Bannon leads Committee on Present Danger’s efforts to reshape the US-China relationship

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By Jesse Adler

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NANJING, China — In 1950, the same year that SAIS became part of  Johns Hopkins, SAIS co-founder Paul Nitze became the chairman of a study group which set out to review U.S. national security policy. Soon after, Nitze became the principal author of a top-secret foreign policy paper later described by American historian Ernest May as “the blueprint for the militarization of the Cold War from 1950 to the collapse of the Soviet Union.” The United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, better known as NSC-68, received criticism from many in Washington at the time of its issuance, including from U.S. President Harry Truman. In response to this criticism, the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) was formed to advocate for the policies proposed in NSC-68. 

Over the past seven decades, the CPD has appeared and reappeared, its influence waxing and waning through different political eras as perceived threats to the United States evolve. A second iteration of the group met in the 1970s to lobby the Carter administration against détente with the Soviet Union and the SALT II agreement on arms control. After the 1980 presidential election, dozens of CPD members became top officials in the Reagan administration. Another CPD was launched in 2004 “to stiffen American resolve to confront the challenge presented by terrorism and the ideologies that drive it.”  

Now, in 2019, a fourth CPD has formed. The Committee on the Present Danger: China, or the CPDC, exists to “educate and inform American citizens and policymakers about the existential threats presented from the People’s Republic of China under the misrule of the Chinese Communist Party.” The group states on its official website that “there is no hope of coexistence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the country.” The CPDC accuses the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of attempting to “steal the personal information of ordinary American citizens and to subvert their perceptions, opinions and behavior,” in addition to using “an array of asymmetric financial, economic, cyber, information, influence, espionage, political warfare and other techniques to weaken and ultimately defeat America.” 

Dr. David Arase, international politics professor at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, describes Steve Bannon as “the Godfather” of the CPDC. Bannon, co-founder of Breitbart News and former White House Chief Strategist for U.S. President Donald Trump, spent early 2019 criss-crossing the globe, warning American allies of the threat he argues the Chinese Communist Party poses to the United States and to all nations. His unrelenting efforts appear to have resonated with many in Washington, D.C.’s national security community: CPDC membership includes a former CIA director, congressmen and cabinet secretaries, as well as numerous think tank scholars, businessmen and journalists. 

It is difficult to estimate how much influence the CPDC may actually have over U.S. foreign policy decision-making. According to Dr. Arase, increased bipartisan Beltway support for a tougher U.S. stance toward China is a natural response to China’s behavior under the leadership of Xi Jinping; he added that “Xi is essentially rebranding China into a communist country, and he has been very clear that the CCP must rule according to Marxist-Leninist principles.” The CPDC may signify a developing consensus of more hardline views within the U.S. foreign policy establishment regarding China.

This sentiment has already manifested in policies of disengagement toward China, especially on trade and economic issues—a change that has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. business community. In an April 2019 statement, the American Chamber of Commerce in China, the only officially recognized chamber of commerce representing American businesses in mainland China, stated that “the mood has shifted,” adding that “the U.S. business community in China, so long an advocate of good bilateral relations, can no longer be relied upon to be a positive anchor. U.S. companies continue to face an uncertain operating environment in China amid decreasing optimism about their investment outlook.” 

Difficult though it may be to read the tea leaves to predict the future of the U.S.-China relationship, interested observers might be advised to keep an eye on Steve Bannon and the CPDC. Bannon has not called for total disengagement with China, instead focusing his efforts in urging all Americans to “back President Trump.” Should President Trump be re-elected, the CPDC—and the president’s closest advisors—may conclude that a majority of the American public is prepared to engage China in a renegotiation of the U.S.-China relationship with ramifications that may outlast the Trump administration.

The Committee on the Present Danger: China could not be reached for comment. 

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