After a tumultuous four-day floor fight, Kevin McCarthy finally clinched the House of Representatives’ speakership for the 118th U.S. Congress. Once taking office, the new Republican House speaker has wasted no time making good on his promise of establishing a new committee to tackle threats from China. By appointing Mike Gallagher – a pronounced anti-CCP conservative Republican – to chair the committee, McCarthy is hell-bent on launching an anti-China salvo on the economic, military, and technological dimensions. However, the concealed tough-on-Biden agenda of the so-called bipartisan committee, and McCarthy’s desperation to cling to his majority, may ultimately make China issues partisan.
McCarthy has repeatedly asserted that the creation of the committee on China is meant to serve the interests of the United States. Nonetheless, one should not forget that House speakers are not only the leaders of the House of Representatives, but the leaders of their own parties within the legislative branch. For them, playing politics with national interest for partisan reasons is nothing new. For example, apart from being a statement of the U.S. resolve to defend Taiwan and democracy, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit could also be interpreted as an action to help the Democratic Party score points in foreign policy ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
It seems like being tough on China is one of the few of areas of agreement between Democrats and Republicans, but that does not mean partisan wrestling is completely over when it comes to China issues. In fact, the “China Card” is often played for partisan reasons. Republicans are especially good at this. For instance, Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan won applause from Republican lawmakers, but also she received criticism for not including any GOP members in the delegation.
The aforementioned chairman of the Select Committee on China, Mike Gallagher, despite his record of engaging in bipartisan efforts to confront China, has accused Democrats of overlooking evidence of theft of pandemic relief funds by Chinese cyberattacks. He also criticized Democratic President Joe Biden by referring to the Biden-Xi meeting at the G-20 summit as a “missed opportunity” to press Xi Jinping on Taiwan issues. Gallagher charged that the administration was lulling American people into “a false sense of security” when China was preparing for the war.
Several Republican politicians called out Biden for his cautious responses to mass protests in China against the draconian zero COVID policy last November.
If there is anything else that can possibly make the China issue into a partisan one in this Congress, it is the razor-thin majority that Republicans have. This is what caused McCarthy’s bid for the speakership to be such an uphill battle – he did not secure the gavel until after 15 ballots and agreeing to make huge concessions to 20 far-right Republicans who had originally voted against him. One of those concessions is the nod he gave to the creation of the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, the aim of which is to start a full-scale investigation into the Biden administration. This panel is chaired by none other than Jim Jordan, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus – a far-right coterie within the Republican Party whose majority refused to vote for McCarthy because they thought he was “part of the swamp.” In other words, for them, McCarthy is not conservative or determined enough to safeguard the interests of the GOP.
Considering Biden’s attempts to steady the China-U.S. relationship since his in-person meeting with Xi last November, hardline conservative Republicans can find no better opportunity to pursue their two top agenda items – contain China and cripple Biden – than to intertwine them, which is part of what Republicans have been brewing. Jordan’s record of pursuing the Fauci-China conspiracy makes him a perfect choice for doing this job under the new subcommittee. As the investigations into the Biden administration go deeper, Republicans are ready to reveal more Biden-China issues they have prepared in the last two years, including the origins of COVID-19, funding for the solar industry dominated by China, business deals by Biden family members in China, and so on.
Even though the new committee on China eventually won bipartisan support and McCarthy insisted that the panel would never be partisan, not all Democrats were convinced – almost a third of them voted against the panel. Democrats who opposed it voiced their concerns over how partisan the committee could become. Wisconsin Democrats Gwen Moore and Mark Pocan publicly bucked the committee for the possibility of the panel being used for partisan politics.
Even some voting in favor of the committee could not hold back their misgivings. Jim McGovern, a senior Democrat on the Rules Committee, is one of them. He cautioned against turning the panel into an arena for “Republican conspiracy theories and partisan talking points.”
Similar concerns were already raised by Democrats two years ago when Republicans were in the minority. McCarthy’s proposal to establish a bipartisan China Task Force that centered on the origins of COVID-19 received objections from the other side of the aisle. According to Democrats, the China-COVID issue was too politicized. They also accused Republicans of distracting the public from former President Donald Trump’s mishandling of COVID-19.
Other than its catalytic effect on potential partisan conflicts, the committee on China may evolve into a colosseum where the Republican-controlled House attempts to hijack more China policymaking authority, if not overall foreign policymaking authority, from the Democrat-led executive branch. Take the heated TikTok issue, for example. The Biden administration is still hesitant to force the Chinese owner of TikTok, ByteDance, to divest from its operations in the United States, but Gallagher has already started pressing for an outright ban on the app, which he has described as “digital fentanyl.”
In addition, given the rapid expansion of progressive Democrats in this Congress and the intense jockeying between them and the Biden administration on foreign policy issues, Republicans may see an opportunity to take advantage of the chasm to snatch more foreign policy power for Congress. Three years ago, conservative Republicans joined progressives to seek limitations on U.S. military aid for Saudi Arabia to end its war in Yemen during the Trump administration. It would not be surprising if they work together again on some controversial China issues during the Biden administration.
By controlling the “weaponization” panel and the China threat committee simultaneously, the GOP is capable of effectively challenging the Biden administration more bluntly than they did two years ago. The current bipartisan balance with regard to China issues cannot guarantee there won’t be a partisan pivot in the future. With the progressives’ rising clout, the GOP may use the China issue as a “Trojan horse” to wreak havoc within the Democratic camp. More importantly, the spreading COVID-19 outbreak in China is bringing the issue of COVID’s origins back to the limelight, which could become the starting point of the first round of partisan conflict over China in this new Congress.