As COVID-19 increases the appetite for a reevaluation of American policy toward Beijing, lawmakers are starting to act.
During his first tour in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province, Representative Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.) recalls, he was struck by the decision of a fellow Marine intelligence officer to study Chinese instead of Arabic. “I remember thinking at the time while we were jawing, ‘Why the heck would this guy have spent any time becoming a Mandarin linguist?’” Gallagher says.
More than a decade later, Gallagher credits that same officer — the current deputy national-security adviser, Matthew Pottinger — with helping shift his focus 3,000 miles further east. As Pottinger helps steer the White House through the coronavirus pandemic, Gallagher is one of 15 House Republicans joining the China Task Force, a group that aims to provide a comprehensive reassessment of America’s relationship with China.
In justifying their desire to reorient American foreign policy toward containing the Chinese Communist Party, task-force members need only point to recent history, whether it be China’s hack of the Office of Personnel Management in 2015, its brutal treatment of Uighur Muslims, or its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last fall. But for some, the issue runs deeper. “Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I have seen China’s transgressions firsthand, including their efforts to undercut U.S. steel manufacturers, export deadly opioids into our communities, and steal American’s intellectual property,” task-force member Guy Reschenthaler (R., Pa.) says in an email.
As the country’s response to the coronavirus dominates the airwaves, the task force wants China’s malign intentions and growing capabilities to take center stage.
“We need to have a wakeup call about China’s influence into many aspects of American life, much of which Americans aren’t aware of,” Representative Michael Waltz (R., Fla.) says.
In interviews, task-force members presented a broad suite of potential legislative reforms, ranging from increased investment in space defense, to finding new international partners for rare-earth minerals, to exposing China’s theft of research from American universities. Sources with direct knowledge of the task force’s workings tell National Review that China’s record of human-rights abuses, its high levels of pollution, and its forays into artificial intelligence were also discussed on the group’s opening call. In its second call last Friday, members were assigned to work on specific issues, with the goal of producing a comprehensive report and legislative recommendations by October 1.
While the China Task Force is focused on a number of different issues, it is united by a belief that Beijing poses a unique threat to U.S. interests — a challenge, its members say, that Washington has yet to seriously grapple with. “There was certainly a lot of hope, during the Clinton administration, during the Bush administration, during the Obama administration, that [China’s] behavior would change, but it clearly hasn’t,” task-force member Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.) says in a phone interview.
The rhetoric marks an implicit rejection of a longstanding bipartisan consensus: the notion that American free-market engagement would gradually liberate the Chinese people. Instead, Republicans argue that the opposite has happened: The CCP has chewed up and spit out foreign investment to serve its own interests.
“In working on many of the trade issues, you realize pretty quickly that all of the major issues are intertwined,” task-force member Anthony Gonzalez (R., Ohio) says by email. “Technology transfers, trade abuses, international institutional influence, and the like are all part of a broader strategy to displace the United States as the world leader and place Xi Jinping and the CCP at the top of the global pyramid.”
“It never has been free trade, or free exchange, or free markets with China,” says Representative Andy Barr (R., Ky.), another task-force member. “Anyone who says that that’s the effort that has been tried over the last couple decades, they’re sorely mistaken. We have not had free trade with China. It’s been American companies, bullied by China, having their intellectual property seized and stolen by China, no fair competition, or free competition. It’s been American and Western businesses taken advantage of and pushed out of free competition by virtue of no labor regulations, cheap labor, and state subsidies of industry.”
While China’s handling of the pandemic makes the task force’s mission all the more urgent, the need to confront China was clear to many of its members long before the first COVID-19 case emerged.
“My biggest professional challenge in the last 26 years of combined military and intelligence experience has been the information-sharing stovepipes, and the inability of people to look beyond their own mission set, and I think that’s something that we have to fix now,” Representative Denver Riggleman (R., Va.), a longtime NSA contractor and Air Force veteran, says.
The task force has been over a year in the making, but its formulation did not come without hiccups. In April 2019, as the Trump administration ramped up pressure to keep Chinese telecom giant Huawei from increasing its share of the global 5G market, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) reached out to majority leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) to see about creating a bipartisan commission on China.
House sources say that, following months of back-and-forth negotiations, an agreement was reached in February to launch “the China Policy Coordination Group,” consisting of four Democrats (Representatives Eliot Engel of New York, John Larson of Connecticut, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, and David Trone of Maryland) and four Republicans (current task-force leader Michael McCaul of Texas, Reschenthaler, Darin LaHood of Illinois, and Elise Stefanik of New York). But a day before the scheduled launch on February 25, Republicans claim, Democrats pulled the plug. (Democrats did not return requests for comment on the task force or on their concerns over China’s growing influence.)
