Negative media attention involving congressional grandstanding on China policy in recent weeks by the now Republican-controlled House of Representatives obscures the bigger and much more important picture: bipartisan majorities in Congress registering major accomplishments to defend the United States in the face of serious challenges posed by the behavior of the Chinese government.
The U.S. Congress is now in its fifth year of working effectively with senior leaders of both a Republican administration led by an iconoclastic conservative and a Democratic administration led by a liberal committed to Washington’s conventional policymaking processes. The majorities have been working steadily toward a goal of defending the United States, employing a “whole of government” effort mandated by major legislation passed in mid-2018.
The scope of challenges seen coming from China’s behavior collectively involves three sets.
First is the challenge posed by 30-plus years of rapid development of Chinese modern military power. China’s newly empowered military is tipping the balance in the Indo-Pacific, supporting Chinese territorial expansionism, and undermining U.S. alliances and partnerships by 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. These policies are having increasingly profound negative impacts on U.S. and Western interests. Beijing 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. China seeks to legitimate its predatory economic practices and territorial expansionism; counter programs promoting accountable governance, human rights, and democracy; undermine U.S. alliances seen impeding China’s rise; and support forceful foreign advances of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and other authoritarian and often corrupt world leaders.
These challenges are often matters of great urgency. For example, if China achieved dominance in the high technology industries, the United States would be subservient to Chinese economic power, and because such technology is essential to modern national security, subservient to Chinese military power.
The record of the past five years represents the most important and enduring congressional role in the history of U.S. policy toward China. This pattern of congressional salience seems likely to last through the lifetime of the many congressional members recently active in China policy – and probably longer.
The bipartisan House and Senate majorities faced many obstacles; their success was not preordained. For two years, neither public opinion nor mainstream media offered support. Important businesses, many with a big stakes in China, opposed hardening toward China, as did many universities with similarly strong stakes. U.S. experts on China complained that addressing challenges posed by Beijing seriously damaged the U.S. economy, and was excessive and based on exaggerated dangers. They judged that the prime goal of U.S. policy should be the creation of a stable relationship, which would require an easing of U.S. pressures on China and adding U.S. reassurances for Beijing.
Meanwhile, Republican President Donald Trump was erratic in pressuring China on the one hand and seeking friendship and reportedly favors on the other. Ahead of the 2020 election, the Democratic presidential candidates, led by future President Joe Biden and key aide Jake Sullivan, were dismissive of the China challenges.
Nevertheless, Congress persevered; it set foundations for hardening U.S. policy as broad American popular and media antipathy toward China grew with the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the United States with a vengeance beginning in March 2020. Both Trump and then-candidate Biden adopted much harder positions targeting Chinese practices. In the end, 2020 saw a crescendo of harsh administration measures targeting China, along with almost 400 pieces of legislation critical of China.
Once in power, Biden and his senior aides brought their views of China into line with the congressional majorities. Among an outpouring of congressional activism, major congressional accomplishments carried out in tandem with the administration involved the passage in 2021 of the over $1 trillion domestic infrastructure bill and in 2022 legislation worth $600 billion (the CHIPS and Science Policy Act as well as the Inflation Reduction Act) strengthening U.S. competitiveness with China in high technology and climate change.
The record of the past five years shows that acute partisanship prevalent in Washington has remained secondary as bipartisan congressional policymakers have worked effectively with both Republican and Democratic administrations in creating and advancing China policy.
In addition, in the formative years of this congressional effort in 2018 and 2019, there were no swings in public opinion or campaigns of powerful interests, which along with partisan politics, often drove congressional involvement in past episodes of U.S. relations with China. The three other historical periods of congressional activism in the making of China policy saw Congress reacting to swings in public opinion or interest groups, or seeking partisan goals, rather than initiating policy based on the policy calculations of congressional members.
First, congressional involvement in legislation restricting Chinese immigration into the United States beginning in 1870 came late, in response to almost 20 years of unrest and lawless behavior targeting Chinese immigrants in Western states and a sharp turn in US opinion about Chinese immigration.
Second, Congress played a largely supporting role in response to the sharp turn in public opinion against foreign involvement after disillusionment with World War I and Republican administrations favoring isolationist policies. Those trends were reflected in U.S. reluctance to take action helping China against coercive encroachment and attack by Imperial Japan.
Third, Congress was in a similarly reactive role as the Truman administration charted U.S. policy after World War II to deal with an emerging danger posed mainly by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Partisan interests influenced congressional Republicans to criticize the Truman government’s failure in China, but without major consequences. The massive shift toward containment in Asia after the start of the Korean War was carried out by the White House.
Congressional investigations of U.S. China policy elites impacted the making of China policy, but they were a very small part of congressional investigations. These in turn were overshadowed by the Truman administration loyalty-security program begun in 1946. From 1947 to 1956, the program saw over 5 million federal workers undergo screening, resulting in an estimated 2,700 dismissals and 12,000 resignations.
Against this background, congressional actions over the past five years appear heavily grounded in personal calculations of bipartisan congressional members to defend the United States in the face of multifaceted and serious Chinese challenges. Such personal calculations and commitments often endure during the tenure of the members and underscore forecasts for continued congressional hardening China policy.
There are two other implications of historical interest. First, the pattern since the Nixon-Mao opening of Congress resisting administration advances in relations with China at the expense of other U.S. interests valued by Congress appears to have ended. Congress has worked largely in sync with the administration for five years.
Second, the pattern of Congress competing with the administration for control of U.S. foreign policy seen commonly in existing scholarship on Congress and U.S. foreign policy does not appear very relevant in this recent period of close symbiosis between bipartisan majorities of the Congress and two otherwise very different presidents in creating and implementing policy toward China.
Meanwhile, these congressional majorities up to now have largely ignored various proposals by international and Chinese affairs specialists and commentators arguing for U.S. compromises to reassure China. Such experts argue the need to reach greater stability in China-U.S. relations though sophisticated and comprehensive arrangements with Beijing. Some in Congress privately criticize these analysts, some of whom played important roles in past U.S. engagement policies with China, which are now seen as having failed badly and endangered the United States.
In contrast, Congress remains focused on the much more straightforward and urgent need to defend the U.S.; these sophisticated expert arrangements are seen to have little to say that is helpful to that end.
Looking ahead, Congress is well aware that at this stage of U.S. rivalry with China, congressionally supported defense measures will add to tension and instability in China-U.S. relations. There will be negative consequences from taking the steps required to prevent China’s future dominance. Thus far, the rising U.S. tensions with China still pale in comparison with those during the Cold War. In addition, the Biden administration’s emphasis on starting negotiations with China to set guard rails to avoid tensions leading to war holds promise to avoid military conflict as the United States strengthens at home and abroad to counter China’s adverse ambitions.