U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is currently leading a congressional delegation to the Indo-Pacific region. A possible stop in Taiwan has dominated headlines for the past few weeks, with the White House reportedly warning against such a trip and China promising serious consequences.
The current furor has had the unfortunate side effect of overshadowing the U.S. legislative branch’s other contributions to China policy. Congress is playing a major role in hardening the United States’ response to China in ways that go far beyond Pelosi’s potential Taiwan trip.
After protracted deliberations lasting over a year, a compromise was approved in the Senate on July 26 and the House on July 28 on a $280 billion Chips and Science Act, which supports U.S. competition with China in high technology industries and military forces dependent on high technology. This achievement came thanks to strong and persistent efforts of moderate centrists in both parties giving top priority to countering serious dangers posed by China’s headlong pursuit of wealth and power at others’ expense. Seventeen Republican senators and 24 Republican representatives voted for the bill. The Biden administration welcomed this achievement deemed essential to U.S. economic strength to deal with China.
On July 27 Senate Democratic leaders and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, often at odds with the Democratic leadership, reached a compromise that revived a $369 billion climate and tax package labeled The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. In terms of China policy, the bill favors electric autos made in the United States rather than China, and favors battery and other components coming from the United States and its allies, excluding China. The bill also promises to raise the U.S. profile on climate change deliberations, putting China, the world leader in greenhouse gas emissions, on the defensive.
Congress in the Lead
The recent achievements sustain Congress’ role in leading and influencing the remarkable hardening in U.S. policy targeting China since late 2017. The record establishes these years as the period when Congress exerted the greatest influence in making U.S. China policy.
Congressional members of both parties agreed with the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy in December 2017, which viewed Beijing as the top danger to U.S. national security. 2018 was the most assertive period of congressional work on China in almost 30 years. Democrats and Republicans worked closely with Trump administration officials in targeting Chinese practices, seeking to protect the United States from wide-ranging challenges.
These policy changes came largely from the members’ own calculations on the need for strong policy, as there was little support and understanding of the need for such dramatic change from American public opinion, media, state and local governments or foreign interests. Subsequently, Congress was notably more resolved in countering Chinese challenges than either President Donald Trump or then Democratic Party presidential candidate Joseph Biden. Continued bipartisan congressional backing for a hard line against China supported the Biden administration as the new government entered office and showed much greater resolve against China than candidate Biden.
Since 2018, two challenges are often seen in Congress and elsewhere in Washington 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 would 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 practices.
Over time, congressional officials changed the way they viewed issues with China. Rather than seen as individual problems needing attention, the issues were now often seen as parts of Beijing’s highly integrated and unrelenting efforts to weaken the United States. Thus, it became more difficult for U.S. officials to play down or ignore smaller Chinese challenges as they were commonly viewed as part of a very serious overall danger China posed for the United States.
Congressional achievements in hardening policy toward China reflected a clear-eyed view of the China danger and pragmatic approaches to bipartisan and intra-party compromise to support needed legislation. Moderates in both parties willing to compromise in order to get things done have been essential. An example is Senator Mark Warner of Virginia who has used his expertise in high technology, extensive experience with China in these matters, and leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee to work closely with Republican colleagues and U.S. high technology industries and their financial backers in building congressional and business understanding of the multi-faceted dangers posed by China. Quietly seeking common ground, he was successful in leading the congressional passage of the $280 billion Chips and Science Act. He earlier was instrumental in securing passage of the bipartisan infrastructure investment and jobs act of 2021, which Biden also welcomed as a key economic advance needed to deal with China. And the compromise reached by the Senate leadership with Manchin on July 27 rested in part on Warner’s private interchange with his colleague from West Virginia.
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 has not yet passed and could be delayed or stopped. If Pelosi visits Taiwan and China reacts strongly, congressional resolve may be tested. In 1995, Congress (except for one senator) supported legislation that pressured President Bill Clinton to grant a visa for Taiwan’s president to visit the United States. When China reacted with hostile military shows of force over nine months, Congress fell silent. Congress at the time mistakenly believed provoking Beijing would come without significant cost.
The Congress of the past five years views China very differently, seeing a big danger posed by China that mandates strong U.S. countermeasures that obviously raise tensions. While conscious that the speaker’s visit to Taiwan could lead to serious adverse consequences, congressional members also are well aware of the negative consequences of showing weakness in the face of China’s challenges. It is Beijing that has made the speaker’s visit a key test of U.S. resolve, after taking no such confrontational actions in the face of more serious repeated affronts during the Trump administration or even after Biden’s repeated pledges to defend Taiwan if attacked by China. Appearing weak in the face of Chinese pressure is inconsistent with the congressional behavior in the past five years; and if the speaker or the administration appears weak in endeavoring to accommodate Beijing on this matter, the blowback from Republicans in Congress would almost certainly be strong, with a greater likelihood that congressional cooperation with the Democrats going forward would be in some jeopardy.
Ironically, the Chinese bullying of Pelosi up to this point has reinforced bipartisan support for bills countering China. Seemingly reflecting poor timing and poor understanding of Congress, Beijing actions have not intimidated but have eased passage of complicated legislation very damaging to China that otherwise might have continued to be bogged down in congressional wrangling.