In the weeks since the US military shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have spoken passionately about the need to more effectively compete with Beijing. A resolution condemning China for the balloon incident passed the House in an unanimous vote of 419 to 0.
Joe Biden has similarly expressed hope that efforts to strengthen America’s global competitiveness in response to a rising China can unite Democrats and Republicans in an era defined by bitter partisanship.
“Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world,” Biden said in his State of the Union address earlier this month. “Let’s be clear: winning the competition with China should unite all of us.”
I don’t believe we have a clear consensus on the precise mix of policies that are necessary to address this challenge
The new House select committee on China will hold its first primetime public hearing on Tuesday, and the panel’s supporters are optimistic its work will provide a rare opportunity for bipartisan cooperation in the divided Congress.
But while there’s widespread agreement among policymakers and lawmakers in Washington over the need to better compete with China, there is no prevailing consensus on how to do so. Some experts also fear this kumbaya moment in Washington could escalate tensions with Beijing and increase the risk of conflict.
“There is a bipartisan consensus on the fact that China poses a broad challenge to the United States across multiple domains,” said Patricia Kim, an expert on US-China relations at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “I don’t believe we have a clear consensus on the precise mix of policies that are necessary to address this challenge.”
A committee walks the ‘fine line’
One of Republican Kevin McCarthy’s first major victories after securing the House speakership (on the 15th ballot) was to create a new select committee examining competition between the US and China. The motion to form the committee was overwhelmingly approved in a 365 to 65 vote, with 146 Democrats joining all Republicans.
“I’ve heard my colleagues on both sides say that the threat posed by Communist China is serious. I fully agree. This is an issue that transcends our political parties,” McCarthy said.
The panel, officially named the House select committee on strategic competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist party, is broadly charged with examining a host of economic, security and human rights issues involving China.
The panel will be led by congressman Mike Gallagher, a Republican of Wisconsin and prominent “China hawk”, who emphasized that it would work in a bipartisan fashion to expose the threats the CCP poses to US national security and economic interests. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat of Illinois, will serve as the committee’s ranking member. The leaders have stressed that the target of their scrutiny is China’s ruling party, not its people, and hope their work yields policy and legislative recommendations that win support from lawmakers of both parties.
Of course, partisan divisions will arise. Republicans increasingly depict China as an outright “adversary” intent on reshaping the international order while the the Biden administration and many Democrats have treaded more delicately, describing it as “our most consequential strategic competitor”.
Republicans have repeatedly attacked Biden over his approach to Beijing, though members of both parties criticized the president’s handling of the balloon incident with some lawmakers accusing the White House of concealing information. And there have also been partisan disagreements about how the US should engage China over shared challenges such as the climate crisis.
At the same time, some of the rhetoric from Gallagher and his Republican colleagues has alarmed Democratic members of the committee. Congressman Andy Kim, a Democrat of New Jersey, voiced concern after McCarthy and Gallagher co-signed a Fox News op-ed outlining a strategy to “win the new cold war” against China.
“If Chair Gallagher keeps talking about this as a ‘new cold war’, that is not helpful,” Kim told NBC News. “There’s a fine line between deterrence and provocation, and you are crossing over that in a way that is only going to inflame and create greater escalatory challenges.”
And there is fear that language casting China as America’s enemy will encourage anti-Asian sentiment amid a surge in hate incidents.
Those of us concerned about not devolving into a cold war or anti-Asian American sentiment have to be particularly vocal
“I have a lot of respect for Mike Gallagher in terms of how he’ll conduct the committee in a serious way, but it’s important to see how the conversations unfold,” committee member Ro Khanna, a Democrat of California, told the Guardian.
“For those of us who are concerned about not devolving into a cold war or anti-Asian American sentiment, we have to be particularly vocal.”
A transition is under way
Over the last decade, as the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, consolidated power at home, hope in Washington of improving US-China relations dimmed. Under Xi’s rule, the US has accused China of committing genocide against the Uyghurs and other Turkic and Islamic minority people in the country’s Xinjiang province.
