Against the backdrop of growing partisan conflict over China policy, the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2024 appears, at first glance, to underscore the continuation of bipartisan efforts aimed at deterring China. However, a closer examination of the legislative process reveals two important insights: First, the assertion of bipartisan deterrence of China is often (purposely) overrated, with underlying traces of persistent partisanship on the China issue. Second, the divide over China is more likely to occur among rank-and-file politicians than within the leadership on Capitol Hill.
While the Republican-led defense bill secured a bipartisan vote of 318-118 in the House, its passage was a product of compromise. In fact, the early version of the bill faced a narrower approval of 219-210, with only four Democrats supporting it. The reason behind the initial party-line vote lies in the bill’s culture war provisions, which were opposed by the Democrats. Those provisions included restrictions on the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy, medical treatment coverage for transgender troops, and initiatives promoting diversity and inclusion in the ranks.
The pivotal shift came with the GOP’s willingness to step back from the hardline conservative provisions, a move that prompted a significant number of Democrats to alter their votes from “Nay” to “Yes.” Intentionally downplaying discussions on these conservative elements, many Republicans opted to emphasize the defense bill as a commendable compromise with a laser focus on countering China. However, the bill’s primary point of contention had little to do with China for most Democrats, who prioritized extending benefits for service members, particularly women and LGBTQ people within the military. Rhetoric about bipartisan efforts to contain China, therefore, remained conspicuously absent among most Democrats who ultimately voted in favor of the bill.
The different framings of the China issue in the NDAA fit into a larger trend in U.S. politics: namely, that the notion of a bipartisan front has long been exaggerated. The recurring claim of a “bipartisan victory” is frequently touted by power brokers in Washington whenever they achieve a legislative success, even when the success is assured – such as the inclusion of multiple provisions targeting China in the NDAA every year since the 1990s. In a highly polarized America, it is always politically rational for the party in power to play the bipartisan card: It not only showcases the party’s purported willingness and capability to cooperate with the opposition, but also requires minimal effort, given their existing majority.
Yet, the central question remains: to what extent can the desire for “bipartisan victory” seamlessly transform into concrete “bipartisan China policy” that garners support from a majority of Congress members across both chambers? While so-called bipartisan bills may pass, party-line voting persists, as evidenced by examples such as the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, and the Lower Energy Cost Act.
Some may acknowledge such partisanship in the legislative process, but they hold that there is a small group of elites on Capitol Hill, particularly the leadership, who have been instrumental in driving bipartisan initiatives to counter China over the past five years. At the heart of this observation lies a crucial insight: Bipartisanship targeting China often depends on the actions of elites, frequently led by the Senate and House leadership.
Nevertheless, whether or not those elite-led groups and actions could work in a truly bipartisan manner after their establishment remains questionable, even on issues that are widely viewed as potential threats to the U.S. national security such as TikTok. In addition, an overemphasis on elites tends to overlook not only rank-and-file politicians – who constitute the majority of Congress – but also the quality of the policies they produce. This includes evaluating the feasibility of policies outlined, examining whether they have successfully passed, and if so, determining whether the passage occurred with the majority provided by the party in power or with genuine bipartisan support.
A narrow focus on elites also runs the risk of misconstruing an enduring pattern as a novel development. Turning back to the annual defense bill, some argue that the passage of the 2019 NDAA was a milestone that signified a “whole-of-government U.S. strategy targeting China,” for the bill reflects a policy shift toward prioritizing the strategic competition with Russia and China. By examining the vote counts in the Senate alone, one might conclude that the bipartisan argument is valid, given the majority of senators from both parties voted in favor. Yet, a different picture emerges when looking at the House, where a clear party-line voting trend is evident: 178 out of 193 Democrats voted no.
It is crucial to note that this divergence is not an isolated incident but a recurrent pattern across fiscal years: The Senate tends to exhibit a bipartisan stance on a tougher China policy, while the House leans toward a more partisan approach.
Furthermore, despite the production of almost 400 anti-China bills in the last five years, how many of them truly dealt with conflicts of interest between the United States and China by providing feasible solutions, rather than merely serving as rhetorical condemnation? Legislation like the PRC Is Not a Developing Country Act or the Assessing Xi’s Interference and Subversion (AXIS) Act might handily secure bipartisan votes, but there is no way they would eventually pass both chambers. It is not only because those bills do not have tangible clauses to practically address the purported China threat, but because they lack the basic function for which any bill is designed in the first place – to advance the interests of American citizens. Blindly counting on the sheer volume of performative legislation as the main indicator of the level of bipartisan efforts to contain China would risk falling prey to sample bias.
If anything, identity politics and the New Right have added layers of complexity to U.S. China policy: The divide is not only inter-party, but also intra-party. The interconnection between the two nations has diffused conflicts of interest to numerous dimensions of U.S. politics. Viewing it exclusively through the lens of “national security” risks an analysis colored by ideological preferences, overlooking important economic and cultural factors.
While the bipartisan nature of Washington’s China policy may hold true in certain areas for a specific time, one cannot get a comprehensive picture without taking into consideration U.S. domestic politics, where partisanship is a constant presence. As long as the connection between domestic and foreign affairs persists, politics will not cease at the water’s edge.