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Rep. Jim Himes offers a counterpoint to the American consensus on China

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a counterpoint today to the American consensus on China. Democrats and Republicans alike have agreed on a tougher approach to the biggest U.S. rival. In fact, it's common to say that the parties agree on China even when they agree on nothing else. Just listen to President Biden and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Before I came to office, the story was about how the People's Republic of China was increasing its power and America was failing in the world - not anymore.

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RON DESANTIS: We also have to stop selling out this country's future to China. It is hurting our middle class, and it is hurting our national security.

INSKEEP: Our next guest says that just because the parties agree doesn't mean they are right. Jim Himes of Connecticut is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He wrote in a home-state paper that he is disturbed by what he has learned about the risk of war. So we called up Himes to ask - what's wrong with what he calls the bipartisan orthodoxy on China?

JIM HIMES: Well, let me start with what's right about the orthodoxy. What's right about the orthodoxy is profound concern with lots of things about China - their theft of our intellectual property, their treatment of the Uyghur minorities, their surveillance of their own people - all of these things that, of course, go back a long time. But we are also jointly concerned about the remarkable turn that President Xi engineered in his country - away from a fairly quiet, understated foreign policy to something very, very different and aggressive. We agree that all of that is deeply problematic. What is concerning to me is the orthodoxy that this is an implacable enemy with whom we can't do business, and we really should be minimizing our economic attachments and preparing for war. And Americans have become accustomed to war, thinking about Iraq or Afghanistan. A war with China is a radically different proposition and one that we should be very, very conscious of and careful of.

INSKEEP: I could imagine someone who supports the bipartisan consensus here listening to you and saying, what do you want me to do differently? For example, they might say, yes, war with China would be very, very bad, but we have to prepare.

HIMES: Yeah, I'm not in any way arguing with the importance of deterrence because I think deterrence may be the one thing that stops President Xi from ultimately trying to retake Taiwan by force. So deterrence is important. But you asked a very good question - what would I prescribe? No. 1, we all need to understand the huge importance of the economic connections between China and the United States - 700 billion plus or minus of cross-border trade. If that were to go away - if some of the more aggressive exponents got their way and we quote-unquote, "decoupled" the inflation that would ensue, the losses of jobs that would ensue because so many American products involve Chinese inputs would be pretty catastrophic, catastrophic second only to the catastrophe, economically speaking, that would happen if we did get into a shooting war in the Taiwan Straits or elsewhere with China. So we need to take a deep breath.

INSKEEP: Aren't there some Americans who would like to stomp on the Chinese economy at least a little bit? They would like the United States to remain the world economic leader for many reasons, one of them being so the United States can continue to fund the world's most powerful military.

HIMES: Well, that's just a sort of mistake in economics, right? The United States does better when Europe is economically thriving, and it does better when Asia is economically thriving. The idea that we would choose to interact with 1.5 billion impoverished Chinese over 1.5 billion Chinese who can buy our products is just crazy.

INSKEEP: Congressman Himes draws a distinction. He opposes what is called decoupling - blocking U.S. trade with China. He does favor cutting exports of technology that China's military could use - what's called de-risking.

I want people to know, if they don't, that, as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, you have oversight authority over intelligence agencies, and you get to look at a lot of classified information that other people may not. Do you see things that make you worry more about the possibility of an accidental conflict between these two countries?

HIMES: I do. I see what the Chinese are actually doing with respect to their cyberattacks, their cyber-infiltration, if you will, of really critical networks in the West. They're extraordinarily good at that. By the way, we're probably a little bit better, but that, at the end of the day, doesn't matter because if they can get access to our critical infrastructure - whether it's water systems or fuel transmission systems, electricity systems - that creates a huge vulnerability for us. I sometimes will exercise a little bit of gallows humor when I hear people talk about TikTok and, oh, my gosh, the Chinese Communist Party could take the information from TikTok. Well, guess what? If they want to steal the information from Facebook or Instagram or whatever, they're pretty capable.

INSKEEP: Of course, we're also heading into an American election year, and it's very easy to imagine, because it already happens, that one party will beat up on the other as being weak on China in one way or another. Do you see risks in that?

HIMES: Of course. In some ways, this is the dynamic that concerns me. And again, I don't - I want to be very careful here not to sound or be perceived as a so-called dove. I'm just counseling prudence on this issue because think back to the early 2000s. Both parties became very hawkish on Iraq. As you approach an election, the temptation to outdo each other - the two parties - with hawkish, nationalistic, patriotic rhetoric becomes sort of de rigueur for people who aspire to the presidency. This is what you see, of course, Ron DeSantis doing right now - coming up with ever more outlandish ways of, in his opinion, hurting the Chinese. And so we need to be absolutely cognizant of that temptation in politics and, though we may not be able to change it, at least see it for what it is.

INSKEEP: Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut. Thanks for taking the time.

HIMES: Yeah. Thanks for the conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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