Date March 9, 2023
Media Contact

In congressional hearing, Brown scholar addresses tensions between U.S. and China

Speaking before the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement and Intelligence, Tyler Jost called on federal leaders to stay focused on maintaining an uneasy status quo in Taiwan.

WASHINGTON, D.C. [Brown University] — In the midst of escalating tensions between the United States and China, Tyler Jost, an assistant professor of political science at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, urged federal lawmakers to focus on preventing a dangerous military conflict with China, rather than focusing too intently on homeland security.

Called upon to provide testimony at a hearing held on Thursday, March 9, by the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement and Intelligence, Jost drew on his experience as a scholar of Chinese foreign policy to offer perspective on U.S.-China relations, China’s surveillance of people and military operations in the U.S., and the Chinese spy balloon whose February flight through North American airspace gripped the nation. 

Jost, whose research focuses on national security decision-making, bureaucratic politics and Chinese foreign policy, was one of four experts who gave testimony at the hearing in Washington titled “Confronting Threats Posed by the Chinese Communist Party to the U.S. Homeland.”

“The competition between the U.S. and China represents one of the defining international challenges of this century,” Jost said. “But in my view, at the center of this critical problem rests two issues that most divide Washington and Beijing: the future of Taiwan, and perceptions that the other side poses an existential threat to the stability of the domestic regime.”

Jost urged American leaders not to pull their focus from Taiwan by focusing too fixedly on homeland security. In his accompanying written testimony, Jost wrote that escalating tensions between American and Chinese leaders threaten to disrupt the two countries’ uneasy status quo over Taiwan. Those tensions, he wrote, could cause China to take military action in the Asia-Pacific, with potentially deadly consequences.

“ While it is important to seriously evaluate the threats that China poses to the homeland, these inquiries should not distract attention from the issues that... will greatly shape whether the two sides end up in what could be the most costly and dangerous conflict between two major powers since 1945. ”

Tyler Jost Assistant professor of political science

Jost said he believes China’s potential to begin military action is clear — less clear than its potential to indoctrinate Americans and other global citizens with propaganda. He noted that China has lately launched information campaigns aimed at shaping global opinion. Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, for example, China-based groups sought to disseminate misinformation on social media aimed at deepening American political divides, according to reports from Meta and Alphabet.

“While it is important to seriously evaluate the threats that China poses to the homeland,” Jost wrote in reference to the country’s surveillance and propaganda efforts, “these inquiries should not distract attention from the issues that are likely to be central in the global competition — and will greatly shape whether the two sides end up in what could be the most costly and dangerous conflict between two major powers since 1945.”

To evaluate the size of the threat posed by Chinese-spread propaganda, Jost said, the U.S. government should fund more publicly available social science research that fills gaps in Americans’ knowledge about China’s activities abroad.

“These efforts to shape foreign public opinion through party propaganda are real, and their scope is broad,” Jost said. “But there are comparatively few studies that apply validated research efforts for estimating the causal effect that exposure to such messages has on foreign audiences.”

In response to a question from the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Seth Magaziner — a Democrat from Rhode Island and a Brown graduate — Jost also emphasized that combating anti-Asian hate in the U.S. could prevent Chinese propaganda from gaining a foothold, since incidents of violence against Asians give China’s leaders ammunition to fuel nationalist messages.

“It is true that Chinese diplomats and the Chinese state do call attention to these trends; there is an annual report that the… state issues on human rights… which oftentimes calls out these… anti-Asian racial issues,” Jost said. “Anti-Asian racism has absolutely no place in American society… [and] the reasons why it’s not acceptable are orthogonal to whether or not the Chinese Communist Party is able to exploit it.”

Also testifying were William Evanina, former director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center; Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, operations deputy to the U.S. Air Force chief of staff; and Kari Bingen, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Video from the hearing is available on the Committee on Homeland Security’s YouTube page.