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Marco Rubio's little-noticed China speech shows the GOP is still the party of neocons

Marco Rubio.
Marco Rubio.
Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

Sen. Marco Rubio is attempting to position himself as the foreign policy candidate in the GOP presidential primary, and indeed there is every reason to believe that his engagement in foreign policy is something he takes seriously.

While Rubio, like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, has spoken a great deal about the foreign policy issues that demand the most political attention — the Middle East and terrorism — on Friday he gave a speech on an issue that is less popular with voters but just as, or even more, important for America's future in the world: China.

Rubio's China speech didn't get much attention: There was, after all, pressing Trump coverage to be written. But the speech, which took a hard line on China, was fascinating and important for understanding Rubio's and to some extent the GOP's view of not just China but American foreign policy itself. And it is a sign of the degree to which neoconservatism remains central to Republican foreign policy.

What Rubio said: China is a threat

china troops

Chinese soldiers training for a parade. (ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

Unlike President Obama, who has treated China as a necessary partner and occasional adversary (the White House is considering sanctions over Chinese cyberthefts, the Washington Post reported on Sunday), Rubio mostly defines China as an authoritarian threat to American power. He outlined a policy for countering China's military rise, containing its economic influence, and even challenging the foundations of Communist Party rule.

"China is doing everything it can to make the 21st century a Chinese century," Rubio said. "President Obama has hoped that being more open to China would make them a more responsible nation. It has not worked."

Rubio, in order to counter China's military, wants to cancel sequestration spending cuts at the Pentagon and increase US naval deployments to the western Pacific. He also wants to challenge China's growing presence in the East and South China seas, where it is building "sandcastles" to claim territory.

"Instead of inviting China to military exercises, we will conduct joint freedom of navigation patrols with our partners in East and Southeast Asia to challenge any attempts to close off international waters or airspace," he said. "If China continues to use military force to advance its illegitimate claims, I will not hesitate to take action."

Rubio also wants to counter China's economic clout, though he acknowledges that trying to directly damage the Chinese economy would be mutually assured destruction. Instead, he wants to work at the margins to punish China for things such as currency manipulation — by, for example, expanding US trade deals in Asia that exclude China or by sanctioning Chinese companies that steal US patents. (These measures are more in line with the Obama administration's current approach.)

Note what's not mentioned here: engagement with China's leadership. Rubio scoffs at the Obama's administration's outreach to China. In fact, it's the cornerstone of his case against Hillary Clinton in the speech:

This is one of many reasons Hillary Clinton must not become our next president. One of her first actions as Secretary of State was to reassure China’s rulers that cooperation on climate change, of all things, was more important to her than calling Beijing to account for its violations of human rights.

This isn't really fair; Clinton was actually harshly critical of Chinese human rights abuses as secretary of state, and in 2011 called the country's single-party system a "fool's errand." But the point is that Rubio is positioning himself as tougher on China on both foreign policy grounds and human rights grounds, and he wants American foreign policy to reflect that.

Rubio's China speech fits into a long neoconservative tradition

Bill Kristol

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Bill Kristol. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

To understand what Rubio is really doing in this speech, you need to jump back in time about 25 years, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. That moment was a triumph for American neoconservatives, who had long insisted — contrary to many realists and liberals — that the Soviet Union could be defeated, not just contained.

But this moment also created something of a dilemma for neoconservatives. Their vision of foreign policy centered on the idea that American power needed to be asserted in order to counter the Soviet threat. But by 1990, America was in what neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called "the unipolar moment": There was no major threat to the American-led order around the world. Why should America keep playing this dominant global role, as neoconservatives believed it should, if American power was so obviously unthreatened?

One answer was China. Its growing economic might, as well as its authoritarian political system, might one day pose a Soviet-style threat to American power. The University of Nottingham's Maria Ryan writes in her book on the neoconservative movement that there was "general agreement in the neoconservative network that China was the most significant challenge to the preservation of American global preeminence."

According to Ryan, though, there wasn't any clear consensus among neoconservatives about what should be done to manage the threat from China. But the most hawkish voices, such as the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol and analyst Robert Kagan, took a stance then that looked a lot like Rubio's now.

"The United States and China are on a course of confrontation, and no happy talk about the magic of trade and of a 'strategic partnership' can change that," Kristol and Kagan wrote in a 1999 Weekly Standard piece. "China is still weak enough to be contained, and the United States is still strong enough to lead its allies in a policy to hem in Chinese ambitions."

In an earlier Foreign Affairs article, those same two authors had called for "an overall strategy for containing, influencing, and ultimately seeking to change the regime in Beijing."

Kristol and Kagan were hardly the only China hawks. The so-called "Blue Team," a neoconservative-inflected alliance of thinkers and operatives, pushed hard for the US to take a more confrontational stance toward Beijing.

"Though little noticed, the Blue Team has had considerable success," a 2000 Washington Post report stated. "By attaching riders to legislation in Congress, it has restricted the scope of Chinese-American military relations, forced the Pentagon to report to Congress in detail on the China-Taiwan military balance and compelled the State Department to take a harder line on China's human rights and religious rights abuses."

Rubio's hawkish policy toward China, then, makes him the heir to a distinct and clear neoconservative tradition of hostility toward that country — one that he appears to share earnestly.

This is bigger than Rubio

This isn't just about one speech. With the possible exception of fellow China hawk Lindsey Graham, Rubio is the presidential candidate most in touch with the GOP's neoconservative establishment. His views tend to line up with the established wisdom among leading conservative hawks.

These hawks dominate the Republican party, Rand Paul's fading challenge notwithstanding. They control the commanding heights in conservative opinion journals and think tanks; leading Republican donors share their foreign policy priorities. Barring something unexpected, the neoconservatives are set to shape Republican foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, China is in many ways a more logical focus for neoconservatives than Islamist terrorists. China — with its massive population and growing economic power — could eventually become a serious military rival in a way that ISIS, for all its terrorism, never could. The challenge is also ideological: China's capitalist authoritarianism looks attractive to a number of developing-world nations. There really is a plausible case, in other words, that China represents a fundamental, ideological challenge to the United States and to the liberal global order.

That's the kind of threat neoconservatism was crafted to face. Its emphasis on the critical need for American global leadership makes a lot more sense when you're dealing with a potentially global challenger such as China than with tiny terrorist networks or middling regional powers.

Rubio's China vision represents, in other words, the next logical step for neoconservatism. If the emphasis on the Middle East subsides, and the American conversation turns to the Pacific, I'd expect the mainstream Republican position to look a lot like Rubio's. His speech deserves a lot more scrutiny than it's gotten.