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In Tuesday hearings, witnesses proclaim China an existential threat

Said H.R. McMaster: 'it’s not a choice between Washington and Beijing. It’s a choice between sovereignty and servitude.'

Asia-Pacific

If Tuesday’s events were any indication, on questions of foreign policy, the 118th Congress will have an outsized focus on the challenge posed by China.

The first hearing of the new House Foreign Affairs Committee is often indicative of what members consider to be the most critical question confronting the upcoming Congressional session. (The committee’s first hearing in the 117th Congress, shortly after Joe Biden’s inauguration, for instance, was titled “America Forward: Restoring Diplomacy and Development in a Fracturing World.”) This time around, the hearing was centered on China, or in the words of HFAC, “Combatting the Generational Challenge of CCP Aggression.” 

That hearing, held Tuesday morning, was not particularly noteworthy. Given that the witnesses were Biden administration officials, it was more an arena for partisan politics than serious reflection. One exception was Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), who asked a critical question: “We spend a lot of time talking about strategic competition, and I think the administration has rightly identified the PRC as a challenge and taken several actions engaged in strategic competition. But (...) what are we competing for and what is the administration’s end goal with China so that we’re not just talking about competition as an end in and of itself?” 

The primetime event — the first hearing of the newly-formed Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, titled “The Chinese Communist Party’s Threat to America” — did not offer many answers to this question.   

In his opening statement, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), the select committee’s ranking member, made his vision for the future of U.S.-China relations clear, declaring, “We do not want a war with the PRC. Not a cold war, not a hot war. We don’t want a clash of civilizations, but we seek a durable peace, and that is why we have to deter aggression.” 

Much of the hearing, however, focused on fearmongering about the myriad threats that the Chinese government poses to the United States and the world. “We may call this a strategic competition, but it’s not a polite tennis match,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the committee’s chairman, in his opening remarks. “This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century.”

Later in the hearing, one of the witnesses, Matt Pottinger, President Trump’s deputy national security adviser from 2019 to 2021, raised doubts over whether cooperation with China on major global challenges was even possible. Responding in part to two CodePink protesters who interrupted early proceedings to dispute the committee’s focus on competition rather than cooperation with signs reading “China is not our enemy” and “Stop Asian hate,” Pottinger said “We should not joke to ourselves that Beijing has any interest in collaborating with the United States or others in trying to prevent and mitigate serious problems in the world.”

The hearing featured four witnesses, including Tong Yi, a Chinese dissident who was in jail for more than two years, and Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. But the two who fielded by far the most questions were former Trump administration officials Pottinger and National Security Advisor  H.R. McMaster. In addition to working for the last president, these two witnesses share other attributes. As Vox’s Jonathan Guyer tweeted, "It would be a mistake to see them only as former officials. They reflect a deeply entrenched interests that won't likely be disclosed.” 

Further, Eli Clifton, Investigative Journalist at Large at Responsible Statecraft, noted on Twitter, referring to McMaster and Pottinger, “Half of the witnesses appearing before the China Select Committee RIGHT NOW have appointments at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that discloses NONE of its funders.”

Much of the hearing itself focused on Beijing’s adverse effect on the United States’ own domestic well-being: surveillance through social media, China’s role in fentanyl trafficking, Chinese purchase of American agricultural land, and the overall impact of the welcoming of Beijing into the international economy on the U.S. economy.   

When it came to foreign policy, the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was often framed in terms of what lessons can be learned from American efforts in Ukraine, both the United States’ inability to deter Russia’s invasion and the success in aiding Kyiv during the first year of the war.  

On two occasions, McMaster pointed to Washington’s inability to deter Vladimir Putin as evidence that it needed to take aggressive action to ensure that China does not invade Taiwan. When asked how to accomplish this goal, McMaster responded “Through strength, obviously. Peace through strength still works.” 

While stressing the importance of working with allies to defend Taiwan, and confronted with the question of convincing allies who find themselves perhaps unwilling to decide between the U.S. and China, McMaster asserted that countries in the region are beginning to realize that “it’s not a choice between Washington and Beijing. It’s a choice between sovereignty and servitude.”

Both McMaster and Pottinger expressed optimism that U.S. policy was moving in the right direction, and that Beijing would not surpass Washington, but warned that the country was not entirely ready to confront the challenge adequately. All early signs are that this Congress will be very focused on China, and Tuesday’s hearings offered a glimpse of what that focus might look like.  

H.R. McMaster testifies before a Tuesday hearing hosted by the Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, titled “The Chinese Communist Party’s Threat to America” (CSPAN)
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