China central to GOP efforts to push back on Biden

Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Biden
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Republicans are digging in on their efforts to paint President Biden as soft on China, laying the groundwork for a midterm elections attack line and shoring up positions for the 2024 presidential contest.

While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have identified China as the gravest national security threat to the United States, House and Senate GOP members are accusing the president’s people and policies of failing to stand up to Beijing. 

Being hard on China is viewed as a winning election strategy, with the country widely viewed as a potential danger to the nation on multiple fronts.

“China is a very safe place for Republicans to be on offense — for Democrats as well for that matter — you’re not going to be punished for being anti-China,” Doug Heye, a former House Republican aide and former communications director for the Republican National Committee, told The Hill.

Less than a month into his administration, GOP lawmakers have raised objections to Biden’s Cabinet picks over perceived ties to Chinese-language institutes in the U.S. and the Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

They are doubling down on what they say is China’s responsibility for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, warning against the president’s return to the World Health Organization (WHO).

And they are pushing the administration to confront Beijing more forcefully by elevating ties with Taiwan and imposing costs for the human rights abuses against the minority Uighur population.

Biden, in his first call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday, addressed those issues specifically. He also expressed concern over “Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices” and affirmed his priorities of safeguarding American interests and keeping the Indo-Pacific “free and open.”

In later remarks in the Oval Office, Biden said the call lasted two hours and expressed urgency at confronting Beijing.

“If we don’t get moving, they’re going to eat our lunch,” he said.

The two leaders also talked about the need to counter COVID-19 and the challenges of addressing global health security, climate change and nuclear non-proliferation.

The call came the same day the Pentagon announced a departmentwide task force focused on addressing challenges posed by China.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) reacted to that move by calling on the administration to join Republican efforts to confront the Chinese threat.

“House Republicans formed the [China Task Force]. After first agreeing to join, Democrats walked away. Our national security shouldn’t be partisan,” he tweeted.

Republicans repeatedly went after the president during the 2020 election over his past policies on China — as well as his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings there. And a reported memo from April advised GOP candidates to characterize Democrats generally as being “soft on China.”

Attacks on the Biden administration over policies related to China are already underway by GOP lawmakers.

This includes pushback over Beijing’s influence at the WHO, echoing former President Trump’s reasoning when he withdrew from the global health body over criticisms it was complicit in the spread of COVID-19 from China. Biden rejoined the WHO on his first day in office.

GOP Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.), who is considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate, introduced legislation on Monday aimed at blocking U.S. funds for the WHO until its leadership is replaced and it accepts Taiwan as a member state.

Nikki Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. during the Trump administration and is also considered a potential presidential candidate, took aim at Biden’s rejoining of the United Nations Human Rights Council, saying it undermines efforts to hold Beijing accountable for its treatment of Uighur Muslims.

House Republicans are also homing in on the Beijing-backed Confucius Institutes, U.S.-based language and cultural centers that were designated as a foreign mission by the Trump administration and have largely shut down across American campuses.

In December, the Trump administration proposed a rule in the Federal Register aimed at creating more oversight for the Confucius Institutes, but it was withdrawn on Jan. 26.

Republicans were quick to point to the rule withdrawal as evidence the Biden administration was quietly capitulating to Beijing.

“It has been a year since the Chinese Communist Party let a pandemic spread around the world. Instead of holding them accountable for hiding the truth, the Biden Admin is rewarding China by allowing their propaganda to infiltrate our college campuses,” McCarthy tweeted, linking to an article describing the withdrawal as intentional.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price called this narrative “false” and said the Trump administration’s failure to follow proper procedures in submitting the policy change led to its withdrawal.

“When it comes to this administration, we’ll treat Confucius Institutes as part of our overall approach of how best to respond to China’s use of information operations and other coercive and corrupting efforts to undermine and interfere in democracies,” Price said.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that he had heard from the White House that the withdrawal “was not a targeted effort to roll back” oversight, and said he is urging the administration to resubmit the rule as soon as possible.

The controversy over Confucius Institutes, which were the subject of a bipartisan Senate report last year warning of their risks, also led Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to come out against Biden’s pick for U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Thomas-Greenfield, a 35-year veteran of the State Department and expert in African affairs, has said she regretted giving a 2019 speech that was sponsored by the Confucius Institute at Savannah State University.

Cruz, another potential 2024 contender, argued her participation in the speech, as well as past remarks calling for cooperation with China, disqualified her from the role.

“We need a U.N. ambassador who will stand up to China, to China’s pervasive influence at the United Nations, and given her record, I have no confidence that this nominee would do so,” he said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting considering her nomination.

Thomas-Greenfield received a majority of the support of the panel and a confirmation vote on her nomination is pending with the Senate. 

Huawei has also become a flashpoint for Cruz and other Republicans. The Trump administration took a series of strong steps against the tech giant, including effectively blacklisting it by adding it to the Commerce Department’s “entity list.”

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), Biden’s nominee for Commerce secretary, was widely criticized by Republicans after she did not specifically state during her confirmation hearing that Huawei would remain on the entity list.

Taking Huawei off the entity list would be difficult due to a clause in the 2020 annual defense bill that requires evidence the company has ceased to pose a threat before its removal.

Raimondo did commit to reviewing the policy and working with Congress, industry leaders and foreign allies over the best course of action.

Her comments were not enough for Cruz, who voted against her nomination in committee and later placed a hold on the Senate vote, accusing her of having a “soft stance on China.”

Heye urged the Biden administration to take a “clear” stance on Beijing, warning that its opponents are given opportunities by any statements not promising specific actions.

Their current positioning, he said, is “as if you’re thinking out loud, and that’s a dangerous thing to do.”

“Of course the administration that is three weeks into itself hasn’t thought out everything, but your opponents have,” Heye added.

Tags China Confucius Institute Donald Trump Doug Heye Gina Raimondo Huawei Hunter Biden Joe Biden Josh Hawley Kevin McCarthy Linda Thomas-Greenfield Michael McCaul Nikki Haley Ted Cruz

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