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Some see the U.S.-China rivalry as an 'existential struggle.' Rep. Andy Kim disagrees

Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Rep. Andy Kim after a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in March 2021.
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Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Rep. Andy Kim after a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in March 2021.

Updated June 16, 2023 at 1:25 PM ET

A member of the high-profile House China committee says the U.S. should adopt a "comprehensive approach" to China, rather than viewing competition between the countries as "an existential threat" or another Cold War.

Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., tells Morning Edition's Leila Fadel that there needs to be more regular communication between the two superpowers, adding that diplomacy and deterrence aren't mutually exclusive.

"There is space, and an important space, for military deterrence and security, no doubt," he says. "But it has to be paired, and it has to be done strategically."

Kim spoke to NPR on the eve of Secretary of State Antony Blinken's trip to China, where he is expected to meet with President Xi Jinping.

It's a high-stakes visit: Blinken is the first cabinet official to visit China since President Biden took office. The administration hopes the trip — rescheduled from earlier this year because of the Chinese spy balloon saga — will assuage global concerns that a deteriorating relationship between the two countries could erupt in conflict.

The State Department isn't expecting any diplomatic breakthroughs, as NPR's Michele Kelemen has reported. But Kim says just setting up this sort of regular engagement is an important first step.

"What I hope we can get out of this is reestablishing some type of military-to-military channel, at least," Kim says. "I've seen way too many circumstances in my time in national security where just an incident or an accident or a misunderstanding can completely flare up and get out of control."

Kim's stance on China contradicts with that of committee chair Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., who has criticized the Biden administration's attempt to reengage China.

Gallagher wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week that Biden's expectation of a "thaw" in bilateral relations amounts to little more than "zombie engagement with Beijing." And during the panel's first hearing in March, Gallagher described the U.S.-China rivalry as "an existential struggle."

Kim believes such framing is designed to try to exclude engagement and diplomacy, calling that "a real problem."

"We can't be thinking about this as an existential threat or a new Cold War," he says. "If something is an existential threat, how can you have conversation or dialogue with that entity or that person? How can you have diplomacy?"

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Interview highlights

On how the U.S. should approach the topic of Taiwan

First and foremost, we need to be clear that what we're trying to do is be able to protect the status quo. There are a lot of misconceptions there and suspicions there that are trying to make it seem like we're actually trying to move that status quo ourselves. And that is absolutely not the case. And that's why diplomacy matters.

On whether it's in Beijing's interest to attack Taiwan

I think it's certainly their goal in terms of reunification, and that's something that they've been saying for decades. But I think they also recognize how complicated, how difficult this is — I mean, their military's never been tested in generations — I think they recognize how challenging it would be, how devastating it would be to the global economy. I don't want us to think that this is inevitable. And I do get concerned by some of the rhetoric that makes it sound like it's imminent. We should be vigilant.

On the role of the U.S. in the region as a whole

I don't want people to think that the entirety of our China policy and Indo-Pacific policy is a Taiwan policy. There are so many other issues. I mean, the U.S. and China, our economies are unbelievably intertwined. I want people to look at this in the broader context. And honestly, we shouldn't even just be thinking about this as U.S. vis a vis China. It really should be about, what is our role in the Indo-Pacific. We say America is both an Atlantic and Pacific power. Well, then what is our role? What do we want to see in that space?

On why he wants a "comprehensive approach"

I think the biggest problem that I feel like I've seen on Capitol Hill in particular is our policy to China is so reactionary. We're just responding to the latest headlines. It's a spy balloon yesterday, it's TikTok today. And those are important issues, but our policy shouldn't just be that short-sighted. We need to be thinking multiple years out the road of, just, what do we want to accomplish in the Indo-Pacific.

The broadcast interview was produced by Kaity Kline and edited by Amra Pasic and Vincent Ni.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.