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GOP-led US House will get tougher on China — but not as much as you'd think

Collage showing a red elephant, the symbol of the Republican Party, the US Capitol and the flag of China
Luisa Vieira

Republicans succeeded in unseating Democratic leadership of the House in this US midterm election and will take control of the lower chamber early next year. Still, one foreign policy issue that seems to enjoy unusual bipartisan consensus in Washington is China. While there’s some truth to that assessment, there are differences in the China-related issues that each party tends to emphasize. There’s also quite a lot of partisan politics undergirding deliberation and debate over China.

Both parties are vying to position themselves as the better choice to lead the United States in rising to the China challenge. The Republican primary for the 2024 presidential race will get underway soon, and GOP hopefuls will be competing with each other, seeking to convey to voters their credentials as critics of the Chinese Communist Party. More than 80% of Americans now hold unfavorable views of China, but Republican voters express comparatively greater concern, and that is reflected in GOP candidates’ relatively outspoken support for hawkish China policy.

For both of these reasons, even though the Biden administration continues to take a tough line on China, Eurasia Group analyst Anna Ashton fully expects a Republican-controlled US Congress to charge that the White House is not being tough enough. We asked her how this might affect American policy toward Beijing.

What is known about the China views of the expected new committee heads?

Several key House committees are likely to be run by Republicans who have already distinguished themselves as China hawks. Mike McCaul (R-TX), the presumptive chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has pushed for greater US military support for Taiwan and sought stronger Congressional oversight of China export controls. Mike Rogers (R-AL), the favorite to head up the Armed Services Committee, has urged greater preparation for a Chinese attack on Taiwan and called for withdrawing US supply chains from China. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), the likely new boss of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has highlighted the risk that green energy solutions will perpetuate US reliance on China. Finally, the likely next chairs of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (Sam Graves, MO) and the Natural Resources Committee (Bruce Westerman, AR) have both joined McMorris Rodgers in drawing attention to this problem, urging that the US avoid “relying on authoritarian regimes for energy.”

Will the small Republican majority result in less pressure on China than if the expected red wave would have materialized?

Although there are noteworthy divides between House Republicans and Democrats on how to approach China issues, there is significantly more common ground between House Republicans and Senate Democrats. A small majority in the House does not necessarily translate to poor odds for Republicans’ China proposals in Congress overall. Republicans’ very slight lead is looking like it could prove to be powerful leverage for far-right Republicans who want more of a say in House priorities, but Freedom Caucus members are not lead voices on China issues. To the extent they seek to influence the China agenda, they are likely to support attention to issues like the repression of religious freedom and the origins of the COVID virus. But it is also fair to say that most of these members will be focused on other issues.

What new or existing legislation is the Republican House expected to advance?

In 2020, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy established a GOP China Task Force, which later issued a report with more than 300 policy recommendations for Congress and the administration on how to deal with Beijing. The six categories have been common threads in hundreds of proposed bills during the last two congresses and will likely continue to be strong themes: ideological competition, supply chain security, national security, technology, economics and energy, and competitiveness.

China-related issues that have drawn Republican interest suggest that the 118th Congress might push more aggressively to revise America’s longstanding Taiwan policy. The GOP will move so send more high-profile Congressional delegations to Taiwan, intensify pressure to curb licenses for tech exports to China, and further limit Chinese companies’ ability to access US capital.

The GOP also wants to establish a Select Committee on China, which will hold hearings, conduct investigations, and coordinate messaging. Expect hearings focused on Chinese influence over US companies and Chinese influence operations in the United States.

Given the fairly strong anti-China stances of both parties, what are the prospects for cooperation with the Democrat-controlled Senate and White House?

The Senate, under narrow Democratic control, has demonstrated strong cooperation on China legislation, passing the sprawling US-China Innovation and Competition Act, or USICA, in June 2021 with 19 Republican yes votes. The CHIPS and Science Act that ultimately became law is far less comprehensive than USICA — in part because bipartisan cooperation on the wider array of issues proved impossible. The House will likely continue to struggle for consensus on many China issues, though both parties might find some common ground on proposals that call out China’s human rights record, improve US competitiveness at home, or better protect US security interests.

How is China expected to react and what are the risks of crossing Chinese “red lines”?

In general, when Beijing opts for an official response to punitive US actions, it opts for equal and reciprocal measures. But moves that are not officially retaliatory are more common.

The most significant known red line for China is official US recognition of the sovereignty and independence of Taiwan, but that’s highly unlikely to happen under the Biden administration. American efforts to strengthen ties with Taiwan — especially measures that grant more trappings of sovereignty to Taiwan — will provoke strong responses from China. Congressional visits and legislation that appear to grant Taiwan more of the trappings of sovereignty could result in additional live-fire military exercises, sanctions on US officials, and reduced cooperation and communication on issues of mutual interest.

Provocations centered on Taiwan, human rights, democracy, or other issues that Beijing views as matters of sovereignty could spur China to enforce some of its provisions aimed at countering US long-arm jurisdiction — the ability of American courts to exercise jurisdiction over foreign defendants from China. US efforts to contain China’s technological advancement could also ultimately trigger strong retaliation, but the two sides are currently seeking to stabilize ties.


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