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House creates controversial new select committee on China

Will the panel foster a new cold war or much needed cooperation between the world's two largest economies?

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Yesterday the House approved HJ Res 11, which creates a new Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. The vote was 365-65, with all 65 ‘no’ votes coming from Democrats but majorities of both parties approving the measure. 

The resolution describes the new committee in an anodyne way, stating that “the sole authority of the Select Committee shall be to investigate and submit policy recommendations on the status of the Chinese Communist Party’s economic, technological, and security progress and its competition with the United States.” But that does little to illuminate potential controversies around how the committee — which some are already calling the “tough on China committee” — will operate or why dozens of members voted against its creation. 

Few would dispute that China should be a major focus of attention in Washington. There’s widespread bipartisan consensus that the approach to China in previous decades was too sanguine about China as a competitor, and about the harms to the American economy created by corporate outsourcing to China. As a country which will soon become the world’s largest economy, governed by the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party, and deeply intertwined with the American economy, China clearly offers a multitude of economic and security challenges. But that doesn’t fully explain the need for a new committee. The current congressional standing committees on armed services and foreign relations already devote substantial attention to China, and additional permanent commissions such as the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission exist. 

China was already a focus in the last Congress, which passed major legislation aimed at boosting America’s manufacturing capacities in order to compete more effectively with China, as well as large military spending increases justified by efforts to counter China and more effectively defend Taiwan. The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy also singled out China as America’s greatest strategic threat and competitor.

But the premise of the new committee is that existing efforts to compete with China are inadequate in the face of what Rep. Mike Gallagher, the chair of the new committee, is calling a “new cold war with China.” The question raised by skeptics is whether the committee will lead to a more effective focus on the challenges posed by China, or create more heat than light and drive further escalation of conflict in the already dangerously fraught U.S.-China relationship. Voters against the creation of the committee included prominent Democratic leaders like Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Gregory Meeks, and Asian-American leader Judy Chu. 

The framing of a “new cold war” in particular could cut off opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation between the world’s two largest economies, fuel anti-China xenophobia, and increase the risk of tipping over into a potentially disastrous hot war. A recent war game conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan would have devastating consequences for both sides, and an even worse impact on Taiwan itself. As opponents of the committee said in a statement released after the vote “This…should not be a committee about winning a ‘new Cold War’ as the Chair-Designate of the Committee has previously stated. America can and must work towards our economic and strategic competitiveness goals without ‘a new Cold War’ and without the repression, discrimination, hate, fear, degeneration of our political institutions, and violations of civil rights that such a ‘Cold War’ may entail.”

But proponents of the committee promised a bipartisan approach and a productive focus on real issues of competitiveness with China. Speaking on the House floor, newly elected Speaker Kevin McCarthy described a committee that would be a place for serious lawmakers, would work cooperatively across parties, and tackle issues like reshoring supply chains and fighting theft of intellectual property. An earlier op-ed by McCarthy and Select Committee chair Gallagher gave more detail on the committee’s priorities, including a “peace through strength” approach, ending American economic dependence on China, and combatting Chinese human rights abuses.

With the approval of the Select Committee, the question now turns to who the members will be and the specifics of the committee’s business. Only time will tell if the new Select Committee will truly drive a wiser and more effective U.S. approach to the rise of China.

Image: allensima via shutterstock.com
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