After four years of effort, bipartisan congressional majorities remain determined to defend the United States against serious multifaceted challenges posed by the Chinese party-state. In that time, Congress has exerted more influence over U.S. China policy than in any other period in American history. Going forward, congressional actions will assure continued U.S. resolve to counter China, but the effectiveness of resulting U.S. policy faces serious gaps.
American domestic politics drove the sharply negative turn against Chinese policies and actions. China’s ever growing challenges prompted a shift in China policy set forth in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy in December 2017. The shift developed erratically with sometimes serious differences within the administration and President Donald Trump vacillating unpredictably between punitive tariffs and friendship with China’s leader. However, bipartisan majorities in Congress proved much steadier in establishing as a matter of law a “whole of government” effort countering China’s challenges.
The Congress has remained at the center of the so-called Washington consensus to end previous engagement in favor of strong opposition to Beijing. This “inside the beltway” consensus took two years to become broadly accepted by U.S. media, public opinion, state and local officials and Democratic presidential candidates, including Joseph Biden.
Trump and the administration moderated to some degree public pressure on China during the year long trade negotiations in 2019. U.S. public opinion, Biden, and other Democratic candidates were not supportive of the sharp turn against China. But bipartisan majorities in Congress sustained efforts supporting the whole of government pushback against Beijing’s behavior. A turning point came with strong and broad American media and public disapproval of China’s government behavior as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States during the presidential campaign of 2020. Both Trump and Biden emphasized toughness toward China.
Past Practice: Episodic and Reactive Congressional Involvement
Recent congressional activism contrasts with past episodic congressional involvement, with Congress broadly accepting presidential leadership in foreign affairs, including China policy. Congressional Republicans sharply criticized the Truman administration’s withdrawal of support for Chiang Kai-shek and his armies as they failed in the face of Communist forces taking control of mainland China. Still, the Cold War and forceful counter to China after the start of the Korean War was led by the administration. Congress supported Cold War initiatives. Some, notably Senator Joseph McCarthy, went further, criticizing administration vigilance and resolve.
President Nixon’s opening to China was broadly welcomed in Congress. The numerous congressional delegations visiting China after this breakthrough represented the most important official channel between the two countries for several years as the administration’s initiative to China faltered with Nixon’s resignation and President Ford’s preoccupations.
President Carter’s agreement to end all official relations with Taiwan as of January 1, 1979, including the existing defense treaty, in order to establish official relations with Beijing prompted bipartisan criticism and major legislation supporting Taiwan. This episode set a pattern of later congressional behavior seeking to slow or obstruct administration efforts to move forward relations with Beijing at the expense of other U.S. interests involving relations with allies and partners, including Taiwan, nuclear non-proliferation, domestic economic interests, human rights, and other matters.
Beijing’s bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 prompted strident congressional opposition, pressing President George H.W. Bush to take harsh countermeasures. For the next 10 years, annual episodes of congressional review of the administration’s yearly decision to allow continued Most Favored Nation trade status for China saw active debate focused on human rights and other negative trends in China. Congress also pressed President Clinton to allow Taiwan’s president to visit the United States in 1995. When the visit led to the most serious military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait in decades, Congress fell silent and demurred as the administration dealt with the crisis. As Clinton sought to manage relations with China through constructive engagement, Republicans in Congress sharply criticized perceived shortcomings.
The terrorist attack on the United States in 2001 and following large-scale war on terror saw congressional concern about China drop greatly. The current hard congressional approach to China was presaged by systematic efforts by former House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans to target President Obama’s perceived weakness in dealing with China and other foreign dangers.
Contemporary Congressional View of China’s Challenges
Although congressional legislation and other actions usually have dealt with only parts of the challenges posed by China, overall those challenges can be grouped in three categories.
First is the challenge posed by over 30 years of rapid development of Chinese modern military power, tipping the balance in the Indo-Pacific, supporting Chinese territorial expansionism, and undermining U.S. alliances and partnerships in seeking dominance in the region.
Second is the challenge posed by China’s similarly longstanding efforts using state-directed development polices to plunder foreign intellectual property rights and undermine international competitors, causing increasingly profound negative impacts on U.S. and Western interests. Beijing does so with hidden and overt state-directed economic coercion, egregious government subsidies, import protection, and export promotion using highly protected and state-supported products to weaken and often destroy foreign competition in key industries. In this way, Beijing especially seeks dominance in major world high technology industries and related military power to displace the United States and secure China’s primacy in Asia and world leadership.
