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‘This can’t go on’: Idaho Sen. Jim Risch poised to be top GOP voice on foreign policy, calls for cooperation to counter China

Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, right, elbow bumps James Richardson, director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance, prior to the start of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in June.  (Caroline Brehman)
Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, right, elbow bumps James Richardson, director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance, prior to the start of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in June. (Caroline Brehman)

WASHINGTON – The past four years have seen American foreign policy take a narrower view of national interests, with President Donald Trump often preferring to act alone. But a new report from Sen. Jim Risch makes the case for the U.S. to work more closely with its European allies to counter growing Chinese influence on the world stage.

The Idaho Republican serves as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is poised to be the leading GOP voice on foreign policy matters once President-elect Joe Biden enters the White House. The encyclopedic report details a wide range of aggressive moves by China, including military buildup, state-sponsored theft of trade secrets and efforts to strong-arm international organizations like the United Nations.

“Neither the United States nor Europe will be able to combat these threats alone,” Risch said in a Nov. 18 event marking the report’s release. “The challenge that we’re facing is revolutionary, and the response to that has got to be a revolutionary response – a different way of not only thinking about it, but also dealing with it.”

Risch handily won a third term earlier this month and will remain in charge of the influential panel if at least one of his fellow GOP senators from Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, wins a Jan. 5 runoff election and Republicans hold onto their Senate majority.

In the virtual event Nov. 18, Risch’s counterparts in the European and United Kingdom parliaments welcomed the report and the policy shift it signals, away from the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization and other multilateral groups European leaders see as having created a void China has stepped into.

“I think we all agree that multilateralism needs a boost,” said David McAllister, the German chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament. “We would welcome the U.S. return to international organizations. … Whenever the U.S. pulls out, whenever you withdraw, China is there to fill the space.”

The report’s emphasis on working with partners, while not new for Risch, adds to a growing consensus and marks a departure from the “America first” ethos that has defined Trump-era foreign policy. While Biden’s win could change his role in shaping foreign policy, the Idahoan said the report had been in the works several months before the election and came out of the need to catalog China’s myriad malign actions.

“This is a phenomenon that is big, and when something that big is happening incrementally and subtly, you can’t quite bring all of it together to have a big picture of what you’re dealing with,” Risch said in an interview. “The result of that is that we find ourselves where we are, and it’s as if the sun came up in the morning and the landscape looked a lot different than it did the night before.”

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said in the Nov. 18 event China’s rise represents a fundamental challenge to the world order the U.S. and Europe helped establish after World War II.

“What China is offering today is not merely a growing element of power, it is actually a direct change to the operating system of the world,” Tugendhat said. “The fundamental challenge that the American people and all the rest of us are faced with is who is going to decide our future.”

“The way we’ve traditionally done it is we’ve done it ourselves, through democratic change, through academic enterprise and through imagination. That is not the way the government in Beijing wishes to make the change.”

After McAllister gently suggested the U.S. could use a “nudge” back onto the world stage, Risch told his German counterpart the suggestion would likely get little pushback from either Republicans or Democrats on his committee. The senator has made no secret of his differences of opinion with Trump on foreign policy matters, but he has credited the president’s unorthodox tactics for pushing NATO allies to increase their military spending.

“Since Trump became president, he had a very narrow view of other countries taking advantage of us,” Risch said. “He’s been roundly criticized, but he got the Europeans to do things that we’ve tried for years and years.”

While few issues have escaped political polarization in recent years, the incoming Biden administration may bring back an era when partisan politics were said to “stop at the water’s edge.” At least when it comes to China, Democrats and Republicans increasingly seem to see eye to eye.

“After 4 years of Pres. Trump undermining the transatlantic alliance, I welcome Chairman Risch’s report on the importance of working with our partners on China,” Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the committee’s top Democrat, tweeted Nov. 18.

Biden and members of his incoming administration have used language similar to Risch’s report when talking about the challenge China’s aggression presents to U.S. interests.

“The United States does need to get tough with China,” Biden wrote in a January op-ed. “The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge.”

“We are in a competition with China,” Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, said in July. “We need to rally our allies and partners instead of alienating them to deal with some of the challenges that China poses.”

While his landlocked state is not always focused on international affairs, Risch is emphatic that the issues his committee handles impact his constituents just as much as people in bigger coastal states. He is the third Idahoan to chair the Foreign Relations Committee, following Republican William Borah’s 1924-33 tenure and Democrat Frank Church’s time in the top job from 1979 -81.

“The reason it matters to people in the Inland Northwest is we’re all going to be affected just as much as everybody else in America,” Risch said. “We sometimes lose sight of that, but the fact of the matter is when it comes to trade, when it comes to the price of commodities, when it comes to just economics in general … this matters the same to all Americans.”

Risch conceded that U.S. and European countries’ interests sometimes come into conflict, but he said their shared values should overcome differences, which he called “a peppercorn compared to the giant pumpkin of commonality.”

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank, welcomed the report but called the idea that China is driven fundamentally by communist ideology “a central flaw in the China debate.”

“Countries base their national interests on a whole range of other factors,” said Manning, who worked on foreign policy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“There’s this (idea) that the fundamental source of tension with China – and its source of behavior – is because of their Marxist-Leninist ideology,” Manning said. “I would argue, no, it’s about power. If China had an economy the size of Vietnam, we wouldn’t be doing this. Historically, a lot of what China is doing is what great powers do.”

While working with its European partners is essential, Manning said, the U.S. should also reengage with its allies around the Pacific, including Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Risch’s report details the vast scope of the Chinese government’s efforts to leverage its massive economy to expand its influence across the world, including through financing development in poorer countries that amounts to predatory lending. It highlights the need to reframe the “transatlantic relationship” to include African countries, while also supporting countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

The report concludes with a dire warning: Failing to follow its recommendations risks “losing the fundamental principles of open societies.”

“One of my overall goals here,” Risch said, “is to bring them to a realization that this can’t go on. We, the other first-world countries on this planet, have been trading and increasing our people’s standard of living for centuries, and have developed international norms for how we do that and relate with each other and, importantly, a rule of law. China doesn’t have that.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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