The politics around China this campaign season are full of heat. Labels of unilateralism and internationalism undergird overt attacks from both sides on who is better at cozying up to Xi Jinping. In down ballot races, cold war rhetoric is used on opponents viewed as “soft” on China. In the House, an effort to create a bipartisan China task force broke down. It was replaced by a Republican effort that produced a broad report. In the Senate, major legislation was introduced by the Foreign Relations Committee with two separate bills, one by Republicans and another by Democrats.
However, you only need to scratch the surface and delve into the work of Congress to view that consensus is growing in both parties for a national strategy on the China challenge, an approach that even differs in notable ways from the more unilateral direction of the administration.
There were over 360 bills related to China introduced by this Congress, and a dozen of them became law with bipartisan support. The bills that passed were notable for their focus on working with allies and partners, bolstering military deterrence for the Indo Pacific, and backing human rights in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet. Even the separate Republican and Democratic bills mentioned above were strikingly similar.
Why is there alignment? Because Congress is in tune with public opinion. Indeed, a recent survey of 1,000 adult Americans done by the Center for Strategic and International Studies revealed that China is now seen as the greatest foreign challenger to the United States at 54 percent, with Russia in a distant second at 22 percent. The survey revealed a surprising amount of consensus on policy for multilateralism, human rights, and security, the same issues of significant bipartisan alignment in Congress.
In addition, 45 percent of respondents favored working with our allies and partners to counter China on security concerns, and on average they were willing to take significant risk to defend important allies and partners, with thought leaders even more supportive with defending allies. Respondents were similarly willing to take on moderate risk on other policy priorities to tackle the most significant human rights challenges in China.
Views on economic policy were more divided as Americans split between international agreements and rules to pressure China and more unilateral tools such as sanctions. While current economic policy fissures continue for Congress, there has been a growing recognition that a China strategy will need to include both support for multilateral coalitions for economic competition and a significant increase in domestic innovation and supply chain security. Interest is rising in both sides of the aisle for a return to an era of industrial policy with respect to emerging technology.
This common recognition of the China challenge has led to convergence among more separate groups in Congress that have over history focused on China policy. Before you could separate all the members of Congress focused on economic nationalism, free trade, human rights, and military competition. Now there is a sense for common purpose as threats posed by China have crystalized. The greatest divisions today appear to be over campaign rhetoric and political posturing between the parties. These are divisions that will surely diminish after the election this fall.
There is no doubt fissures will arise over issues such as defense spending, climate change collaboration with China, and whether to return to a Trans Pacific Partnership. But the bottom line is that there is far more unity now than ever before on the need to compete effectively with China alongside our allies and partners and in defense of our technology edge and values. That significant combination could represent the most bipartisan issue in Congress at a time of real polarization in the United States.
Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Louis Lauter is vice president for Congress and government affairs with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.