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What the Partisan Conflict Over Ilhan Omar Means for China-US Relations

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What the Partisan Conflict Over Ilhan Omar Means for China-US Relations

Omar – and other progressive Democrats – seem to be pivoting toward a harder line stance on China as they come under Republican fire.

What the Partisan Conflict Over Ilhan Omar Means for China-US Relations

Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks at a press conference outside the Minnesota DFL Party’s St. Paul, Minn. headquarters on August 5, 2020, in the final days before the primary election in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Tony Webster

Under the leadership of Kevin McCarthy, House Republicans have spared no time reshuffling committee memberships. First, McCarthy single-handedly blocked two Democratic representatives, Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, from the House Intelligence Committee. Then the GOP managed to oust Representative Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee with a 218-to-211 party-line vote. Republicans argue that Omar’s “antisemitic comments” led to her removal; Omar asserts she is being targeted because she is a Muslim immigrant.

The partisan conflict over the rising Democratic star may have a ripple effect on the United States’ China policy, especially in the realm of trade. Omar toughened her stance on China during her fight against her removal – a move that could have broader repercussions given her leadership position among liberal Democrats.

Omar may not be the most influential member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but her other identity – the deputy chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) – is the main reason why her case drew so much attention. As the most left-leaning and fastest-growing faction inside the Democrats, the CPC secured 99 out of 212 Democratic seats in the House during the 2022 midterm elections. Its rising clout has not only posed threats to conservative Republicans, but also given the group more leverage inside the Democratic Party, considering the latter’s need to project solidarity in the face of a Republican majority. Hence, as part of the CPC leadership Omar’s influence is no longer merely confined to the progressive “Squad,” but extends across the whole party.

Even though debates over China policy exist within the new class of the CPC, a nascent objection to Washington’s hawkish approach to China is burgeoning amid the progressives. On the day House representatives voted on the establishment of the House Select Committee on China, a coalition of 23 progressives issued a statement expressing their opposition to the panel, which they fear will further fuel anti-Asian hatred. Prior to this, it had been rare to find public challenges to toughened China policies against the backdrop of the escalating China-U.S. tensions.

One of the few lawmakers countering the anti-China headwinds was none other than Ilhan Omar. Despite her condemnation of the Chinese government for its oppression of Uyghurs, Omar staked out a warning that the Biden administration should not cleave to a Cold War mentality and advocated a more cooperative approach to relations with China.

Ironically, however, instead of siding with the progressives who opposed the Select Committee on China, Omar herself voted for it. She did not comment much on her sudden about-face, but the simultaneous dramatic U-turn of her position on Israel was telling. Shortly before the vote on her removal from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Omar endorsed a pro-Israel document, marking an abrupt reversal from her past criticism of the Middle Eastern country. It is obvious that the change in Omar’s attitude toward Israel was her last-minute struggle to keep her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the same logic applies to the change in her stance on China.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy vowed to expel Omar from the panel even before the 2022 midterm elections, and he re-emphasized his determination to do so on January 10, 2023 – hours prior to the vote on the China Select Committee. In his comments, McCarthy placed Omar’s antisemitism and Eric Swalwell’s Chinese spy scandal in the same “anti-American” context. That arguably left Omar no choice but to seriously consider adjusting her position on China to avoid further damage at a time when her committee membership was on the line.

Omar may have been the only Democrat ousted from the Foreign Affairs Committee by the Republicans this time, but her removal aroused a sense of insecurity in her progressive colleagues. Before the 2022 midterm elections, nine out of 10 progressives on the Foreign Affairs Committee had expressed their concerns over tough China policies. In the end, however, only four progressives voted against the Select Committee on China, while six voted for it. Among the six yes votes, five progressive lawmakers, including Omar, deviated from their previous cautions against xenophobic anti-China rhetoric.

In the face of mounting aggression from the GOP, a political survival instinct tends to push progressive politicians to put compromises in front of principles. As a result, with the Foreign Affairs Committee as a whole turning more hawkish toward China in the wake of Omar’s eviction, more anti-China bills are expected to be prioritized.

Nonetheless, the Republican Party’s political witch hunt against Democrats could backfire on China issues. The GOP is most likely to keep pressing for tougher China policies at full throttle, but there is one issue they need to tread on carefully: trade. Compared to their leadership, rank-and-file Republican legislators are more likely to adopt a softer approach to trade issues, for they have to factor in the negative impact that worsening trade relations with China will have on their constituencies.

The party’s pro-trade predisposition may have been overshadowed by the Trump administration, but Republicans do have a track record of promoting trade liberalization with China. Back in 2000, 75 percent of Republicans voted for the permanent normalization of trade relations with Beijing while more than 60 percent of Democrats voted against it. In the post-Trump era, the majority of Republicans have exhibited the hope to tone down the protectionist trade policies made by the former president, including China hawk McCarthy.

On the contrary, House Democrats, progressives in particular, are becoming more aggressive than Republicans in trade issues with China. One prominent example is their efforts to include more protectionist trade provisions in the Senate’s U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which actually made it easier for American companies to trade with China. In response, the House passed the America COMPETES Act with so-called “bipartisan” support but virtually party-line voting. The Republicans denounced the bill as a weak response to the challenges from the Chinese government, but their true motive, belied by their tough talk, was to push Democrats to remove the bill’s protectionist provisions.

As the GOP is increasingly politicizing China issues, Democrats will also up the ante. Republicans’ efforts to excise Omar actually helped unify the Democratic Party, with more moderate Democrats joining progressives despite their differences. With little indication that Washington is willing to ease trade tensions with China, a more united and left-leaning Democratic Party is now able to fight fire with fire by pressing for tougher trade policies on China whenever the Republicans seek to do the opposite.

The Biden administration is well aware of the power of tariffs as leverage. Eyeing a second term in the White House, Biden would use tariffs to hit Republicans when he needs to. And the solidarity of Democrats due to Omar’s removal would give him less pressure from pro-trade Democrats.