Stephen Yates: Major Review of China Likely in New US Congress

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You wouldn’t know it, based on current headlines, but the United States Congress is poised to conduct a critical review of the full spectrum of US policy issues related to China, on a scale not seen since the normalization of diplomatic relations with Beijing 40 years ago.

In the immediate term, all eyes are fixed on negotiations related to the government shutdown and measures to secure our southern border. The disposition of US forces deployed to Syria and Afghanistan also is a near term focus. But soon enough, once the full committees and relevant subcommittees have settled in and conducted initial business, the new Congress is likely to take a deep dive on China.

By now it is not news that President Trump has broken with conventional (or establishment) approaches for dealing with China. He accepted President Tsai’s congratulatory phone call as President-elect. He launched missiles into Syria while serving chocolate cake at his Mar-a-Lago resort to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. And of course he has challenged China to rebalance its trade relations with the United States in ways no recent US president has really considered, much less implemented.

Typically a new US president whose party controls the majority in the US Senate would have a collaborative relationship with committee leaders when it comes to confirmation of personnel and articulation of policy. That was not so for President Trump during the 115th Congress, covering the first two years of his administration, thanks to the very rocky personal relationship between the President and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R – Tennessee). Not only did Senator Corker spar with the President publicly and privately, Senator Corker’s approach to foreign policy fell well within the mainstream of bipartisan conventional thinking. President Trump, however, was elected based on the promise to disrupt and reset major fundamentals of US foreign and defense policies.

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Now in the 116th Congress, Senate committee assignments have been made, and with Senator Corker gone, there is a new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jim Risch (R – Idaho). Senator Risch has a much more cooperative and businesslike relationship with President Trump, and he has a somewhat more interesting committee to work with. On the Republican side, an additional member was added, and the committee now has five former candidates for the Republican presidential nomination (Rubio, Cruz, Graham, Romney, and Paul). That guarantees higher profile news coverage of foreign relations committee proceedings, and it also presents the new chairman with the pleasure of working with some very strong personalities with distinct views on US foreign policy.

For those who follow Asia, and especially Taiwan policy, Senator Cory Gardner (R – Colorado) is chair of the Subcommittee on East Asia, The Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy. That is great news, as Senator Gardner has been a reliable champion for policy that recognizes the value of close ties with Taiwan and the comprehensive challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China. The inclusion of cybersecurity policy within this subcommittee also is strategically significant.

As we progress through 2019, most expect the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to take up unconfirmed nominations, such as the US ambassador to the United Nations, and have some scene setting hearings about US global priorities and competing challenges. From there, expect the full committee and Senator Gardner’s subcommittee to focus on three things: China, China, China…

Many have noted the key anniversaries driving discussion and review of US-China relations as well as US-Taiwan relations. We have the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act and normalization of diplomatic ties with the PRC. June 4th marks 30 years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre. And it is 70 years this October since Mao Zedong broke with China’s political and cultural past, split with the Republic of China, and established the People’s Republic of China, with Communist one-party rule sustained to this day.

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Beyond these anniversaries, however, it has been actions taken by China, under the unexpectedly provocative leadership of Xi Jinping, that is driving leaders in the US to question and consider alternatives to the assumptions that have guided US policy towards China since the Nixon-Kissinger detente in the 1970s. From revived Maoism, to creepy AI surveillance, to blatant intellectual property theft, to building and militarization of islands, to coercion of Taiwan, to interference in our own domestic institutions, China has provoked a corrective response in the US (and other countries) that is just in its initial stages of development.

As the hearings unfold and as the Trump administration continues negotiations on trade and North Korea, expect there to be constructive foreign policy fireworks in the Congress, as we have the first real debate over China policy in nearly half a century. Also expect part of that debate to include a review and enhancement of US relations with Taiwan. A key question for Taiwan to consider as the US engages in this great debate: Is Taiwan itself prepared to conduct a similar thorough and public review of its policy towards China, with an eye to bringing it into line with the realities we face in 2019?

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Stephen J. Yates was Deputy National Security Adviser to the Vice President to Dick Cheney from 2001 to 2005 and a past Idaho Republican Party Chair from 2014 to 2017. He is the CEO of consulting firm DC International Advisory, in that role since 2006.

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