A new challenge to relations between America and China

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TTHIS IS IT has been a lullaby in the rancor between China and America in recent weeks. Fears of war against Taiwan, though still widespread, have receded since Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met in Bali in November and agreed to high-level talks re- start in less sensitive areas, including climate change. Their top economic officials had “open exchanges” in Zurich in January but agreed to step up communication. And both sides are likely to build on that momentum when Antony Blinken goes to China in early February on the first visit there by an American secretary of state since 2018.

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But a new challenge to those efforts is now emerging in the form of a Republican-led congressional committee that will investigate many of the most divisive areas of China-US relations. The new China Select Committee of the House of Representatives has no legislative authority but can issue subpoenas and hold hearings. “There is a bipartisan consensus that the era of trust in Communist China is over,” Kevin McCarthy, the Republican speaker of the House, told lawmakers on Jan. 10, shortly before approving his ‘ committee with 365 votes to 65. Mike Gallagher, chairman of the committee, wants to hold their first hearing before March “at the latest”.

Congressional anger at China has been in waves ever since the Communists won in 1949. After that, there was a poisonous debate over “who lost China?” leading to an investigation by the since-disbanded Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee, which tried to pin the blame on left-wing academics and diplomats. That alienated a generation of China experts and helped fuel the rise of Joseph McCarthy (no relation to Kevin), the Republican senator who led a witch hunt for Communist sympathizers in the 1950s.

The late 1990s saw another surge of concern with two China-related scandals—one involving campaign donations, the other the sale of American space technology—following President Bill Clinton’s 2000 impeachment to provide China with “permanent normal trade relations”. That same year, Congress created the Congressional Regulatory Commission on China (CECC) and the US– China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), which reports annually to the legislature.

China’s new committee overlaps them in some ways, but they differ in key ways that could cause trouble, particularly for Mr Xi’s efforts to reassure businesses the West is alarmed by his recent policies and tensions over Taiwan. The CECC mostly investigating human rights issues. Although he has subpoena powers, he rarely uses them. The USCC examines the impact of relations with China on national security but generally takes evidence from officials and academics.

In contrast, the China Select Committee is designed to conduct high-profile investigations into almost any aspect of the US-China relationship. Among the issues he may address are American arms sales to Taiwan, investments in China by American pension funds and Chinese ownership of American agricultural land, as well as China’s political influence activities in America and its role in fentanyl production, according to Republicans involved.

It also has a bright and relatively young president in Mr. Gallagher, a 38-year-old Republican representative and former naval intelligence officer with a doctorate in international relations from Georgetown University. While President Biden talks about avoiding a new cold war with China, Mr. Gallagher argues that it is already underway and that America needs to accelerate legislative and executive action to intervene. . At the same time, he seems aware of the need to coordinate with other congressional committees and maintain bipartisan support for himself, calling for “real, sober” people to come together.

Republicans have nominated 13 members to the committee in total. They include several hawks from China, but mostly figures that can work across the aisle. Only five people served on Mr. McCarthy’s 15-member China Task Force, which was designed to be bipartisan when it was launched in 2020 but lost the support of Democrats, in part because of fears it would too much politics on the China issue. The only Asian-American is Michelle Steel from California, who was born in South Korea.

Democrats have nominated 11 members, including three Asian-Americans. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, an Indian-American member of the Intelligence Committee, takes the ranking slot. He said he looked forward to working with colleagues from both parties to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s “increasing aggression”, citing its threats against Taiwan and stealing American intellectual property. But he also urged the committee to avoid rhetoric that could incite hostility toward Asian Americans.

Agenda items

It is not yet clear which issue the committee will deal with first. But Mr Gallagher says his priority is to deal with what he says is a backlog of weapons, worth $18bn-19bn, which have been agreed for sale to Taiwan but have not been delivered yet. He has also repeatedly called for TikTok, a Chinese-owned short video app, to be banned or sold to an American entity.

All of that will be difficult for Mr. Xi to stomach. For him, however, one of the biggest dangers is that he goes overboard, throwing more red meat to congressional hawks while missing the point that much of this will be political theater. of what the committee does. Although Chinese officials have toned down their rhetoric in recent weeks, they have been vitriolic in the past about the two commissions targeting China. In 2020 China imposed sanctions on the CECC and two of its Republican members.

Some experts who advise the Chinese government now fear that Republicans are trying to hijack Chinese policy and push the two countries deeper into a Cold War-style conflict. . The new committee will act as a “stone thrower”, undermining any efforts by Mr Biden to work with China, said Dong Chunling of the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations, a think tank linked to China’s state security ministry. . As America’s next presidential election approaches, the two parties’ China policies are likely to converge, he predicts, and relations with China could be victims of America’s political struggles.

The committee could indeed make it more difficult for Mr. Biden to manage China relations. While his administration does not appear to be softening its stance on key issues such as Taiwan or technology trade, it wants to work with China to build “guard rails” to prevent conflict. They also hope to collaborate in areas of global concern, such as cutting methane emissions and preparing for the next pandemic. The committee has no formal power to stop such initiatives. But there is no doubt that his hearings will inflame public opinion, limiting Mr. Biden’s room for maneuver.

That raises another potential problem for the American president. If the committee moves it towards a more confrontational position towards China, it risks alienating friends – especially in Europe. While many share some American concerns about Mr Xi’s policies, they also want to re-engage with China commercially and are wary of being drawn into a military conflict in Asia. .

But there are problems for Republicans, too. One of them is that their committee members are becoming too critical of the Biden administration. Congressional committees get less credibility from formal powers than from media interest, which can quickly erode if they start to engage in bickering, says Robert Kelner, who heads the transportation investigation practice at Covington & Burling, an American law firm. “If the media loses interest in a congressional investigation, that investigation is going to end,” he says.

The other big risk is that the committee’s hearings give pressure to Democrats and other critics who worry about it encouraging anti-Asian violence. On January 10, 23 House representatives issued a statement expressing concern about the committee’s direction and warning that “irresponsible and biased rhetoric and policy” from Donald Trump and congressional Republicans had contributed to an increase in 339% in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021.

Mr Gallagher dismisses these concerns, saying he aims to protect the Chinese diaspora from the Communist Party. But he acknowledges the need to tread carefully, noting recently that Joseph McCarthy was also a marine intelligence officer in Wisconsin. “The lesson of Joseph McCarthy is that there is always a danger of going overboard,” he said. -state.”

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