Rep. Curtis on a dangerous world: ‘We still have right on our side’
Utah’s 3rd District congressman, who is fluent in Mandarin, believes the U.S. could be heightening tensions with China unnecessarily
Despite the world becoming a more dangerous place, from a war in Europe to tensions between China and Taiwan, Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, believes the United States has one great advantage.
“You still cannot go anywhere in the world that doesn’t want to be like the United States,” he said Friday. This remains true, he said, despite the nation’s mistakes and foibles, despite the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021 and despite our political polarization.
“That’s what we need to figure out how to hang onto, and if we can hang onto that, we can hang onto our place in the world.”
Curtis spoke at an informal question-and-answer session at the Kem C. Gardner Institute, sponsored by the Utah Aerospace and Defense Association and the World Trade Center Utah. The event was billed as a Taiwan defense briefing, and Utah’s Third District congressman had plenty to say about that, expressing his belief that the United States is going about its relations with mainland China the wrong way.
Earlier this year, Curtis joined House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and a bipartisan congressional delegation to meet with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in California. Curtis, who was a missionary in Taiwan in the late 1970s and lived there for a year with his wife in the 1980s, is fluent in Mandarin.
The visit came at a time when some of Utah’s congressional delegation were warning about possible attempts by China to influence Utah’s business community, as well as its state and local governments. It was Curtis’ second visit with Taiwan’s president; he led a congressional delegation to the island last December.
On Friday, Curtis said he has learned to love Chinese people and their culture on both the mainland and in Taiwan. However, he said the U.S. is on a dangerous road, generally, in relations with Taiwan and China. The United States, he said, could be heightening the likelihood of war with tough talk.
“We have got to figure out how to show strength without getting China defensive or offensive,” he said. “And quite frankly, we’re on the wrong trajectory.”
In response to a question about China’s age-old vision of a “middle kingdom” and concerns that it wants world domination, Curtis offered a gentler vision.
“Let me just introduce another thought process here that I’m trying to work through my mind,” he said. “And that is, is it possible that what China wants is not world dominance, but world relevancy? And are we approaching this wrong by setting up a somebody-must-win and somebody-must-lose scenario?
“And what’s happening is, as they seem threatening to us, we up our game. As we up our game, they get more threatening to us. We’ve got this cycle that’s moving in the wrong direction.”
Instead, he said, the two countries need to figure out how having “two big dogs” in the world can be mutually beneficial. He acknowledged it can be difficult to not heighten tensions against the backdrop of China militarizing artificial islands and threatening Taiwan, and against reports of human rights abuses.
U.S. military leaders have said China has fully militarized at least three of seven islands it has built in the disputed South China Sea, stocking them with “anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets,” according to The Guardian.
But, Curtis said, confronting China directly regarding its islands or Taiwan, would not end well. The aim should be to de-escalate tensions and look for solutions.
“The game is not how we respond if China invades Taiwan,” he said. “The game is how do we make sure China never invades Taiwan? Because, if they invade, there is no good outcome.”
The Belt Road Initiative
Curtis also spoke about the intricacies of trade and the need to be less reliant on China for high-tech components. He said China’s massive Belt Road Initiative, an infrastructure project that aims to circle much of the globe, is difficult for the United States to match.
Some experts warn the project is setting a debt trap for many impoverished countries, who are offered loans to build ports or other infrastructure projects, as part of this initiative. If they default on the loans, China would take possession of the infrastructure.
In a piece published recently by The Council on Foreign Relations, James McBride, Noah Berman, and Andrew Chatzky wrote that, over the past decade, “the project has expanded to Africa, Oceania, and Latin America, significantly broadening China’s economic and political influence.”
Washington, they wrote, “has struggled to offer participating governments a more appealing economic vision.”
“To date,” the report said, “147 countries — accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population and 40 percent of global GDP — have signed on to projects or indicated an interest in doing so.”
Curtis said the United States has neither the resources nor the will to match this effort with a similar federal program, despite what some of its allies may want. Instead, it relies on the private sector for such things. “But the private sector has a hard time competing with China.”
Ultimately, Curtis said, the United States has to rely on its strengths, which include its spirit of innovation — an attribute he worries the nation is beginning to replace with an attitude that the government should provide for people’s wants freely, without risks.
“We don’t want lows,” he said, “and if you can’t have lows, you can’t have highs.”
In an obvious reference to the national debt and inflation, Curtis also expressed concerns about the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. This, he said, is “our one hold on dominance, and that is being threatened.”
In the end, however, he sounded a hopeful note about democracy, freedom and the memories many in the world have of how the “greatest generation” of Americans sacrificed to liberate many nations during World War II.
“We still have right on our side, in my opinion,” he said. “We’re the adult in the room. World peace is important to us. Freedom is important to us, and we have to be examples for that in our own country.”