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In Washington, China is a four-letter word and the excuse for everything

Lawmakers have introduced nearly 275 measures this session, while bureaucrats are busy using the CCP to justify ballooning budgets.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The 118th Congress has been underway for about three months, and at least one thing is already clear — across both parties, many committees, and a whole host of issues touching virtually all aspects of American life — China is the hottestissue on the Hill right now.

The first hearings of the session are often indicative of overarching priorities for the upcoming term. In 2023, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Financial Services Committee, and the House subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet, part of the Judiciary committee, all held their initial hearings on some aspect of strategic competition with China. Within a week of their swearing-in, a large majority of members voted to establish the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, to much media fanfare.

Since then, subcommittees in HFAC, as well as Homeland Security, Coronavirus, Ways and Means, and Oversight committees have followed suit, in one way or another, in raising the China specter. 

Not surprisingly, many of these hearings have been full of fear-mongering, depicting the Chinese Communist Party as an existential threat rather than actually grappling with the genuine challenges and legitimate concerns now facing the U.S.-China relationship.

“China is not an ally or a strategic partner. They are our competitor and pose the single greatest threat to America’s global standing,” charged Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C. ) during the Financial Services committee’s first hearing. “The juxtaposition between the United States and China could not be more clear. They are centralized; we are decentralized. They are closed; we are open. They suppress free speech and human dignity; we embrace it.”  

The chairman of the subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), declared during his hearing that  “America’s national security is at risk because of China’s government’s quest to achieve superiority using both internal and externally gotten technology. They will use both legal and illegal means in order to gain technology." 

Other hearings have veered off course from their official agendas into unrelated attacks on Beijing, as when Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) — during a hearing on PRC influence in the Indian Ocean — wondered, in a reference to China’s treatment of Uyghurs and ambivalence towards the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, “how effective have we been in letting the Muslim populations from Indonesia to Egypt know what China is doing and making them pay a price?” None of the witnesses felt they had sufficient expertise to answer this question. 

A search of the congressional record shows that in the first three months of the 118th Congress, lawmakers have introduced 273 bills or amendments that contain some variation of the word “China.” The terms  “CCP,” “PRC,” “Beijing,” or “Taiwan” add a handful more. This marks a significant uptick in China-related legislation in recent Congresses. This session’s total is already more than any congressional session before the 114th (2015-16). Since then, the number has increased from 288 in the 115th (2017-2018) to 627 in the 116th (2019-2020) to 1,323 in the 117th Congress (2021-2022). 

Like the recent congressional hearings, these bills touch on almost every aspect of American life. 

At a time of intense partisan polarization, bashing China is one issue on which both parties can't get enough. Republicans sense that China’s rise — and the supposed American decline that accompanies it — serves as a useful political weapon against President Joe Biden. 

“The second thing that's happening, and that’s more concerning for me,” Michael Brenes, Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute, told Responsible Statecraft, “is that the Biden administration is pursuing a policy where it believes the China threat can be served to revive or renew American democracy and American foreign policy, in a post war on terror era.” Meaning, he added, that everything from domestic renewal to industrial policy to foreign policymaking is being justified on that basis. 

As a result, heads of various government agencies have made cases for increasing their budgets based on the need to combat the China threat. Testifying in front of the House Appropriations Committee in late April, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that bureau agents were outnumbered "at least 50 to 1" by Chinese hackers looking to attack critical U.S. infrastructure. 

“You can take China. A key part of the Chinese government’s multi-pronged strategy to lie, to cheat and to steal their way to surpassing us as the global superpower in cyber," Wray said, using that zero-sum scenario as a primary reason for enhancing the bureau’s resources.

Elsewhere, Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked for an 18 percent increase in funding for the Indo-Pacific, asserting that the additional money would be used to pay for “proposals for new innovative investments to out-compete China — including by enhancing our presence in the region, and ensuring that we and our fellow democracies have to offer, including maritime security, disease surveillance, clean energy infrastructure, digital technology, is more attractive than any alternative.” 

The Pentagon has repeatedly used competition with Beijing as the reasoning behind growing defense budgets. The title of the latest ask, which would increase DoD’s annual funding to a whopping $842 billion, actually reads: “Competition With China Drives FY 2024 Budget Request.”

The risks posed by this heightened preoccupation – nay obsession –  with China are clear. Even members of the Biden administration, like the president’s top China advisor, Kurt Campbell, appear to have been — at one time — aware of the dangers. In his 2016 book, The Pivot, on the future of U.S. policy towards Asia, Campbell wrote “An unsuccessful approach might well lead to a new arms race with China, regional conflict, strategic competition, a breakdown of global governance, and even war.” 

And yet, since coming to office, the administration has maintained its predecessor’s policies on China, while rationalizing many of its policy achievements by arguing that it will help Washington compete with Beijing. 

Even if a hot war with Beijing is avoided, a zero-sum, Cold War-style lens to competition runs the risk of warping Washington’s foreign policy. “The instinct to counter every Chinese initiative, project, and provocation remains predominant, crowding out efforts to revitalize an inclusive international system that would protect U.S. interests and values even as global power shifts and evolves,” wrote Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor of China and Asia-Pacific Studies, in Foreign Affairs. 

“Where the current trajectory leads is clear: a more dangerous and less habitable world defined by an ever-present risk of confrontation and crisis, with preparation for conflict taking precedence over tackling common challenges.”

The tendency to focus everything on competition with China also makes it more difficult to cooperate on vital international issues like climate change or pandemics. But even some who may recognize these difficulties choose to embrace the frame of great power competition to advance their own policy goals. 

The way in which this is being framed caters to the most hawkish members in Congress, according to Brenes. But he’s not confident that the trend will be reversed anytime soon, because targeting a common enemy is “just too convenient for politicians in the United States, particularly at the moment where we're getting concerned about the anxiety of American power, and concerned about the future of American dominance and hegemony.”

Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI), Committee Chair, questions witnesses during a House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party hearing on the CCP’s threat to America, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, February 28, 2023. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)No Use Germany.
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