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Washington finds a bipartisan issue: Confronting China

A video showing Chinese leader Xi Jinping is displayed on a screen above a panel of officials.
A video showing Chinese leader Xi Jinping is displayed during a hearing on Tuesday of a special House committee dedicated to countering China. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

WASHINGTON — Tuesday evening’s hearing on how the United States can and should challenge the global influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was the first primetime congressional panel since last year’s much-publicized and closely watched meetings of the committee that investigated the violent riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

But whereas the Jan. 6 hearings were factious affairs largely abandoned by a Republican Party that remains loyal to former President Donald Trump, the China inquiry was bipartisan and substantive, reflecting a growing conviction in Washington that economic and military competition with Beijing will emerge as the central geopolitical struggle of this century.

“The threat of the CCP is not a partisan issue,” said Rep. Michelle Steel, a Republican who represents a Southern California district with a large Asian American community. “It is not a talking point for the headlines. It is the single biggest threat facing the American people and democracy around the world.”

At a time when many congressional hearings devolve into partisan recrimination, Tuesday night was rare evidence of consensus, with Democrats and Republicans uniting to ask how China came to the cusp of eclipsing the United States as the world’s preeminent economic and military power.

Scott Paul, Tong Yi, H. R. McMaster and Matt Pottinger stand and raise their hands to be sworn in.
Alliance for American Manufacturing president Scott Paul, human rights advocate Tong Yi, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger are sworn in before Tuesday's hearing. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The answers were broad, reflecting the scope of the challenge. “Our hubris and neglect aided Beijing's ambitions, weakened our capabilities and hollowed out our middle class,” said witness Scott Paul from the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

If the goal was, at least in part, to provoke Beijing, the objective was achieved. “We call on relevant U.S. institutions and individuals to abandon their ideological bias and zero-sum Cold War mentality,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in a Wednesday briefing.

Even as he works strenuously to maintain the Western alliance helping Ukraine to defend itself against Russia, President Biden has consistently described China as the greater long-term threat to American interests. His administration stresses competition over confrontation with the East Asian nuclear superpower. But on matters ranging from the origins of the coronavirus to the status of Taiwan, confrontation seems inevitable.

“If China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did," Biden said in last month’s State of the Union address, which he delivered just days after ordering the shoot-down of a Chinese surveillance balloon that drifted across the United States.

In his opening remarks at the hearing, the committee's chairman, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., invoked “America Against America,” a remarkable book written in 1988 by Wang Huning as he traveled through the United States. Sensitive but critical, Wang depicted American society as rife with contradiction. “On the night [George H.W. Bush] was inaugurated as 41st president,” Wang wrote, “I saw homeless people sleeping in the doors of the buildings lining Bush Street in San Francisco.”

Mike Gallagher.
Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher, R-Wis. (Alex Brandon/AP)

As Gallagher noted, Wang is now one of China’s top diplomats. If he and other intellectual elites in the CCP once revered the United States, they appear to have grown increasingly convinced that their authoritarian model is superior to the complexities of Western-style democracy.

For some lawmakers, too, foreign competition was being stymied by domestic turmoil. “Jan. 6, 2021, was Xi Jinping’s best day in office,” said Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass., in a reference to the powerful Chinese leader, recently elected to his third term. “I hope the bipartisan spirit of competing with the Chinese Communist Party overseas extends to defending democracy here at home.”

As when Congress debated terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in previous years, some of the most pressing questions strove to resolve questions of national identity and purpose.

The rise of China was a call to “up our game as a people,” the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, said. Yet he also cautioned against a “clash of civilizations,” a controversial term that scholar Samuel Huntington used to describe the post-Cold War global order. The phrase became especially popular after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which some depicted as part of an existential confrontation with Islam.

Mikie Sherrill.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., questions witnesses during Tuesday's hearing. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Republicans did not shy away from using similar language on Tuesday night, refusing to concede to the conventional wisdom that the 21st century would belong to China. "It's not a polite tennis match. This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century,” Gallagher said.

A military veteran and Princeton graduate, Gallagher was appointed to head the panel, officially called the Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, after Republicans won control of the House of Representatives.

While other GOP-led committees look to eagerly descend into rancor ready made for cable news, Gallagher has sought to conduct an inquiry that could genuinely inform American foreign policy, members of both parties say. “The word ‘serious’ has been tossed around about this committee because that’s the desire,” committee member Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a former military pilot, told RealClearPolitics last month.

The Biden administration is now in the process of implementing last year’s CHIPs Act, which is meant to galvanize the moribund U.S. semiconductor industry into competition with China’s. It is the kind of investment that Paul, the manufacturing association head, and others believe is necessary to stunt China’s influence. But that influence is already vast in scope. Whereas the CHIPs Act devotes some $52 billion to semiconductor manufacturing, China — which was angered by the legislation — is putting $143 billion into a similar effort.

Simply training the public's attention on China may well have value to U.S. leaders, especially at a time when Russia remains the top global villain, at least in Western eyes, for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Mike Gallagher delivers remarks while sitting on a panel with other officials.
Gallagher makes his opening statement at the hearing. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

China could be edging toward helping Russia in that effort — despite urgent and unambiguous American warnings to stay out of the conflict. There are also fears that China is preparing its own invasion of Taiwan, an independent island and U.S. geopolitical ally. Most American defense officials continue to hew to the so-called Davidson window, which predicts that such an invasion will take place by 2027.

In fact, the Biden administration has determined that China poses the greatest threat to American interests. If the Russian threat is that of a fading empire, China demands to be treated like the rising power it has become in the last two decades.

“Peace through strength still works,” witness H.R. McMaster told lawmakers, referencing the classic Cold War posture toward the Soviet Union. The former national security adviser cast the dueling poles of China and the United States in a way Ronald Reagan might have, drawing a distinction between two fundamentally different societies, one predicated on freedom and the other on control.

If the choice between communism and democracy had been obvious — at least to American leaders — throughout the Cold War, McMaster argued that it is incumbent on American policymakers to make that choice just as clear today.

“It's not a choice between Washington and Beijing,” he said. “It's a choice between sovereignty and servitude.”

That apparent imperative has been made seemingly easier because Congress’s China panel is free of political lightning rods like hard-right Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.

A protester holds a sign that reads: China is not our enemy.
A protester is removed by security after interrupting the hearing. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Krishnamoorthi, the committee’s leading Democrat, also sought to tamp down any possibility that the proceedings would be used to further demonize people of Asian origin, who have experienced rising rates of violence and vitriol across the United States since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. “We have no quarrel with the Chinese people or people of Chinese origin,” he said.

Several minutes later, two protesters affiliated with the progressive group Code Pink stood up in the audience to disrupt the proceedings.

“China is not our enemy,” read the placard raised by the first protester.

“Stop Asian hate,” said the sign hoisted by the second.

Both were escorted out of the chamber. The hearing proceeded without incident.