Washington finds a bipartisan issue: Confronting China

WASHINGTON — Tuesday evening's hearing on how the United States can and should challenge the global influence of the Chinese Communist Party was the first primetime congressional panel since last year's much-publicized and closely watched meetings of the committee investigating the violent riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

But whereas the Jan. 6 hearings were a factious affair largely abandoned by a Republican Party that remains loyal to former President Donald Trump, the China inquiry was bipartisan and substantive, reflecting a growing conviction in Washington that economic and military competition with Beijing will emerge as the central geopolitical struggle of this century.

“The threat of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] is not a partisan issue,” said Rep. Michelle Steel, a Republican who represents a Southern California district with a large Asian American community. “It is not a talking point for the point for the headlines. It is the single biggest threat facing the American people and democracy around the world.”

At a time when many congressional hearings devolve into partisan recrimination, Tuesday night was rare evidence of consensus, with Democrats and Republicans alike uniting to ask how China came to the cusp of eclipsing the United States as the world’s preeminent economic and military power.

The answers were broad, reflecting the scope of the challenge. “Our hubris and neglect aided Beijing's ambitions, weakened our capabilities and hollowed out our middle class,” said witness Scott N. Paul of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

If the goal was, at least in part, to provoke Beijing, the objective was achieved. "We call on relevant U.S. institutions and individuals to abandon their ideological bias and zero-sum Cold War mentality," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in a Wednesday briefing.

Even as he works strenuously to maintain the Western alliance helping Ukraine to defend itself against Russia , Biden has consistently described China as the greater longterm threat to American interests. His administration stresses competition over confrontation with the East Asian nuclear superpower. But on matters ranging from the origins of the coronavirus to the status of Taiwan, confrontation seems inevitable.

"If China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did," Biden said in last month's State of the Union address, which he delivered just days after ordering the shootdown of a Chinese surveillance balloon that drifted across the United States.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., invoked "America Against America," a remarkable book written in 1988 by Wang Huning as he traveled through the United States. Sensitive but critical, Wang depicted American society as rife with contradiction. "On the night [George H.W. Bush] was inaugurated as 41st president," Wang wrote, "I saw homeless people sleeping in the doors of the buildings lining Bush Street in San Francisco."

As Gallagher noted, Wang is now one China's top diplomats. If he and other intellectual elites in the Chinese Communist Party once revered the United States, they appear to have grown increasingly convinced that their authoritarian model is superior to the complexities of Western-style democracy .

For some lawmakers, too, foreign competition was being stymied by domestic turmoil. “Jan. 6, 2021, was Xi Jinping’s best day in office,” said Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass., in reference to the powerful Chinese premier recently elected to his third term. “I hope the bipartisan spirit of competing with the Chinese Communist Party overseas extends to defending democracy here at home,” he added.

As when Congress debated terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in previous years, some of the most pressing questions strove to resolve questions of national identity and purpose.

The rise of China was a call to "up our game as a people," as the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill.,, put it. Yet he also cautioned against a "clash of civilizations," using a controversial term scholar Samuel Huntington used to describe the post-Cold War global order. The phrase became especially popular after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which some depicted as part of an existential confrontation with Islam.

Republicans did not shy away from using similar language on Tuesday night, refusing to concede to the conventional wisdom that the 21st century would belong to China. "It's not a polite tennis match. This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century,” Rep. Gallagher said.

A military veteran and Princeton graduate, Gallagher was appointed to head the United States House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party after Republicans won control of the House of Representatives.

While other GOP-led committees look to eagerly descend into rancor ready-made for cable news, Gallagher has sought to conduct an inquiry that could genuinely inform American foreign policy, members of both parties say. "The word 'serious' has been tossed around about this committee because that's the desire," committee member Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a former military pilot, told RealClearPolitics last month.

The Biden administration is now in the process of implementing last year's CHIPs Act, which is meant to galvanize the moribund U.S. semiconductor industry into competition with China's. It is the kind of investment Paul, the manufacturing association head, and others believe is necessary to stunt China's influence. But that influence is already vast in scope. Whereas the CHIPs Act devotes some $52 billion to semiconductor manufacturing, China — which was angered by the legislation — is putting $143 billion into a similar effort.

Simply training the public's attention on China may well have value to U.S. leaders, especially at a time when Russia remains the top global villain, at least in Western eyes, for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

China could be edging towards helping Russia in that effort — despite urgent and unambiguous American warnings to stay out of the conflict. There are also fears that China is preparing its own invasion of Taiwan, an independent island and U.S. geopolitical ally. American defense officials mostly continue to hew to the so-called Davidson window, which predicts that such an invasion will take place by 2027.

In fact, the Biden administration has assessed that China poses the greatest threat to American interests. If the Russian threat is that of a fading empire, China demands to be treated like the rising power it has become in the last two decades.

"Peace through strength still works," witness Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster told lawmakers, referencing the classic Cold War posture towards the Soviet Union. The former national security adviser cast the dueling poles of China and the United States in Ronald Reagan might have, drawing a distinction between two fundamentally different societies, one predicated on freedom and the other on control.

If the choice between communism and democracy had been obvious — at least to American leaders — throughout the Cold War, McMaster argued that it was incumbent on American policymakers to make that choice just as clear today.

“It's not a choice between Washington and Beijing,” he said. “It's a choice between sovereignty and servitude.”

That apparent imperative has been made seemingly easier because Congress’s China panel is free of political lightning rods like hard-right Reps. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, R-Ga., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.

Krishnamoorthi, the committee's leading Democrat, also sought to tamp down any possibility that the proceedings would be used to further demonize people of Asian origin, who have experienced rising rates of violence and vitriol across the United States since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. "We have no quarrel with the Chinese people, or people of Chinese origin," he said.

Several minutes later, two protesters in the audience affiliated with the progressive group Code Pink stood up to disrupt the proceedings.

“China is not our enemy,” read the placard raised by the first protester.

“Stop Asian hate,” said the sign foisted by the second.

Both were escorted out of the hearing chamber. The hearing proceeded without incident.