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Columnist explains what U.S. national security groups are getting wrong about China

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much should the United States regard China as a threat, and how should the U.S. respond? Those questions are on the minds of U.S. officials during this week that President Xi Jinping begins a third term in office. In Washington this week, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, named China as the top U.S. concern.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AVRIL HAINES: The People's Republic of China, which is increasingly challenging the United States economically, technologically, politically and militarily, around the world remains our unparalleled priority.

INSKEEP: She was speaking to lawmakers who seem to agree, regardless of party, on pursuing tough policies against China. Yet the intelligence chief also gave the best assessment of U.S. analysts that China still wants stability with the United States instead of conflict. So what if the bipartisan consensus on a tough approach to China is wrong? David Rothkopf has been asking that question. He's a columnist for The Daily Beast and a former senior trade official in the Clinton administration. Good morning, sir.

DAVID ROTHKOPF: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's start with the threat. Is China a serious threat to the United States?

ROTHKOPF: I think China poses a threat, potentially. China, I would characterize more, though, is as a serious rival to the United States. So when you played the clip of Avril Haines, she talked about economic, technological and political rivalry. And that's different from being a threat. And I think we need to be able to compete with that. But when we view it as a threat, then we put ourselves into a kind of confrontational position, which can actually damage our interests and make things more dangerous.

INSKEEP: With that said, what is wrong with toughening policies against China because you can make the argument very easily that China has not followed the rules of the international system, has not followed the rules of intellectual property, has not followed the basic rules of capitalism, while pursuing their own version of it? Is it - China is a national security state that is reaching around the world. Is it wrong to toughen U.S. policies against those things?

ROTHKOPF: I don't think it's wrong to harden our defenses against Chinese intrusion, whether it's espionage or intellectual property theft. But I do think that the thing that is proven to be most effective with intellectual property theft is multilateral efforts, multilateral efforts to make trade and technology secure. We haven't gotten there yet, but if we act alone, what we found in the past is that other nations will trade with China. They will continue exactly along their path. It's easier to act alone, but it's not as effective.

INSKEEP: I would say that President Trump acted alone in many cases against China. But President Biden - the Biden administration has taken a different approach of trying to coordinate other nations against China. What do you think they're getting wrong?

ROTHKOPF: Well, I don't think they're getting a lot wrong in terms of coordinated approach. For example, on security, they've elevated the quad, which is our partnership with Japan and India and Australia. They have elevated AUKUS, which is another partnership. I think these things are positive. I was speaking specifically on the multilateral front to the issue of trade in technology products. We're trying to deny them access to those products. They're going to get them from someplace else unless we have an actually kind of a global effort to do that. We've got to get them to play by the rules. Pretending that they're not going to be trading with other people is not going to work for us.

INSKEEP: What are the risks of going too far?

ROTHKOPF: Well, the risks of going too far are that we heighten tensions and we create situations that accidentally escalate. You can look at, for example, the situation with Taiwan last year when Nancy Pelosi went there. The Chinese felt they had to respond. We felt we had to respond to the Chinese. You could imagine an accident or, you know, some other kind of event that would trigger conflict. We need to be careful of that. It's not in our interest. It's not in their interest, as Avril Haines said.

INSKEEP: Have we already reached a point where if someone said, I want to be more creative in our approach to China, I want to be a little more patient in our approach to China, they would be accused of being soft on China the way that people in the Cold War were accused of being soft on communism?

ROTHKOPF: Definitely we've reached that point. I think we're already down the road towards a Cold War, which is a mistake. You know, China's not like the Soviet Union. There's 70,000 U.S. companies operating in China. We take 5, $600 billion in exports from China. We need China to solve or to work with China on global problems. And we have to continue to do all those things even as we defend ourselves against potential risks.

INSKEEP: David Rothkopf, thanks very much for the insights. I really appreciate it.

ROTHKOPF: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: He is a columnist for The Daily Beast and a former senior trade official in the Clinton administration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.