The pressure is on
By Rick Dunham  ·  2023-01-18  ·   Source: NO.4 JANUARY 26, 2023
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives gather around Congressman Kevin McCarthy (center) inside the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., the U.S., on January 6, the day before he was elected House speaker (XINHUA)

Don't let the headlines about bitter Republican infighting on Capitol Hill distract you. The raucous new majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives is united in its goal of changing the trajectory of U.S.-China relations following the recent cautious rapprochement between the nation's leaders.

"The era of trusting communist China is over," new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said shortly after narrowly winning the top House leadership position on the 15th round of voting on January 7. In sharply worded comments, the California Republican alleged that "China has exported oppression, aggression and anti-Americanism. Today, the power of its military and economy are growing at the expense of freedom and democracy worldwide."

At a time when the Chinese Foreign Ministry has sent conciliatory signals to Washington, and American Secretary of State Antony Blinken is planning his first diplomatic trip to Beijing, the aggressive anti-China stance of the Republican-led House threatens to reverse recent progress in repairing a bilateral relationship damaged by a trade war launched by former President Donald Trump and serious disagreements over issues including Hong Kong, Taiwan, economic blacklisting of Chinese companies, COVID-19 response and sanctions related to Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Provocative opportunism

House Republicans are certain to provoke the Chinese Government with a series of investigations into sensitive areas such as alleged ties between Chinese technology giants and their government, purported spying by Chinese academics in the U.S., the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, alleged human rights violations against Muslims and Christians, possible concessions made by American companies in return for investments in China, and any business dealings of the U.S. president's son, Hunter Biden, on the Chinese mainland. Republicans hope to portray China as a growing threat to American interests and the Joe Biden administration as weak—and even corrupt.

Chinese analysts see echoes of the Cold War and partisan political opportunism behind the Republican approach. Dong Chunling, an assistant research fellow with the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, identified three goals in a Global Times opinion piece:

l to mobilize American public opinion in support of "a comprehensive containment strategy against China;"

l to influence the Biden administration's China policy; and

l to "create more stumbling blocks for China-U.S. ties during Biden's presidency."

Whatever the motives, McCarthy's ascendancy has cemented a shift in the Republican Party away from the pro-business establishment of the 20th century to a populist nationalism that sees little benefit in engagement with China. James Palmer, Deputy Editor of Foreign Policy magazine, said the new Congress "represents an end to the role of business advocates in determining

China policy." The new Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul of Texas, underscored the shift when he declared that "the Republican House is laser-focused on the CCP (Chinese Communist Party, sic) as an existential threat to our nation."

The opening volley in McCarthy's anti-China offensive was a pair of legislative initiatives approved in mid-January banning the export of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve to China and creating a "House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party." The panel's Chairman, Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, said its goal is to highlight what he called the CPC's "coordinated whole of society strategy to undermine American leadership and American sovereignty" and "long overdue commonsense approaches to counter CCP aggressions."

China's Foreign Ministry responded diplomatically to the committee's creation, which had the support of two thirds of House Democrats. "We hope the relevant U.S. politicians view China and China-U.S. relations in an objective and reasonable light, proceed from the U.S.' own interests and the common interests of China and U.S., head toward the same direction with China and promote the development of China-U.S. relations based on mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated at a regular press briefing on January 11.

Political machinations

Relations between the world's two largest economic powers have been strained since former President Trump imposed tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods in 2018, a move that was followed by U.S.-imposed economic sanctions and waves of reciprocal tariffs. Despite the urging of the Chinese Government, the Biden administration has not lifted all of the tariffs and has extended the blacklists that bar some Chinese tech companies from U.S. sales.

But signs of a thaw came with a bilateral meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Biden in Bali on November 14, 2022. At the meeting, the Chinese leader made it clear that China would not make concessions on core interests but added "it is in both sides' mutual interest to benefit from each other's development."

The Bali meeting led to a diplomatic flurry. Secretary of State Blinken, while critical of China for specific actions, said it is important "to find areas of cooperation" and to ensure that "competition does not veer into conflict." Chinese Foreign Ministry officials described discussions as "candid, in-depth and constructive" in preparation for Blinken's expected visit to Beijing in early 2023.

That meeting—and any potential warming between the two superpowers—could be complicated by the aggressive agenda of the House of Representatives. Dong believes the pressure caused by the House committee on China "will cause constraints for the Biden administration to show a positive attitude toward China, or to promote dialogue and cooperation with China."

Biden is also constrained by the 2024 reelection campaign. The president receives overwhelmingly unfavorable ratings from the American public for his handling of relations with China, and he may be reluctant to make any concessions that allow Republicans to reprise Trump's depiction of him as "Beijing Biden."

But Republicans also run risks with their China-bashing strategy if they inspire a new wave of violence directed at Asian Americans like the attacks that occurred across the U.S. in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the credibility of the investigations could be damaged if they veer off into unproven rumors alleging American Government involvement in the Wuhan laboratory that some conspiracy theorists link to the 2019 outbreak. "House Democrats will firmly speak out against xenophobic rhetoric and conspiracy theories should this committee devolve into extreme [Make America Great Again] Republican talking points that further anti-Asian hate crimes in this country," the top House Democrat, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, warned.

Amid these American political machinations, diplomats for both governments continue their discussions out of the public eye. Their best hope for improving China-U.S. ties, veteran analysts on both sides of the Pacific believe, would be to focus on areas of common interest such as climate change and global economic growth while managing areas of disagreement so that single incidents do not precipitate a major crisis. An easy gesture of goodwill would be to increase person-to-person exchanges and a rebooted tourism business as the COVID-19 threat wanes.

But negotiators from each country will have to give ground if there is any hope to roll back the trade tensions of the past four years. And Biden seems likely to complicate matters if, as reported by American news website Axios' Hans Nichols on January 12, he issues an executive order imposing new controls on projects by American companies or investors in China in the fields of quantum computing, artificial intelligence and semiconductors.

Biden's ambivalence on trade is another reminder of the political pressures that will continue to constrain him as long as he is an avowed candidate for reelection. And the pressure is not likely to let up as long as Republicans control the House. 

The author is co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

Comments to ffli@cicgamericas.com

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