Co-sponsors Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, say the United States needs to build up its capacity to confront China in trade and other arenas. Their bill would adopt Beijing’s blueprint by using local and state officials to get out in the world to talk with their counterparts.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a speech at the National Governors Association in February, warned of the national security implications as Chinese officials make deals on the local level. Pompeo said Chinese Communist Party friendship organizations are expanding Beijing’s influence in “Richmond, Minneapolis, Portland, Jupiter, Florida, and many other cities,” as they seek to sway local officials on issues like Taiwan’s status.
“I’d be surprised if most of you in the audience have not been lobbied by the Chinese Communist Party directly,” he told the governors.
Perdue echoed Pompeo’s warning, saying in a statement, “If we are to effectively compete with China’s efforts to expand its influence at the subnational level in the U.S., it is critical that state and local officials have a permanent, centralized resource to make informed decisions.”
Murphy said more people-to-people diplomacy could be particularly useful in countries whose relationship with the United States is poor or nonexistent, or with smaller nations that are receptive to U.S. partnerships but almost never get visited by the secretary of state.
“It may be that we don’t have a functional relationship with Russia for the next decade,” he said. “But if we’re slowly building up people-to-people diplomacy, it might ultimately help build relationships.”
The State Department has had a variety of similar positions for decades, but they have never taken root and were incorporated into other bureaus.
Murphy said the bill is not a repudiation of diplomacy as practiced by President Trump and his senior diplomat, and he allowed that he has not discussed it with Pompeo. Rather, he characterized the bill as a recognition that officials who do not work for the federal government can assist in diplomacy.
“The State Department these days is not looking for new projects,” he said. “They’re under orders from the president to dramatically downsize. I do not have any illusions we will pass this legislation before the end of Trump’s term, or at least before the election.”
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the bill, saying agency officials never offer their thoughts on pending legislation.