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House Speaker Drama Will Plunge US China Policy Into Uncertainty

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House Speaker Drama Will Plunge US China Policy Into Uncertainty

Kevin McCarthy’s ouster – and the rising power of the Freedom Caucus – will intensify internal divisions on China policy.

House Speaker Drama Will Plunge US China Policy Into Uncertainty
Credit: Depositphotos

Nine months ago, I penned a piece analyzing how Kevin McCarthy’s ascension to the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives might turn China policy into a partisan issue. Little did I know that his ambition to build an unprecedented anti-China coalition across the aisle would be shattered by his own colleagues.

After his abrupt ouster as the House speaker, the internal conflict over China policy within the Republican Party is expected to run amok. Without a unified anti-China scaffold that was once (barely) upheld by McCarthy, the highly fractured GOP will find itself on the defensive when confronted by the Democratic Party’s censure. And that would also bring more uncertainty to the U.S. China policy.

McCarthy has always been a calculated accommodator. He excels at strategically advancing his partisan agenda by leveraging the China issue. For example, he gave the green light to the establishment of the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, with the intention to launch investigations into the Biden administration by intertwining U.S. President Joe Biden with a China conspiracy.

Additionally, McCarthy’s meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, orchestrated in a bipartisan fashion, served to position himself on the moral high ground, with the aim to gain support from Democrats to promote the Republican-led Lower Energy Cost Act – a bill that was framed by him as a tool to counter China. He also portrayed the Republican effort to raise the United States’ borrowing limit through the Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023 as a measure to reduce U.S. dependence on China.

During his short-lived tenure as the House speaker, McCarthy managed to “Sinicize” a wide range of issues, domestic and international ones alike. His persistence in winning over allies and securing cooperation, if not outright support, from across the aisle, allowed him to strike last-minute deals with Democrats.

While partisan conflicts were still present – and oftentimes those bills adorned with anti-China rhetoric passed with the help of only a few “defecting” Democrats – no significant partisan gridlock over China has been observed. But things are going to change following the ouster of McCarthy, as the events leading to his removal are highly likely to exacerbate the Republican Party’s internal conflict over China.

The far-right Freedom Caucus that succeeded in removing McCarthy does not entirely overlap with the rising New Right within the GOP. But at least in the realm of foreign policy, the former’s prioritization of U.S. national security – or, to put it in a straightforward term, isolationism – aligns with the latter. Their growing skepticism regarding U.S. aid to Ukraine serves as an indicator of this alignment.

McCarthy usually casts pro-Ukraine votes. However, due to the concessions he made to the Freedom Caucus to win the speaker’s gavel – including granting them the authority to remove him from the speakership – his Ukraine policy swayed back and forth. On the one hand, he vehemently condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an “atrocity.” On the other hand, he questioned the legitimacy of the U.S. aid to Ukraine.  McCarthy’s ambivalence toward Ukraine was best exemplified by his meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy: McCarthy was committed to supporting Ukraine in private, but denied the wartime leader’s plea to address Congress for more aid. For all intents and purposes, McCarthy was walking a thin line between furthering the GOP’s agenda and appeasing the far-right coterie within the party.

Fully aware of his precarious speakership, McCarthy endeavored to give everyone what they wanted, including the dogged far-right faction. Yet, McCarthy’s maneuver to satisfy different groups only handed the Freedom Caucus more leverage over him. When the far-right faction finally demonstrated their power to remove McCarthy, the repercussions were far-reaching: It not only made the ongoing Republican infighting more damaging to the GOP as a whole, but also allowed the Democratic Party to gain the upper hand in using China as a wedge issue.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration had already decried the Freedom Caucus, contending that their efforts to slash defense funding were undermining U.S. deterrence against China. Similar concerns over the Freedom Caucus’ impact on the China issue were also voiced by Republicans, albeit in a more subtle manner. Prior to the vote on the motion to vacate McCarthy’s speakership, centrist Republican Representative Brian Fitzpatrick beseeched Democrats to back McCarthy. He warned that McCarthy’s removal (by the Freedom Caucus, voting alongside Democrats) would jeopardize aid to Ukraine, which would in turn put Taiwan at risk.

Many Republicans have come to realize that the Freedom Caucus’ obsession with spending cuts and their obstinate determination to pursue their own agenda could harm the GOP’s longstanding advantage in handling foreign policy issues compared to Democrats. This realization prompted Senate Republicans to collaborate with Democrats in crafting a provision in the debt ceiling bill in May. This provision sought to increase funding levels beyond the negotiated caps, including $1.1 billion in military aid for Taiwan under presidential drawdown authority.

With the whole House of Representatives now held hostage by the Freedom Caucus, the GOP has two options if they wish to avoid complete dysfunction: to collaborate with the Democrats or to go further to the right. The first option seems more likely to happen in a Democrats-controlled Senate, where more Democratic senators are adopting a hawkish stance on China. But in a more polarized House where partisanship reigns, bipartisan attempts to counter China may only be limited to performative legislation. Republican-led bills, especially those involving federal budgets and foreign policy, are bound to create huge frictions within the GOP. And heightened partisanship these days almost determines that Democrats are more willing to see failed Republican bills than to support substantive anti-China legislations.

The GOP may also opt for the second option, to barrel further toward the right. This possibility seems increasingly likely, especially given the heated discussions about the potential of Jim Jordan (R-OH), a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, becoming the new speaker – a possibility that gained more traction after Majority Leader Steve Scalise failed to win the necessary support to take the speaker position.

While Jordan opposed McCarthy’s ouster, he is unlikely to deviate much from isolationism upheld by the far-right faction, as he is the most senior member of that group. With his track record of repeatedly voting against U.S. aid to Ukraine and his endorsement from former President Donald Trump, who has been under attack for his appeasement of Hamas’ attack on Israel, Jordan could steer the entire GOP to a more isolationist path. Ukraine will be the first to bear the brunt of the hard-right turn within the GOP, but Taiwan, one of the United States’ traditional geopolitical priorities, will be the next in line.

Whoever becomes the next U.S. House speaker will face no less pressure from the Freedom Caucus than McCarthy did. And partisan polarization is pushing even the most moderate Democrats to walk away from the negotiation table. The Republican infighting will only further incentivize the Democrats to denounce the GOP for appearing indecisive on China to score political points. With a dysfunctional Republican Party and a gloating Democratic Party, reaching bipartisan agreements on China policy will become increasingly challenging.