Despite that apparent setback, Republicans say that they remain committed to ensuring that the task force has the broad support required to be a success.
“Look at the creative partnerships you’ve seen in Congress: You have card-carrying members of ‘the Squad’ like Ilhan Omar supporting legislation that’s very tough on the CCP for treating the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang — and in doing so, echoing a lot of the rhetoric of Marco Rubio. So I think it creates a lot of strange bedfellows, and I think that’s positive,” Gallagher says. “We have an opportunity to really build a bipartisan consensus around how we compete successfully with the CCP without descending into McCarthyism.”
There is reason to be hopeful that such a consensus can still be reached. McCarthy and McCaul still want input from across the aisle, and a House GOP source says that bipartisan “staff-level discussions” have been initiated with Democratic leadership, without elaborating further. Moreover, some task-force members believe there is appetite for strengthening the nation’s China policy across the aisle.
“There’s a lot of Democrats who really do feel the same way that we do on these issues, and a real easy one is the pharmaceuticals,” task-force member Chris Stewart (R., Utah) argues. “Show me anyone in Congress who thinks it’s a good idea for us to get 97 percent of our generics [from China]. No one thinks that’s great. . . . Well, there’s a really easy bipartisan area, that’s significant, that we can work together on, but you got to come work with us on the task force.”
“I think as you look at individual pieces of legislation, you’re likely to see bipartisan support for holding China accountable, things like requesting that Taiwan be able to be an observer at least at the WHO activities,” Cheney says. “I think you’ll see, on substance, many Democrats joining with Republicans to support holding China accountable.”
“The first thing I did was warn everybody about making this a partisan issue,” says task-force member Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.) of the group’s opening call last week. “Right now, it’s an 80 percent, probably 100 percent [bipartisan] issue — but we can make it 40 percent real quick and do nothing and look back in 20 years and be like, ‘Was it really worth it for an election?’”
The coronavirus pandemic may have sped up the task force’s genesis, but for members, it is only the tip of the CCP iceberg. Of particularly pressing concern is the possibility that Beijing will use the pandemic’s aftermath to further its long-term global-infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative, through which it has been known to leave developing countries in its debt, and thus under its influence.
“When the dust settles from this, we know that China is going to walk into a bunch of countries with a bunch of cash and countries are going to have a decision to make: Do you take the immediate kind of heroin hit, the feel-good cash, and then find yourself addicted to China later?” Kinzinger asks.
“The Belt and Road Initiative is part of a larger geopolitical strategy — it’s not just about building up their military, it’s not just about their cyberspace, hacking activities, or their ambitions in outer space — it is the fact that they have global ambitions,” Barr adds. “That is on full display, by exerting influence over these lesser-developed countries. Now, we have to, in this task force, we need to seriously evaluate U.S. policies at these international financial institutions and how we use our influence in these international financial institutions to contain and counter Chinese ambitions.”
Still, the possibility exists that the pandemic will result in heightened levels of American isolationism, complicating efforts to more aggressively limit China’s global reach. Last month, President Trump halted funding for the World Health Organization, and congressional efforts to extract the U.S. from the World Trade Organization are already underway. In an interview published last Thursday, Trump signaled that he may be reevaluating his highly touted trade deal with China, saying, “We could cut off the whole relationship.” And in recent weeks, administration sources have said the White House is “turbocharging” the withdrawal of supply chains from China and hoping to shift them to a new trade network of Asian allies.
“The way I’m starting to think about it, as a way to avoid descending into autarky, is: How do we harness this very healthy ‘Made in America, Decouple from China’ sentiment into closer and more creative partnerships with our allies?” Gallagher says. “That’s one area where I think the task force could do a lot of good, is identifying the areas where we really have an opportunity to work with our friends and partners on the world stage.”
Gallagher is convinced of the need for allies in the fight against China because he’s convinced that Beijing represents an existential threat akin to the one once posed by the Soviet Union. “I think we are in a new Cold War,” he says. “I think we’re at a position similar to where we were in the late ’40s [and] early ’50s, and it’s going to require us to modernize a lot of our government structures and nongovernment structures in order to win this competition.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean Republicans think an armed conflict is inevitable down the line — Stewart, for one, calls such a conflict “extremely unlikely.” But bilateral tensions with China don’t seem poised to ease any time soon, and task-force members are adamant about the need for strong military deterrents.
“We need operational concepts like air, land battle — that were developed during the Cold War, with respect to the Soviets — given the very complex and complicated nature of the threat posed by the Chinese government,” Cheney says. “We need to have new concepts to think through: How do we deter China? How do we deter their aggression? How do we ensure that we have the capability to prevail, so we never have to use it?”
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