Xi has meanwhile overseen an expansive military buildup. This month, the Pentagon informed Congress that China now had more missile silos than the US, though the US has a much larger nuclear force than China.
Amid rising fears of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a self-governed island that Beijing claims as its own, the US military has expanded its presence in Asia. Just this month, the US gained expanded access to four military bases in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, US lawmakers, including former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, have enraged Beijing with visits to Taiwan in a show of support for the island’s democracy. Gallagher and Khanna made official trips to the capital city of Taipei this month for meetings with top political, national security and business leaders.
The discovery of the suspected Chinese spy balloon sparked a diplomatic crisis that resulted in the cancellation of a long-planned trip to Beijing by the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken. Just weeks prior, a top US military commander warned officers in a memo that his “gut” told him the US and China would be at war by 2025.
Now US officials say China is considering supplying lethal weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine. China denies the claim, though that didn’t stop US national security adviser Jake Sullivan from telling CNN on Sunday that it would be “a bad mistake” for Chinese officials to do that. “China should want no part of it,” Sullivan said.
In a sign of lawmakers’ hardening views on China, measures to confront Beijing on multiple fronts now routinely attract bipartisan support.
Last year, Congress overwhelmingly approved sweeping legislation aimed at growing the nation’s domestic manufacturing and technology sectors to try to boost US competitiveness with China. Shortly thereafter, Biden introduced export restrictions on semiconductors in an effort to strangle China’s microchip sector.
Congress also gave the Biden administration new authority to send Taiwan weapons, though lawmakers say a spending dispute is slowing efforts to help the self-governing island fortify its defenses against China.
It’s a very fraught environment for companies to operate in
Meanwhile, there is growing support for legislation that would ban the Chinese-owned video sharing platform TikTok that lawmakers say poses a security risk, as well as for efforts to hold China accountable over the country’s alleged abuses of Muslim minorities in its Xinjiang province.
The US is turning from a strategy of integration with China to one of confrontation and competition, said Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The sharp erosion in relations between the world’s largest economies, underscored by calls for an economic “decoupling”, has left multinational companies scrambling to adapt to the new geopolitical reality.
“It’s a very fraught environment for companies to operate in,” Kennedy said. “They’ve become careful to a fault.”
Yet despite the rising tensions, he noted that the countries’ economies remain highly interdependent. Last year, trade between the US and China reached a record high of nearly $700bn.
Bipartisanship without consensus
As US policymakers intensify their efforts to reorient the relationship between China and the US, critical questions remain about what that strategy will look like in practice.
There is broad agreement that the US must decrease its reliance on Chinese-made goods and technologies, said Kim, the Brookings expert, but “there certainly isn’t a consensus on how much de-risking and decoupling is necessary to strike the right balance between national security concerns and upholding American values and principles that have long held dear the free flow of information, people, trade and open markets”.
The House panel begins its work at a time of rising public hostility toward China. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 82% of Americans hold an unfavorable view of the country, more than twice the figure in 2012, when Xi came to power. In general, Republicans, more so than Democrats, tend to harbor more negative views of China and are more likely to support the US taking a more hardline approach to the country, it found.
The committee’s hearings, meanwhile, will play out against the backdrop of a presidential campaign cycle, with Republicans already aiming to cast Biden as “weak” on China.
That makes it even more important for the administration and for others not to signal hysteria
Amid this heated political environment, some experts have emphasized the importance of avoiding a drumbeat to war with China. Matt Duss, a former foreign policy adviser to progressive Senator Bernie Sanders, complimented Biden’s overall handling of the balloon incident, but he admonished the administration’s “overreaction” in canceling Blinken’s trip.
“The American people are going to take cues from their leaders on these issues,” said Duss, who is now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That makes it even more important for the administration and for others not to signal hysteria.”
The US will soon mark 20 years since the invasion of Iraq, Duss noted; that vastly consequential and widely criticised decision was supported by members of both parties at the time.
“Bipartisanship is good,” Duss said. “But bipartisanship behind bad policy is very bad.”
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