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Next Stop for the Steve Bannon Insurgency: China

September 11, 2017

WASHINGTON — Stephen K. Bannon has held court in the Capitol Hill townhouse of Breitbart Media since he packed up his West Wing office last month, meeting with conservative lawmakers, advocating hard-line policies on undocumented immigrants and waging gleeful war on those he considers traitors to the Trump cause.

[MARK LANDLER| September 8, 2017 | The New York Times]

WASHINGTON — Stephen K. Bannon has held court in the Capitol Hill townhouse of Breitbart Media since he packed up his West Wing office last month, meeting with conservative lawmakers, advocating hard-line policies on undocumented immigrants and waging gleeful war on those he considers traitors to the Trump cause.

Now Mr. Bannon is taking his insurgency abroad.

Next week, he plans to travel to Hong Kong to deliver a keynote address at an investor conference, where he will articulate his call for a much tougher American policy toward China. CLSA, the Hong Kong brokerage firm that invited Mr. Bannon, is owned by a politically connected Chinese investment bank, Citic Securities.

People close to Mr. Bannon said he met recently with Henry A. Kissinger, the elder statesman who opened a diplomatic channel to China in 1972, to exchange views about the relationship with Beijing. Mr. Bannon said he admires Mr. Kissinger and has read all his books, but none of that swayed him from his preference for confrontation over diplomacy.

The meeting and speech kicks off an effort by Mr. Bannon, who served as President Trump’s chief strategist, to influence his former boss on China policy as much as he does on immigration, trade or tax policy. Given the lack of strong voices on China in the administration and the inconsistency in its approach, Mr. Bannon believes he can make a difference, though his record when he was inside the White House was mixed.

It is no accident that of all the foreign policy issues he could have chosen, Mr. Bannon gravitated to China, where he once lived and which he now views as the greatest long-term threat to the United States.

“A hundred years from now, this is what they’ll remember — what we did to confront China on its rise to world domination,” he said in an interview, previewing the themes in his speech.

“China right now is Germany in 1930,” Mr. Bannon said. “It’s on the cusp. It could go one way or the other. The younger generation is so patriotic, almost ultranationalistic.”

Mr. Bannon’s combative views on China are no secret to those who listened to his Breitbart radio show before the election. In March 2016 he declared, “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years.” Last month, he told Robert Kuttner, co-founder of the left-leaning journal The American Prospect, “We’re at economic war with China” — one of a number of impolitic observations that hastened his departure from the White House.

But now Mr. Bannon is going to present this worldview to an audience of Chinese investors. His speech is likely to attract attention, if not raise eyebrows, at a forum where the past speakers have included Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin, Al Gore, Alan Greenspan and George Clooney. Among other things, Mr. Bannon will tell his audience that they made their wealth on the backs of Mr. Trump’s voters.

“China’s model for the past 25 years, it’s based on investment and exports,” he said. “Who financed that? The American working class and middle class. You can’t understand Brexit or the 2016 events unless you understand that China exported their deflation, they exported their excess capacity.”

“It’s not sustainable,” Mr. Bannon declared. “The reordering of the economic relationship is the central issue that has to be addressed, and only the U.S. can address it.”

Mr. Trump clearly shares that view. He made it a centerpiece of his campaign, and installed Mr. Bannon in an office near his, where he sought out like-minded China bashers, including the economist Peter Navarro. But Mr. Bannon had as many setbacks as victories on China at the White House.

Shortly after Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Bannon exulted when the president-elect threw in doubt America’s adherence to the “One China” policy. But he was undercut a month later when Mr. Trump, prodded by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, told President Xi Jinping that he would honor the policy.

Mr. Bannon poured his energy into engineering Mr. Trump’s nationalist trade agenda. He cheered when Mr. Trump ordered investigations of China’s theft of technology from American companies and its dumping of steel in the world market. But he fought constant rear-guard actions against other advisers, who warned Mr. Trump not to start a trade war with China at the same time that he needed its cooperation in confronting North Korea.

Mr. Trump has suggested that he will go easier on trade if China steps up its pressure on the rogue regime of Kim Jong-un. Mr. Bannon contends that this is a sucker’s bet: China is stringing along the United States, he says, and has no intention of exerting influence on its neighbor.

“If you’re a great power,” he asked, “how come you can’t control the Frankenstein monster you created in North Korea?”

Last weekend, Mr. Bannon said he was thrilled when Mr. Trump tweeted that the United States would consider halting trade “with any country that does business with North Korea.” The statement was aimed at China, which conducts the lion’s share of trade with the North.

But Mr. Trump has assiduously cultivated a relationship with Mr. Xi, and his willingness to confront him on this issue is not clear. After speaking by phone with the Chinese president on Wednesday, he told reporters, “I believe that President Xi agrees with me 100 percent” on the threat posed by North Korea. There is no evidence, however, that China plans to support Mr. Trump’s call for a cutoff of oil supplies to the North.

For Mr. Bannon, who lived in Shanghai when he ran an online gaming company, the key to understanding China’s motives is to look at its history, specifically the Taiping Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution. “The whole thing is about control,” he said. “They think that by 2050 or 2075, they will be the hegemonic power.”

“We have to reassert ourselves because we have retreated,” he said. “We have to reassert ourselves as the real Asian power: economically, militarily, culturally, politically.”


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