Experts: Lawmakers’ fixation on countering China risks overkill, isolation

‘Now is not the time to put profits ahead of American values,’ a senior GOP member said of one Democratic bill

Chairman Gregory Meeks, left, and ranking member Michael McCaul, here before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in June, have been unable to craft a bipartisan China bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Chairman Gregory Meeks, left, and ranking member Michael McCaul, here before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in June, have been unable to craft a bipartisan China bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 17, 2021 at 6:00am

Both Democrats and Republicans are united in viewing China as the United States’ No. 1 long-term strategic threat.

In a time of deep political polarization, the two parties have attempted to forge a bipartisan consensus about how to better compete with, and even contain, China in the military, trade, research and development, and global influence realms.

But despite progress in developing a bipartisan approach to help guide U.S.-China policy through new administrations and changes in power on Capitol Hill for years to come, lawmakers this year have been unable to resist scoring partisan political points and posturing for voters.

In fact, lawmakers opting to place short-term partisan electoral goals above a carefully calibrated and long-term strategic posture toward China risk jeopardizing the whole effort, according to interviews with longtime China watchers.

An example has been the parallel efforts in the House and Senate this year to pass comprehensive China policy bills. Although the Senate in June easily passed a sweeping measure aimed at boosting U.S. technological and diplomatic competitiveness vis-a-vis China, the prospects for a similarly bipartisan measure in the House appear dim.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y., initially tried to partner with the panel’s ranking member, Michael McCaul, R-Texas, on a bipartisan China bill.

But House GOP objections over Democrats’ desire to use the legislation to also authorize billions of dollars in new spending for international climate change programs resulted in the measure being approved with just Democratic votes. McCaul was also frustrated that the measure didn’t go as far as he would have preferred in pushing for economic “decoupling” with Beijing.

“Now is not the time to put profits ahead of American values and our national security,” McCaul said in late June at the start of a panel markup.

Bashing Beijing

Frustrated that their more hawkish policy prescriptions were not included in the Meeks bill, Republicans insisted on holding roll call votes for dozens of amendments, which stretched the committee markup over four days. Many of the amendments offered by GOP members were aimed at scoring political points and infuriating Beijing, which Meeks argued amounted to choosing catharsis over effectiveness.

Republicans sought unsuccessfully to impose sanctions on Chinese scientists until Beijing permits an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, sanctioning the overseas influence arm of the Chinese Communist Party known as the United Front Work Department and ending U.S. participation in key U.N. climate change initiatives.

Notably, while overwhelming majorities of Americans view China as a security threat, they are much more divided as to how confrontational an approach they think the United States should take toward Beijing.

A March survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found deep divisions over U.S. policy toward China, with 51 percent of those surveyed supporting a more containment-focused approach and 47 percent wanting Washington to pursue engagement and cooperation with Beijing.

Responding to the heated partisan rhetoric at the House Foreign Affairs markup of the China bill, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., had words of caution for lawmakers from both parties.

“We are engaged right now in a contest of ideas, the United States and China, over whether the world should be governed by democratic or authoritarian values,” said Malinowski, a former top State Department human rights official during the Obama administration. “I’m not yet convinced that any of us are really willing to do the politically hard things that are needed to win that contest. We’re all willing to bash China; we’re all willing to punish the [Chinese Communist Party]. Those are the easy things.”

Malinowski and a few other Democrats, like Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia, are trying to push a discussion within their party around what they see as the pragmatic necessity of trade deals with Asia. That could include participation in some updated version of the multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was negotiated by the Obama administration.  

“The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from TPP was the single worst self-inflicted wound imaginable in terms convincing key economic partners that we could offer an enticing economic alternative,” Warner said in emailed responses to CQ Roll Call. “And in that vacuum, China has accelerated not just a trading partnership, but an even deeper economic partnership — contained in the Belt and Road Initiative — that, at least on its surface, seems really attractive to Asian, African and even European trading partners.”

Populist sentiment is strong in both the Democratic and Republican parties against further trade deals over concerns that such deals would cost Americans jobs.

‘Cut China off’

Even as Republicans and Democrats have been able to unify on certain policies toward China, such as denying Chinese telecommunications companies such as Huawei access to critical U.S. technology, the rest of the world, including major economic powers like Germany and France, remain much less convinced that an aggressively competitive policy toward Beijing is one that they want to join.

This concern is underlined, particularly in Europe, by worries about what happens to their own economic and security interests if the next U.S. administration after President Joe Biden returns to some form of the incongruent and unpredictable “America First” foreign policies of the Donald Trump years.

“I think this approach probably overstates the ways in which the United States can or cannot get other countries to follow the United States if the United States wants to take this almost isolationist approach to cut China off,” said Mary Gallagher, who directs the University of Michigan’s Center for Chinese Studies. “One potential end result is the United States is cut off because other countries that do care about addressing climate change and global public health and recognize that the United States is not going to work with China, it may be that the United States is the one that is left off. That’s sort of what is happening with global trade.”

That no country is as hawkish as the United States when it comes to China means other countries could exploit the growing U.S. intention to counter China in all areas.

“There are very few countries in the world that want to be on just one team,” Bruce Jentleson, a political science and international relations professor at Duke University, said in an interview. “It’s a pluralistic world, which is not going to divide into neat little blocks, which is what the Cold War did. The more we try to push people into super-hawkishness, the more they have leverage over us on things that aren’t necessarily about China but are bilateral issues.”

Jentleson says having an oversized focus on China may cause the United States to make too many concessions on separate bilateral issues in its efforts to get third-party countries to adopt more assertive policies toward China.

Another concern is that in seeking to outcompete China in all military, technology and trade realms, the United States risks investing precious resources into areas where it is at a serious competitive disadvantage rather than honing and focusing its strengths in a smaller number of places where vital U.S. interests are concerned.

“Competition is not a strategy,” Miranda Priebe, director of the Rand Corp.’s Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy, told CQ Roll Call, adding she worries the policies of the Trump and Biden administrations are producing a set of policies where competition with China “is almost an end into itself.”

“I worry that focusing on competition across all these domains … that we start taking a symmetrical response to everything that China does and that we always have to compete and be best in each domain,” she said.