Trans-Pacific View

Expect More Performative Legislation in the U.S. Congress Targeting China 

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View | Politics | East Asia

Expect More Performative Legislation in the U.S. Congress Targeting China 

In contrast to their enthusiasm for performative bills, lawmakers tend to be more cautious when dealing with legislation that could have a bearing on actual trade with China.

Expect More Performative Legislation in the U.S. Congress Targeting China 
Credit: Depositphotos

On the heels of Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO)’s introduction of the Ending Normal Trade Relations With China Act, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the PRC Is Not a Developing Country Act by a unanimous vote of 415-0. Sponsored by Representatives Young Kim (R-CA) and Gerry Connolly (D-VA), the bill seeks to deprive China of its status as a “developing country,” which would prevent the second-largest economy from receiving preferential treatment from international organizations. While the U.S. Congress appears to be ramping up efforts to decouple from China and potentially terminate its permanent normal trade relations status, recent record-high trade volumes between the two nations, despite escalating tensions, suggest a trend: American lawmakers tend to support performative legislation targeting China, but are more cautious when it comes to passing bills that could have real impacts on the U.S.-China trade relationship.

While the new bill passed by the House may seem intimidating, a closer examination reveals its limited efficacy. First, the bill directs the secretary of state to investigate China’s qualification as a “developing country,” rather than legislatively terminating it. This means that the feasibility of China’s divestment of this status hinges on the final report submitted by the secretary, leaving room for unpredictability. Second, the bill grants the president the right to waive the investigation if it conflicts with the national interests of the U.S., which adds another layer of uncertainty about the likelihood of the Biden, or any other, administration following through on this measure. 

To achieve its objective, the PRC Is Not a Developing Country Act must pass through three critical stages: passage by the Senate, signing into law by the president, and effective execution by the secretary of state. However, the likelihood of a radical bill like this completing even the first part of the procedure is questionable. A year ago, another ambitious China-countering bill, the Assessing Xi’s Interference and Subversion Act (AXIS Act), also received overwhelming bipartisan support on the House floor, with a similar emphasis on the role of secretary of state in the investigation into China’s support on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite a 394-3 vote on the House, the AXIS Act never advanced to the Senate. In a similar vein, it is expected that the PRC Is Not a Developing Country Act – which represents almost a complete U-turn on two decades of U.S. economic policy toward China – is not likely to fulfill its purpose. Hence, the performative nature of the bill is self-evident.

Externally, the bill is certainly being interpreted as a new concerted bipartisan effort to counter China, but internally, it represents yet another wedge issue that Congress has passed to the White House. The Biden administration has taken a tough stance on China over the past two years, but even after the balloon incident, normalizing U.S.-China relations remains on its to-do list. One piece of evidence is Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, on the margins of the Munich Security Conference, shortly after the postponement of his planned trip to Beijing. 

Compared to Biden’s seemingly hawkish yet meticulous approach to handling U.S.-China relations, Congress appears to revel in churning out performative legislation that targets Beijing but has limited real impact. On China issues, the rally-around-the-flag effect is definitely exerting its influence, resulting in clashes of values between America’s libertarianism and China’s authoritarianism. These performative bills often beat the drums of ideological war, serving the domestic agendas of politicians rather than providing any direct short-run benefit to the public. While the gains of supporting such performative bills may be limited for members of Congress, it would be politically irrational not to endorse them when compared to the virtually nil cost of doing so.

Kim, Connolly, and Hawley are not the only ones who grasp the cost-benefit analysis underlying the production of counter-China bills. For instance, one month prior to the passage of the PRC Is Not a Developing Country Act, Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced a similar bill – the Ending China’s Developing Nation Status Act. Additionally, the China Trade Relations Act, which bears a strong resemblance to Hawley’s Ending Normal Trade Relations With China Act, has been reintroduced every year by various lawmakers since 2020. Despite their frequency, none of these bills have progressed beyond the introduction stage of the legislative process and have failed to make any tangible impact on U.S.-China trade relations. Meanwhile, it has become easier for bills that make little practical difference to the trajectory of the U.S.-China relations to gain momentum and win unanimous bipartisan support, such as the one that condemns China for its use of surveillance balloons.

In contrast to their enthusiasm for performative bills, lawmakers tend to be more cautious when dealing with legislation that could have a bearing on actual trade with China, especially when the interests of their constituencies are involved. For example, even though the Republican Party criticized the CHIPS and Science Act for being too soft on Beijing due to the lack of outright bans on investment in China by publicly-supported American semiconductor companies, several GOP lawmakers still voted for the bill. The reason for this apparent contradiction is that these lawmakers represent constituencies that would benefit from the bill’s passage. One of those Republicans who “defected” to vote for the bill was none other than Young Kim, a sponsor of the PRC Is Not a Developing Country Act. 

Amidst the ongoing TikTok controversy, Apple chief Tim Cook’s recent visit to China sends a clear signal: American companies want to maintain their commercial relations with the Chinese market. Despite the trade restrictions imposed by both the Trump and Biden administrations, the growing trade connections between the U.S. and China have not been hindered. This can be attributed not only to China’s counter-strategies to circumvent Washington’s export controls, but also to the impracticality of fully disentangling two economies that are already deeply interdependent. As the 2024 presidential election approaches, it is highly likely that we will see more performative legislation targeting China down the road. Be that as it may, it is doubtful that such legislation will have any significant impact beyond the confines of Capitol Hill.