Adults in the room? Lawmakers have high hopes for ‘serious’ China committee
Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the newly formed China committee tasked with charting a new approach to U.S.-China relations are pushing to rise above partisan battles over which party is strong enough to confront the threat posed by Beijing.
It’s a goal made more complicated by rising anti-Asian attacks in the U.S., a Chinese spy balloon that has captured public attention and partisan tensions in Congress ahead of a presidential election where President Biden’s handling of Beijing is likely to be an issue.
Chairman Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) has set a lofty goal for the committee, determined to craft policy that can get the backing not only of a congressional majority but also support across the globe.
“We’re going to try and identify what is the bipartisan center of gravity on China-related legislation and policy. The numbers I have in my head are 70 and 70. What is the foundation of a coherent strategy vis-a-vis the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that 70 percent of Americans can support and 70 percent of the world can support,” he said.
“So I am cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to operate in a bipartisan way, and our members are really enthusiastic right now,” he added.
The panel, formally named Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, is one of the few joint ventures between Democrats and a newly minted GOP majority.
The 24-member panel has been seated with a roster of members that has excited those appointed to it, eagerly describing their colleagues on both sides of the aisle as “serious” lawmakers.
“I think one of the most positive developments of the 118th Congress was that [House Minority Leader] Hakeem Jeffries [D-N.Y.] and Kevin McCarthy played it straight with their appointments. These are serious legislators who want to get things done,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), an appointee to the panel who described its members as having a track record of bipartisan deal-making.
“This thing could have devolved into a clown show. But McCarthy and Jeffries, I think, gave us a really good shot of being effective,” Johnson added.
The panel — so new it still doesn’t have a website — is already confronting its first major obstacle in responding to a brazen, global Chinese balloon spying program. It’s an episode that has led to sharp GOP criticism of Biden.
The committee is expected to host a hearing once a month, members said.
Gallagher said he’s been in discussions with leaders of other panels about “who’s having the balloon hearing,” balancing whether jurisdiction should fall to the House Armed Services Committee or the Select Committee on Intelligence.
The lack of structured guidance, so far, is raising concern for some members over whether the select committee will impose itself on the authority of other, established panels charged with oversight of Washington’s policy towards Beijing.
“I’ve heard Chairman Gallagher talk about interest in this Taiwan deterrence discussion, but … that’s the main jurisdiction of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Armed Services Committee,” Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), a member of both those panels, told The Hill.
“I think we should be addressing issues and perspectives and coming from a direction that isn’t necessarily one that’s got a lot of cooks in the kitchen already,” he added.
But some on the panel say it’s an example of why such a committee is needed.
“I think the balloon incident shows the importance of having lines of communication open, of having ways to deescalate conflict,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), told The Hill.
“It would be an unfortunate incident, if the committee adopts rhetoric that just assumes a Cold War, or is not focused on, how do we have constructive engagement?“ he continued. “There has to be toughness on the economy, there has to be total deterrence on Taiwan, but there also has to be engagement on, how do we have peaceful coexistence and how do we work on issues like climate and public health?”
Those on the panel see plenty they can agree on.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (Ill.), the top Democrat on the panel, said advancing U.S. capabilities on the cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum computing front could be areas of agreement, as well as developing workforces that allow the U.S. to move away from some Chinese supply chains. Supporting allies in the region is another area of easy agreement.
He also pointed to the passage of a bill condemning the Chinese use of a spy balloon, which was approved with a 419-0 vote.
“I think that the vote just now is a good indication of how the two sides can come together on issues related to the CCP in a way that is bipartisan, while at the same time focused on the challenges that we have with the CCP. And I think that the more that we have that spirit of purpose, I think the better off we’ll be,” Krishnamoorthi said.
But there are early signs where the sticking points may be.
Democrats have flagged concerns both over “Cold War” rhetoric and the need to ensure that the panel carefully emphasizes its focus on the Chinese government, not its people.
The latter is one shared by Gallagher, who said, “The obvious way to alleviate those concerns is to constantly make this distinction between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people, with whom we have no quarrel and who are the victims of the regime.”
The differences over the use of the phrase “Cold War” is one he sees largely as semantic.
“There’s some rhetorical disagreement. … I find the phrase New Cold War interesting both for the similarities and differences that it illustrates, as well as the constant reminder that our goal should be for the Cold War to stay cold and not get hot. But if someone wants to say strategic competition, that’s fine,” he said.
“That phrase is a bit less punchy, in my opinion. It just makes it sound like we’re engaged in a tennis match,” he added.
Kim has spoken out against Gallagher’s use of “Cold War” phrasing, arguing it fails to address the deep complexity, and interconnectedness of the U.S. and China relationship, while also contributing to rising xenophobia against people of Asian descent.
“As an Asian American, I’ve experienced, significantly, increased amount of xenophobia and discrimination directed at me and my family,” he said.
Stop AAPI Hate, an NGO that tracks anti-Asian hate speech and attacks in the U.S., recorded an increase of 15 percentage points in hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) between 2020 and 2021.
Documented attacks motivated by anti-Asian or anti-Chinese hate range from verbal abuse and intimidation to stabbings and shootings targeting people of Asian descent.
Kim said what he wants the committee to focus on is explaining to the American people what the relationship between the U.S. and China is expected to look like decades from now.
“How do we paint that picture? It’s not going to be, I hope, a situation where we just have eternal escalating deterrence and tensions,” he said.
Democrats, in particular, have rallied behind Biden’s strategy of seeking necessary areas of engagement with China, like on climate change and nuclear nonproliferation, even as they stress intense economic competition and military deterrence.
Gallagher, however, said he notes division on that topic among Democrats, including “a more realistic wing that understands that Xi Jinping doesn’t care about commitments made at COP 27.”
These are issues where Republicans are likely to disagree with their colleagues on approach, but those debates are welcome, Khanna told The Hill.
“I’m not of the view of celebrating bipartisanship, for the bipartisan sake,” he said, noting with regret that U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan was supported across the aisle.
“I think dissent is often healthy in a democracy … I think what Gallagher will ensure is civility and that this does not devolve into name calling and partisan politics and going after the president. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be space for robust, heated, spirited debate.”
Other members, too, have been more pointed in their celebration of the bipartisan prospects of the panel.
“The past four years the Democrats completely avoided the China threat. They refused to participate in what was supposed to be a bipartisan China Task Force. But with Pelosi leaving the Speaker’s chair, it appears to be a new day in the House where Democrats are willing to come to the table and work with us,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) told The Hill.
“I’m glad they appointed their members,“ he added. “And it appeared from my point of view, the Democrat members who have been appointed to the select committee are productive members who care about the China threat. So my hope is that it will be a bright spot for bipartisanship to confront the biggest national security threat that America faces.”
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