What could GOP control of the House mean for U.S.-China tensions?

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans have vowed to get tougher on China as they prepare to take control of the House, cheering critics of Beijing but also raising concern that one of Washington’s most important bilateral relationships could be further destabilized.

Both Democrats and Republicans have grown more vigilant about China in recent years, but Republicans more often frame China’s rise as a threat to U.S. economic and national security.

Though Democrats retained control of the Senate in the midterm elections last month, Republicans are now in a stronger position to scrutinize President Joe Biden’s China policies with their slim majority in the House.

“Whatever the Biden administration does, the Republican opposition will take a position to the right of that and say that it’s not enough,” Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard University and a former assistant secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, told NBC News.

Covid tensions

Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican nominee for House speaker, has said he would like to lead a congressional delegation to Taiwan, a self-ruling island Beijing claims as its territory. Such a move is guaranteed to infuriate China, which responded to a similar visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the summer with unprecedented live-fire military drills

McCarthy also says he plans to create a House select committee on China, the first since the late 1990s.

“The Chinese Communist Party is the greatest geopolitical threat of our lifetime,” he said in a statement last week announcing that the committee would be led by Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc.

According to a blog post on McCarthy’s website, the committee will “investigate and provide policy recommendations on how the U.S. can win the economic and technological competition” with China in areas including trade, supply chain security and intellectual property protection.

House Republicans will also investigate the origins of the coronavirus and “the CCP’s role in the spread,” the blog post said, although it is unclear whether that investigation would be part of the select committee.

A report issued Wednesday evening by the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee said that they have “reason to believe that the [intelligence community] downplayed the possibility that SARS-CoV2 was connected to China’s bioweapons program.” On Thursday, a House Intelligence report signed by Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) found that at the start of the pandemic, the intelligence community “did not pivot its clandestine collection quickly enough.”

The debate over the origins of the virus, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, “is something that drives China crazy,” said Ian Johnson, senior fellow for China at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Chinese officials have condemned a theory that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab as a lie promoted by “anti-China forces” for political reasons, and criticized the World Health Organization’s suggestion of further investigation into the theory.

The pandemic is just one of the issues that have brought U.S.-China relations to their lowest point in decades, along with disputes over trade, human rights and China’s growing military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Tensions were further inflamed in August by Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, the first by a sitting U.S. House speaker since 1997.

Experts say Biden’s China policy has largely been the same as that of former President Donald Trump, who imposed tariffs on Chinese imports that led to a trade war. In October the Biden administration went further, announcing sweeping export controls limiting China’s access to strategically important semiconductor chips.

While “responsibly managing” competition with China, the world’s second-largest economy, the White House says it also welcomes cooperation on issues of global importance such as climate change, public health and nuclear nonproliferation. Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in person in Indonesia last month for the first time since Biden took office, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he plans to visit China early next year.

On Friday Blinken announced the launch of a new Office of China Coordination in order to “ensure the U.S. government is able to responsibly manage our competition … and advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system.” 

Bipartisan ‘China bashing?’

But U.S.-China relations could be disrupted by an atmosphere of political one-upmanship on China in a Republican-controlled House, said Michael O’Hanlon, the director of research for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

“They may decide that it’s good politics to really indulge in more China bashing, try to portray Biden as somehow weak on this issue, depending on how they choose to set themselves up to run against him in 2024,” he said.

Some Republicans criticized the White House response to protests in China against “zero-Covid” controls that were the largest show of public unrest the country had seen in decades, with some protesters calling for Xi to step down.

The White House defended Chinese citizens’ right to peacefully protest but stopped short of criticizing Beijing, in what some experts saw as an attempt to avoid supporting Chinese government claims that the protests were driven by “foreign forces.” McCarthy and other Republicans said Biden should have gone further.

“As Chinese citizens bravely protest, Joe Biden & the corporate class shrug,” the Republican leader said on Twitter. “Our Select Committee on China will do what Biden refuses — finally reckon with the pariah that is the CCP.”

Similarly, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted: “When you speak out for freedom, that terrifies the tyrants in China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. But what does Joe Biden do? He appeases and shows weakness to all of them!”

The Chinese government will be closely following the actions of the new Congress, said Wu Xinbo, the director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. 

“I think it is worried about the prospect that a new Congress will get tough on China,” he said. At the same time, “Beijing would also welcome the opportunity for the improvement of the bilateral relationship.” 

House Republicans might try to be tougher on China than the Biden and Trump administrations, neither of which have been especially aggressive, said Derek Scissors, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. But if the select committee takes a bipartisan approach, he said, the House might be able to originate legislation that is signed into law.

Some Republicans and Democrats have already found common ground on China legislation, pushing for bipartisan bills to ban TikTok, which has a China-based parent company, and restrict Huawei’s access to U.S. banks.

“If it can’t be done on a bipartisan basis, there’s still a public relations effort in raising the profile of China to the American people and even to people in Washington,” Scissors said.

Pro-business elements of the Republican Party could also serve as a moderating force, Scissors said.

The most volatile issue in U.S.-China relations is the status of Taiwan, which Beijing has not ruled out seizing by force. While the White House maintains that its long-standing “One China” policy has not changed, there is bipartisan support in Congress for strengthening Washington’s unofficial ties with Taipei, as well as scattered calls for the United States. to make a full-throated commitment to defend Taiwan against any Chinese invasion.

Lawmakers from both parties have been visiting Taiwan with increasing frequency, drawing protests from Beijing.

It is almost like McCarthy “kind of has to do it to show his bona fides,” Johnson said.

These trips are more about politics than American national security or interests, Allison said.

A visit by McCarthy would be “as irresponsible and reckless as his predecessor’s was and will produce another major Chinese step forward in demonstrating their capability to strangle Taiwan,” he said.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, Taiwan
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, Taiwan on Aug. 3, 2022.Chien Chih-Hung / Office of The President via Getty Images file

Wu agreed: “I think China’s response to Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan basically set a precedent for China to follow in the future,” he said, adding that if McCarthy visits, it will be “a big shock in China-U.S. relations.”

A spokesperson for McCarthy told NBC News last week there were no updates on a possible trip to Taiwan.

Johnson said it was also China’s responsibility to put moves by U.S. lawmakers in context and not react with maximum force to actions that may be deliberately provocative. 

“I think if they are able to calibrate their response, then that could be a sign that they do want to improve relations with the U.S.,” he said. “If they really go ballistic over these things, then I think it’s a sign that they’re not able to control the hawks in their own government either.”

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