By David McCormick
March 15, 2023
After leaving the Army in 1992, I took an eight-month trip around the world. Along the way, I read Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster, cataloging his journeys on the “Iron Rooster”—the dilapidated trains connecting cities across the Chinese countryside. The book captivated me. I had to see it for myself.
From Beijing, I rode the Iron Rooster to Nanking, then Shanghai, Guilin, and finally Guangzhou before crossing over to Hong Kong. Early morning runs took me down bicycle-laden streets, past low-slung buildings and crowds of elderly Chinese practicing tai chi in the dawn quiet. My presence was as foreign to them as theirs was to me.
Just over a decade later, I returned to Beijing, this time as a senior U.S. government official. From the state-of-the-art airport, we drove down ten-lane highways into a transformed city. Skyscrapers and cranes crowded the skyline. China had arrived. It was the most significant up and-coming power in the world — and a serious adversary.
In June of 2006, Saint Vincent College, outside Pittsburgh, invited me to speak about the rise of China. Most in Washington and the business community were salivating at the prospect of the massive Chinese market, but that day I issued an early warning about China’s pervasive intellectual property theft–from which China got roughly 90 percent of its software–and the price American innovators were paying.
For the next year, I pushed for aggressive controls on tech exports to guard against the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) theft, human rights abuses, and use of U.S. technologies to build up its military. We made incremental progress, but for successive administrations the status quo in Washington persisted. Beijing’s march to power continued.
Sixteen years later, the China threat exceeds what most could have imagined. Under Xi Jinping, the CCP built the world’s largest Navy, stole hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. intellectual property, and forced companies to play by its increasingly unfair and coercive rules. But it also opened its capital markets and turned itself into an industrial and technological powerhouse at the center of global supply chains. In Xi’s words, China laid “the foundation for a future where” China would be a global power and the most serious external threat the American superpower has faced.
The Trump administration finally broke the status quo by shining the light on China’s unfair trade practices and earning bipartisan support for fair and reciprocal trade. Congress joined the fight with legislation to protect American technologies from Chinese theft and cooption. Investments in domestic semiconductor production and technology leadership have followed, but these steps, though necessary, are ultimately insufficient in isolation.
Therein lies a fundamental flaw of our posture: America still has no unifying strategy to win this competition and redefine our relationship with China.
Looming before us is the risk of a crisis in Taiwan. As senior military and intelligence officials have warned, the CCP could assault the island by mid-decade, and we’re not ready. America must sprint to strengthen its military position immediately and make it clear to Xi Jinping and the CCP that invasion would be foolhardy.
However, while we address the possible near-term threat to Taiwan, we must not lose sight of the horizon, for beyond it lies a far greater danger: the potential end of America’s primacy.
To avert this crisis, we will need a battle plan to both confront China and rebuild our economic and military capability at home. Retooling the China relationship should consist of five steps.
First, extend the Trump administration’s model of fair trade.
Second, reduce our dependence on China and secure our supply chains.
Third, stop U.S. companies from funding China’s military modernization, technological ambitions, and human rights abuses.
Fourth, stand up to the CCP by protecting American innovation and holding China accountable for its thievery and abuses.
Finally, look abroad—to our friends and allies—to out-innovate China.
We must make a simultaneous commitment to renewing America. The United States is caught in a cycle of stagnation and decline, marked by stalled productivity, increasingly inescapable poverty, decaying institutions, and a military losing its innovative edge. As American leadership falters, the national fabric is fraying. You and I can feel it, and so do the 80 percent of Americans who believe America is headed in the wrong direction.
Yet decline is not inevitable. We are no more bound to fall than we are to remain a superpower. What matters is what we do next.
The battle plan to renew America begins with winning the races for talent, technology, and data supremacy. These are untapped areas of potential for America. Victory would get the economy moving again, revitalize the American dream, secure technological leadership, sharpen the military’s edge, and make possible a new era of American power. But victory requires leadership.
Communist China believes the sun is setting on America. It aspires to supplant us and impose its will around the world. The stakes could not be higher. If we don’t act, who else will stand up to Communist China? Who else will defend American values or uphold the peace, prosperity, and liberty we have enjoyed for generations? Without a plan to restore American strength, how will it be possible for us to practice and preserve our exceptionalism?
Only by being strong in defense of American interests, can our nation create the space for each of us to exercise our liberty and to chase our American dream in peace.
Today’s leaders must relearn that lesson and answer the most pressing question: The Chinese Communist Party has a plan to lead the world. What’s ours?