January 24, 2022

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In coronavirus-gripped Washington, rhetoric rises but anti-China bills stall

The 116th Congress will forever be best known for the impeachment of Donald Trump. But it will also go down as the most hawkish ” and most prolific ” Congress to date in its approach toward China.

There has been “far and away” more China-related legislation introduced during the current congressional session than, for example, there was counterterrorism legislation introduced in the 107th session following 9/11, noted Anna Ashton, who closely tracks movements on Capitol Hill in her work heading government affairs at the US-China Business Council.

But amid the coronavirus pandemic, as legislative priorities have pivoted abruptly to address the outbreak’s public health and economic fallout, the fate of about 300 bills and resolutions challenging Beijing is now in limbo.

“For the time being, and probably for the foreseeable future, Covid-19 is going to totally dominate what people are doing on the Hill,” said Ashton, a former China-focused intelligence officer at the Department of Defence.

Just weeks ago, before the coronavirus took hold in the US, lawmakers hoped that at least some legislation would join the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act ” a symbolically powerful bill whose passage in November tested the limits of an already bruised US-China relationship.

After months of negotiations, legislation calling for stringent sanctioning of Chinese officials over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang had won overwhelming approval in both the House of Representatives and Senate. Other bills, including one focused on Tibet, had passed in one of the two chambers.

That progress could be undone come January, when the current 116th Congress ends and any bill not approved by both chambers and signed into law by the president is wiped off the docket.

Stacking the odds further: Even if Congress is able to return to regular business in the coming months, attention from legislative matters will quickly be pulled away again ” this time by election season. In the run-up to November 3, not only will President Trump be seeking re-election, but most members of the House and around a third of the Senate will also be absorbed in fights to stay in office.

“In an election year, really anything after July is not likely to happen,” said Chris Lu, a former House oversight committee lawyer who later served as Barack Obama’s White House cabinet secretary.

“This will be an incredibly short legislating year with the exception of, obviously, continuing to provide relief and possible stimulus [relating to the coronavirus outbreak],” said Lu, who also served as a commissioner on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, an influential advisory panel on human rights issues in the country.

Neither House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ” one of Beijing’s most vocal critics ” or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responded to requests for comment on whether they anticipated scheduling floor time for any of the China-related bills that still await votes. One House aide on the Democratic side, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the chance of any non-coronavirus legislation moving ahead was “pretty, pretty limited”.

Yet despite the narrowing window for China-related legislation to reach Trump by January, many lawmakers are pressing ahead, both with intensifying rhetoric and several pieces of legislation about Beijing’s handling of the outbreak.

“Not much of what gets proposed or introduced in the upcoming days [regarding China] will become policy, but everyone wants to message that they’re on it,” said a senior congressional staffer, who requested anonymity to discuss lawmakers’ internal deliberations.

Reporters practise social distancing while interviewing US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Photo: Reuters alt=Reporters practise social distancing while interviewing US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Photo: Reuters

In March alone, lawmakers introduced at least 20 China-related bills, ranging from demands that China pay for the US pandemic costs to calls for an international investigation of Beijing’s coronavirus response.

With criticism intensifying about the US government’s own response, Republicans’ complaints have become ever louder. On Friday, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina proclaimed on Twitter that the Chinese government was “responsible for 16,000 American deaths and 17 million Americans being unemployed”.

The first thing I want to do is get the United States Senate on the record where we, we don’t blame Trump – we blame China.The Chinese government is responsible for 16,000 American deaths and 17 million Americans being unemployed. https://t.co/wpa9n9hFtx

” Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) April 10, 2020

Also this week, House Republicans introduced a resolution urging the Trump administration to cut off federal funding of the World Health Organisation (WHO) pending the resignation of its director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and an investigation into its alleged pro-China bias.

The legislation was in step with Trump, who has threatened repeatedly to put a hold on US funding of the United Nations agency, which he called “very China-centric”.

For many inside Washington, the pandemic has put the “exclamation mark” on a years-long erosion of trust in Beijing’s governance, said Terry Haines, founder of the consulting firm Pangaea Policy.

“Washington’s a whole lot more focused and a whole lot warier than it was a few months ago,” the policy analyst said.

Perceptions of China’s coronavirus missteps have consolidated concerns on a number of threads, Haines said, including grievances over national security and technology, human rights, and “the whole panoply of trade issues”.

