MY YEAR AT THE CHINA DESK (WITH A STINT ON THE HILL)
By Eric Hyer
My path to the US Department of State, like those of many others’, was not direct. I spent the 2018–19 year as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, but a delay in gaining an interim security clearance necessitated an adjustment in my plans. I first looked at Capitol Hill, where I ultimately accepted an offer from Congressman John R. Curtis (R-UT). It was a good fit and offered me rich opportunities to participate in the politics of policymaking in Congress.
Congressman Curtis, new to the House of Representatives, won a special election in November 2017 to fill the seat vacated when Jason Chaffetz resigned in June 2017. Curtis serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) and has a special interest in China, owing to his Chinese language skills and the two years he lived in Taiwan. With no foreign policy experts on his staff, I assumed a wide range of responsibilities related to foreign affairs and Curtis’s work on the HFAC (Middle East subcommittee). Moreover, I enjoyed a great deal of freedom and latitude to advise Congressman Curtis on international affairs, cosponsor potential legislation, and prepare for hearings. My daily work also included working with his staff to craft statements on foreign affairs and US foreign relations.
I covered issues dealing with Syrian refugees, human rights in Xinjiang, China, international adoptions, and asylum, as well as Iranian nuclear issues and many other ongoing issues before the HFAC. When time permitted, I wrote short memoranda and potential resolutions on a range of international and foreign policy topics. Most of these were unsolicited but were my effort to deepen Congressman Curtis’s knowledge and expertise on a wide range of foreign policy issues.
War in Yemen
Perhaps the most exciting experience was taking Congressman Curtis from zero to sixty on the war in Yemen. I initially wrote a one-page memo explaining why the war in Yemen was a humanitarian nightmare and not a war that served US interests in the region. After we discussed the memo, Curtis expressed interest and requested a more comprehensive five-page memo. We had a detailed discussion of this memo with other staff members, and he decided to take a public stand against the war. He requested that I draft a five-minute floor speech.
The next day, Curtis went to the floor of the House and read the speech. Curtis took a strong position opposing the war in Yemen, but in the end, he did not support legislation to invoke the War Powers Act and force President Trump to end US involvement in the war in Yemen. When the issue came to a vote, Congressman Curtis felt compelled to toe the party line because Republican leadership argued that invoking the War Powers Resolution was not appropriate since no US troops were endangered in hostilities on the ground in Yemen. Ultimately, the legislation passed, largely along partisan lines, and the president vetoed the bill. The bill marked a significant rebuke to Trump and US policy in Yemen.
The China Desk
I received a security clearance in January 2019, and I moved to the Department of State, Bureau of Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs. The work on Capitol Hill was broad ranging but not substantively deep. On the China Desk, I made a deep dive into tracking China. I was part of the global-strategy unit following China’s global activities (except US-China relations).
This unit was initially established to support the economic and security dialogue, but with the negative turn in US-China relations over the past two years, the unit was repurposed to track China’s global activities and participate in developing executive policies to counter China.
After hopping around and helping where needed, I became the point person for three portfolios: Near East and North Africa, Africa, and the Belt and Road Initiative. I tracked reports from these regions related to Chinese activities and followed developments related to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (formerly known as One Belt, One Road). My daily work primarily consisted of developing talking points for Department of State officials who would engage with like-minded allies and diplomats from Africa and the Middle East regarding US-China policy. The primary concerns of our unit focused on the human rights situation in Xinjiang, the Belt and Road Initiative, and 5G technology. Other important issues included China’s military-to-military relations with Africa and the Middle East and supporting allies who were faced with development challenges that China was attempting to exploit for its own diplomatic benefit, especially in funding infrastructure projects linked to the Belt and Road Initiative.
The new office director who arrived partway through my time at the Department of State asked me to initiate more engagement with the think tank community in Washington, DC. I organized several roundtable engagements with think tank analysts to present their research and policy recommendations on countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative. I also wrote an analytical narrative of US-China relations that the new deputy assistant secretary used to address a group of scholars from several think tanks hosted by the Brookings Institution. This secretary used that same narrative to brief a group of top-ranking noncommissioned officers from the Pentagon, followed by a wide-ranging discussion of US-China policy, which I sat in on.
While at the Department of State, I had many opportunities to accompany higher-level officials in meetings with the Chinese, like-minded allies, and diplomats from many countries to take notes during a demarche or other exchanges. I also prepared information memos and decision memos for seventh-floor principals. I gave several lectures to Foreign Service officers and other staff on the analysis of Chinese foreign policy. Before I left, the Department of State’s Speakers Bureau contacted me, seeking to add me to the list of possible future speaking engagements to Citizen Diplomacy groups or foreign audiences.
My experience at the Department of State was rich and professionally fulfilling. Because of this experience, I now use new ideas in teaching the politics of US foreign policymaking, and I incorporate my experiences to enrich my lectures in the classroom. My hope is to mentor the next generation of policymakers, experts, and diplomats.
Eric A. Hyer is a professor of political science and the Asian Studies coordinator. Hyer has traveled extensively within China, including Tibet, and has twice traversed the Karakorum Highway between western China and Pakistan, where he conducted field research on boundaries separating Russia, Vietnam, Mongolia, and South and Central Asia. His research focuses on China’s foreign relations, especially regional relations and territorial conflicts. He is the author of The Pragmatic Dragon: China’s Grand Strategy and Boundary Settlements. Hyer has published numerous academic articles and is associate producer of the documentary films From the Masses to the Masses: An Artist in Mao’s China and Helen Foster Snow: Witness to Revolution.