The US's ability 'to confront hard targets like China has really atrophied,' House Intel chairman says

  • After decades of focusing on counterterrorism, the US doesn't have the personnel, the language skills, the expertise, and the prioritization of resources it needs to take on a powerful foe like China, according to Rep. Adam Schiff, House Intelligence Committee chairman.
  • The Trump administration has done "a terrible job" responding to the the challenge that China does pose, Schiff said, because its policy is motivated mostly by Trump's whims rather than a coherent view of China or of US interests.
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For a few moments during Tuesday evening's presidential debate, the two candidates, President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden, were sparring over who is tougher on China.

"He talks about the art of the deal. China's perfected the art of the steal," said Biden. "We have a higher deficit with China now than we did before. We have the highest deficit, trade deficit with Mexico." And then Trump replies by saying, "China ate your lunch. China ate your lunch, Joe."

China-bashing during a US presidential election may be nothing new. But this year, the China threat is more ominous and difficult to confront.

That is the assessment of the House Intelligence Committee in a new report released on Wednesday. It warns that the US intelligence community is stumbling as it increasingly goes head-to-head with Beijing.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, chairs that committee and spoke with The World host Marco Werman about the issues at stake.

Marco Werman: Congressman, what are the key findings of the report?

Rep. Adam Schiff: After decades of a focus on the counterterrorism mission, which was very largely successful in terms of thwarting additional attacks against the United States, and against our homeland, our ability to confront hard targets like China has really atrophied.

We don't have the personnel, the language skills, the expertise and the prioritization of resources that we really should have to deal with a threat that is so cross-cutting against every field and domain: military, air, cyber, technology, diplomacy, foreign investment. And so we have a lot of work to do.

Werman: Wouldn't it make more sense to put resources and emphasis on creating a constructive relationship with China? Not to sound naive, but the US and Chinese economies are so intertwined. This approach seems like it might lose sight of mutual interests.

Schiff: Well, I think we should do everything possible to make sure that this doesn't become another Cold War. But, of course, China has a big say in what kind of relationship they want to have. At present, it appears that China has determined to be increasingly aggressive and bellicose in the region.

China is projecting its power around the world and seeks to change international institutions, moving them away from a law-based, rules-based order to one where "might makes right." So we have very different world views, very different agendas. I think we ought to try to avoid conflict, but we can't be blind to the challenge that is presented both to freedom-loving people around the world, but to our defense, as well as our economy.

Werman: Congressman Schiff, at a very practical level, I'm thinking of language skills. We've been reporting on our show that the US has gutted the Confucius Institutes. These are Chinese government-funded outposts that offer Chinese language and culture classes. So, what resources are you proposing to fill the language gap — because robots can only do so much. Don't we need linguists?

Schiff: We absolutely need linguists. And you're right, that's going to require resources. And we don't want to rely on the resources that we don't trust.

So we need to make sure that we get out, and that we recruit the very best personnel and that we train them and we make use of their incredible talent. That's going to mean making choices— because the resources are not unlimited. And so we need to figure out where we deploy our resources.

Now to what degree are we in the intelligence world still fighting the last war? And that may be the last war on terror. And how do we redeploy and reallocate to these emerging priorities, these hard-target nation-state actors that never went away but have changed in their complexity and the danger they present?

Werman: I was wondering about that because Trump's rhetoric around China has been competitive, angry and even insulting in recent months. But it seems you and other Democrats' concerns about China may not be laden with his words, but you're just as concerned by the threat. What do you really see as the differences in your two positions, Congressman? What do you both want as outcomes?

Schiff: The president's policy is essentially a "pro-Donald Trump policy," which means that it's idiosyncratic and divorced from America's national interests. So at times, it's praising President Xi [Jingping]. At times it's attacking President Xi. At times, it is making ZTE [a Chinese telecom firm] a national security issue. At other times, it's just another trade issue.

This kind of schizophrenic approach to our relations with China, of course, doesn't improve the United States' position that the trade policies have been an utter failure. Our economic situation has not improved. Our position in the world has declined. What we need is a consistent and thoughtful approach to meeting China's rise in every domain. That means we need to be more competitive in terms of our engagement around the world with development assistance, to meet their Belt and Road Initiative. It means we need to think about investments to protect our satellites and to meet the challenges posed by China in space. It means that we need to look at the cyber issues and China's very aggressive cyberespionage and cybertheft of intellectual property. It means that we need to develop coalitions in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Those are — or should be — bipartisan priorities. The difference is in how those priorities are effectuated. And this administration has done a terrible job because its policy is really motivated by the whims of the president, not any coherent view of China or the United States or anything else.

Werman: Are you worried, Congressman Schiff, that in this election year, what passes for debate will be seen by many as knee-jerk China-bashing and xenophobia? I mean, is that a legitimate worry for both parties?

Schiff: China understands the political dynamic and what took place during the debate, although I have to say I think for all of us watching the debate last night, watching our president's performance was just a national embarrassment.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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