The pandemic has also amplified Washington concerns about the dependence of US pharmaceutical supply chains on China, which US Commissioner of Food and Drugs Stephen Hahn this week called a “critical risk factor”.

Hahn said that the US supply of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) had remained unscathed in the current crisis, but the pandemic is all but certain to provide grist to those in Congress and the administration who are pushing to disentangle US supply chains from China ” particularly those that can be linked directly to the safety and security of Americans.

“Whatever decoupling actually looks like, both sides of the aisle will be looking to do something once Washington comes out of quarantine,” the senior congressional staffer said.

Legislation on China would “have to be driven by [congressional] leadership”, said the senior staffer, who ” along with the House aide ” said it was more likely that pieces would be pushed through as amendments to must-pass bills, like the budget, or the National Defence Authorisation Act, rather than as stand-alone pieces.

But whether the two parties can work together in a presidential election year, when “consensus may fall apart”, remains to be seen, said the senior staffer.

Even now, some seven months from the election, cracks have begun to form in the bipartisan alliance that has formed over several years around a more hawkish China policy.

While Republican lawmakers and some in the Trump administration have sought to blame Beijing for the coronavirus’ global spread, Democrats have largely focused on the domestic missteps by the federal government.

No Democrat is among the 22 backers of Tuesday’s resolution seeking an end to US funding of the WHO, for instance. And at the end of March, Seth Moulton, the only Democrat who initially supported a resolution calling on Chinese leaders to state there was no evidence the coronavirus “originated anywhere other than China” withdrew amid blowback from colleagues, who said the legislation would fuel anti-Asian racism in the US.

When I signed onto H.Res.907, I did so because it is important to recognize and condemn the CCP’s authoritarian tactics. Instead, it has been used to create division, as the president’s xenophobia stokes racism across the country. For that reason, I am withdrawing my support. pic.twitter.com/3vT3qQvgc9

” Seth Moulton (@sethmoulton) March 26, 2020

Trump’s presidential campaign has messaged along similar lines to congressional Republicans, portraying him as a wartime president defending the US from attack ” “not just by an invisible virus,” one campaign release said, “but by the Chinese”.

Through the elections, China issues were more likely to play out in such rhetoric than by any further legislative action, Lu, the former White House cabinet secretary, said.

“It’s hard to imagine November not being a referendum on Trump’s handling of this as well as more broadly ” in terms of at the congressional level ” whatever coattails or damage Trump faces on this,” Lu, a Democratic National Committee superdelegate, said. “And I think the easiest point, or one possible deflection, that Republicans will use is to pivot and try to blame this all on China.”

That strategy would be amplified further in Midwestern farming states ” a Trump political stronghold ” should the pandemic’s economic fallout cause China to wander from its purchasing commitments made under January’s phase one trade deal, Lu added.

Donald Trump’s re-election prospects are likely to be determined by how he handles the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: DPA alt=Donald Trump’s re-election prospects are likely to be determined by how he handles the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: DPA

Surveys suggest that targeting China will resonate with Republican voters, with one recent Morning Consult poll finding that over half of Republicans blamed Beijing for the contagion’s spread to the US. Among Democrats, that figure was just 17 per cent.

And in a study this week by Harris Poll, 78 per cent of Republicans ” versus 40 per cent of Democrats ” said the Chinese government was responsible for the spread of coronavirus in the US. Some 22 per cent of Republicans and 60 per cent of Democrats blamed the US government.

While the election season and congressional preoccupation with the domestic coronavirus response may stay the bipartisan pressure campaign on Beijing, both observers and congressional insiders say that any such relief will be temporary. “Long term, we’re still looking at the same sort of dynamic,” said the House aide.

In particular ” and regardless of how the House, Senate and White House races pan out ” Congress in its 117th session is likely to maintain “a significant focus on concerns surrounding China as a potential national security threat, as a strategic competitor”, Ashton said. “The bilateral consensus is there and isn’t going away.”

And just as in this session ” bitterly divided on domestic matters like health care, immigration and oversight of the executive branch ” a hawkish China policy may remain one of precious few areas of common ground.

“There will be, as today, a closely divided Congress [in terms of seats] and a president that will not have been elected in any sort of landslide,” Haines said, looking ahead to January. “There will be a very divided government in many senses … which underscores: Watch out when the views of both parties are united.”

“Areas where there is great consensus will lead to an awful lot of work being done,” he said. “And China issues are ‘Exhibit A’.”

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This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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