Congress as the Achilles’ Heel of America’s China Policy

Congress as the Achilles’ Heel of America’s China Policy

The notion that the current U.S.-China dynamics mirror that between America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War holds broad appeal on Capitol Hill.

 

“Your platform should be banned … TikTok surveils us all and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole,” emphatically asserted Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in a striking hearing featuring TikTok CEO Shou Chew. Amid mounting concerns over Beijing’s potential invasion of an island far from the American homeland, Washington has discovered another battleground that seems more aligned with its vested interests and can be better leveraged against China’s adverse influence, hopefully striking a chord with the public this time.

As both countries vie for global prominence, their respective approaches have exposed underlying weaknesses. One such vulnerability lies right in the role of the U.S. Congress. What used to be a strategic ballast during Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking meetings with Mao Zedong is now a catalyst behind the hardening U.S. approach toward China; the Achilles’ heel in this intricate ballet of diplomacy. The notion that the current U.S.-China dynamics mirror that between America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War not only resonates with individual convictions but holds broad appeal on Capitol Hill.

 

Historical analogies, in general, are found omnipresent during the U.S. foreign policy process. Members of Congress frequently invoked the Munich and Vietnam analogies during debates surrounding the Persian Gulf crisis in 1991, as both heuristics instruments and post-hoc justifications leading up to following policy actions. In light of the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangle, this Cold War analogy conveys nothing but a clear and enduring pro-Taiwan bipartisan bias long rooted among American legislators.

A 1977 poll conducted by Brown University sheds light on this domestic pushback during the period of U.S.-China détente. In response to Beijing’s “three demands” (break diplomatic ties with Taiwan, withdraw the U.S. military, and abrogate the 1954 security treaty), approximately 93 percent of American political elites opposed them as preconditions for normalization. This aligned with the 89 percent of respondents who voted to uphold Taiwan’s “independence and freedom,” as well as the three-quarters who expressed support for maintaining diplomatic relations and a defense treaty with Taiwan in the event of an independence declaration. At the time, Rep. Robert E. Bauman, then vice-chairman of the American Conservative Union, vehemently criticized the Carter administration’s efforts to normalize relations with China, describing it as “the greatest act of appeasement since Neville Chamberlain went to Munich.” Likewise, Sen. Barry Goldwater denounced the move as “one of the most cowardly acts” and “a stab in the back” to Taiwan.

Men exploit the past to prop up their prejudices. In contrast to the majority of Democrats rallying behind Carter back then, bipartisan majorities appear to have reached a consensus: the multifaceted challenges China poses to U.S. values and interests constitute the greatest threat to American security and well-being. Considering that the GOP’s “China Task Force” was, at worst, able to produce some informed policy outputs led by experienced China hands—despite their slogans articulating the “CCP’s malign influence”—then the new China Select Committee seems solely dedicated to serving the hawkish agenda in Congress.

Some have flagged alarm that the preliminary undertakings of the committee indicate a potential inclination to repeat historical pitfalls. Indeed, different from inclusive reflections in the strategic community, the poverty of China debates on the Hill reveals its prioritizing political spectacle over meaningful analyses. Rather than presenting nuanced evaluations, it welcomes testimonies from those who corroborate the committee members’ assertive predispositions towards China, such as former Trump officials Matthew Pottinger and H.R. McMaster, both known for emphasizing the China threat. More importantly, fingers have been pointed at their American counterparts. McMaster contented during his testimony that leaders in academia, industry, finance, and government should be to blame for their long “wishful thinking and self-delusion” on China’s intentions. Those words are floating signifiers. Implying those professionals as pro-China sympathizers would likely translate to the label as transgressive, discredited pariahs, some of whom may be squarely relegated to the margins or even outside the policy circle in the future.

A similar situation happened in the recent high-profile TikTok hearing. As lawmakers grappled with the implications of Chinese technology companies on American soil, questions surrounding data privacy, national security, and the ever-present specter of censorship came to the fore and demanded clarifications as well as alternative solutions. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be an effective conversation to appreciate the public’s perspective and tackle critical national security-related concerns wound up being a nearly one-sided berating. Besides the indifference to Project Texas—the proposed TikTok-Oracle cooperation agreement to ensure compliance regarding data access—the “yes or no” style of interrogating on subtle, complex, even irrelevant topics, taken together, treated TikTok’s Singaporean CEO as a target. During that five-hour duration, Chew, whether he wanted it or not, became a proxy and scapegoat of CCP in the United States. It is also exposed that the inherent function of the hearing was no more than anti-China advertising and political posturing for armchair experts based on ideology and partisanship.

In her latest writing regarding the Taiwan issue, Jessica Chen Weiss cautioned that “[i]n any society, there are people who go looking for a fight.” But it appears that most of these individuals have now gathered at the Capitol, wielding more influence than those who keep a level-headed, cautiously calibrated approach toward China, particularly within the executive branch and epistemic communities. In this case, the congressional impact on China policy primarily exercises negative control by either rejecting proposals outright or altering their core substance. For example, Sen. Tom Cotton chastised the administration on the earlier Chinese balloon incursion by declaring that“President Biden should stop coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists…As usual, the Chinese Communists’ provocations have been met with weakness and hand-wringing.” He was hardly alone; the House unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Chinese spy balloon shortly after.

If the balloon incident is viewed merely as a reaction, then it is difficult not to evoke memories of the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis with Tsai Ing-wen’s sensitive stopover on American soil and her meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. In 1995, Lee Teng-hui’s visit to his alma mater, Cornell University, to deliver a speech was perceived by China as a provocative move towards Taiwan’s independence, promptly sparking a series of missile tests and military exercises near Taiwan. Should a similar congressional provocation occur following Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip to the island, it would almost certainly antagonize Beijing again, leading to large-scale military and economic coercion, with tensions escalating further. If left unchecked, such tendencies would put the Biden administration in an awkward position, leaving them with no choice but to adopt a confrontational stance, thereby worsening the already deteriorating U.S.-China relations.

The original symbolic push for acts—centered on showcasing attitudes and claiming credit instead of prescribing concrete policy impacts—is turning Congress into an arena rife with demagoguery and sophistry, whereas genuine public interest finds no room to thrive. In such an inflated threat climate and a tendency to gaze on the present as tabula rasa, the United States struggles to pierce the informational and cognitive cocoon in an effort to grasp a comprehensive understanding of China’s motives. Consequently, the country may confront mounting difficulty in extricating itself from an arms race or open conflict with China, let alone crafting an effective long-term strategy towards China.

Junyang Hu is a Lloyd and Lilian Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum.

Image: Shutterstock.