with the Chinese administration. We welcomed—we welcomed your insights on that and on everything else. So thank you for your time.
Thanks to everyone who participated and asked questions. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to all of you. We look forward to seeing you at the next edition of Atlantic Council Front Page, which is this Thursday at 4:00 PM featuring the president of the Republic of Colombia, Iván Duque, and US Senators Roy Blunt and Ben Cardin, some colleagues of yours, Senator Sullivan. So thank you again, and please join us for the next AC Front Page.
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