Third is China’s challenge to global governance. More than any other major power, Beijing leverages economic dependence, influence operations including elite capture, and control of important infrastructure to compel deference to its preferences. In the Indo-Pacific region, these practices are backed by intimidating Chinese military power. China’s preferences include legitimating the above predatory Chinese economic practices and territorial expansionism; opposition to efforts promoting accountable governance, human rights, and democracy; opposition to U.S. alliances seen as impeding China’s rise; and support for the forceful foreign advances of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the rule of other authoritarian and often corrupt world leaders unaccountable to their citizens.
Since 2018, two challenges are often seen as particularly dangerous, existential threats to fundamental U.S. national security and well being. The first is the Chinese effort to undermine U.S. power and influence in and dominate Asia. The second is the Chinese effort to seek dominance in the high technology industries of the future; such dominance will make the United States subservient to Chinese economic power, and because such technology is essential to modern national security, subservient to Chinese military power.
Seeking to avoid Chinese dominance remains a strong overall driver of efforts of bipartisan majorities in Congress to defend the United States against China’s challenges.
China’s Resolve, U.S. Shortcomings
Expanding Chinese influence represents the most important obstacle to U.S. efforts to compete effectively with China. Chinese leaders have followed a clear strategy using a combination of impressive positive incentives and coercive mechanisms to achieve objectives. Coercive pressures are increasingly on display in China’s assertive expansion at other’s expense in disputed territory in Asia; the widespread use of economic leverage to compel compliance with China’s ambitions; and so-called wolf warrior diplomacy intended to intimidate foreign opposition.
In contrast to Beijing’s consistency and resolve are gaps in U.S. effectiveness. For example, the Biden administration is still working on creating a viable national security strategy reflecting the fundamental shift from past constructive engagement with China to acute rivalry. Moving from engagement to rivalry has been underway for four years, but it was carried out in unilateral and often erratic ways by the Trump administration, thereby accelerating the relative decline of the United States in comparison with China. The Biden government on the one hand attempts to demonstrate at home and abroad that its recent posture emphasizing strong rivalry with China is here to stay and that a return to the unpredictable and unilateral “America first” policies of the Trump government represented an aberration in the United States’ longstanding regional leadership. On the other hand, the Democrats’ poor showing in the November 2021 elections raised the specter of a return of Donald Trump to the White House in the 2024 election, suggesting Biden’s policies in seeking cooperation with allies and partners and other systematic measures to deal with China’s challenges may not last.
Other gaps involve U.S. businesses, universities and other organizations closely engaged with China along with prominent China specialists who have argued for greater moderation in dealing with China. They aver that the threat of Chinese challenges seen by U.S. policymakers is exaggerated and U.S. policy should deal with China’s challenges through nuanced approaches featuring dialogue and reassurance. For example, Chinese authorities are resorting to unprecedented efforts to outmaneuver U.S.-led restrictions on high technology exports to, and acquisitions by, Chinese firms in semiconductor and related software industries. Indirectly or directly cooperative with Chinese authorities in these efforts are a range of U.S. and international firms, advocacy groups, and highly trained specialists pursuing their respective interests. In the process, these groups are assisting Chinese government-led efforts to undermine existing U.S. restrictions; U.S. policy has yet to come to a clear judgment on what the U.S. government should do about this problem.
Meanwhile, many U.S. firms, universities, and experts that will be recipients of the tens of billions of dollars being proposed for U.S. high technology competition with China are often well-integrated with Chinese entities and fellow specialists. Many of their high-technology achievements come through cross-border collaborations that, if stopped, are predicted to seriously reduce their capacity for innovation. How U.S. government policymakers can be sure that the advances they fund will not quickly come into the hands of Chinese authorities remains to be seen.
In sum, how U.S. policymakers create a strategy that counters Chinese challenges and also takes into account significant domestic opposition to such tough measures remains to be seen. Adding to the conundrum, U.S. allies and partners have similar business and other interests that oppose hard measures to counter China. And many of them do not share the sense of danger and urgency about China’s challenges seen in Washington over the past four years.
The Biden government faces continuing problems in coming up with an effective strategy toward China that accounts for business and other pro-China interests in the United States and among allies and partners. The pending legislation targeting China shows Congress will continue strong efforts to counter China challenges. However, more often than not, the legislation does not propose a sophisticated strategy. The focus today remains on taking action to defend the United States from particular challenges.
For now, this overall bipartisan congressional push represents the main reason to forecast continued U.S. hardening toward China. For four years congressional attitudes and actions have served as ballast in steadying the ship of state as it sails forward to defend the United States from China’s challenges along many vectors. This trend will endure. How successful the trend will be, however, will depend on how well the United States deals with the shortcomings noted above.