Relations between the U.S. and China are at their lowest point in history in terms of trade, technology, security, the global pandemic and human rights issues.
Most recently, U.S. authorities ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston closed, accusing it of being a hub of espionage to steal American intellectual property. (China responded by shuttering the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.) The U.S. also slapped sanctions on a group of Chinese companies for their alleged repression of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, President Trump — who has repeatedly blamed China for the coronavirus pandemic — has stopped all efforts to resolve his administration’s trade war with Beijing.
And on July 23, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a major foreign policy speech in which he warned that China’s Communist Party was a global threat and sharply denounced Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology.” It bore distinct echoes of the sort of ideological rivalry that divided the world during the Cold War.
Many Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill back the administration’s muscular approach toward China, but not everyone is on board with a complete break in bilateral relations. Instead, some members of Congress say easing tensions may require cooperation despite disagreements on fundamental issues like trade and human rights.
The relationship between the U.S. and China is multifaceted, said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) during a July 8 virtual briefing hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) examining congressional perspectives on U.S.-China relations. Although there are areas where neither country will budge, Larsen said it’s critical that the two largest economies in the world come together in some aspects.
“There is not a U.S.-China relationship,” Larsen said. “There are many U.S.-China relationships, based on the subject.”
Some of these relationships will involve competition, but others will require a level of cooperation between the two world powers, Larsen said.
Larsen is part of the House U.S.-China Working Group, a bipartisan committee in Congress that aims to improve the dialogue between the two countries. However, this is no easy task, according to Larsen, who said the relationship has always been up and down.
“The relationship right now really is at a low point,” Larsen said. “It’s always been a bit of a roller-coaster relationship. I would say right now we are in a deep, deep dip in that roller coaster for a variety of reasons.”
Some of those reasons include China’s restrictive new national security law in Hong Kong, its internment of Uyghurs, security questions involving Huawei’s 5G infrastructure network, its increasingly aggressive posture toward Taiwan, Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and its lack of transparency in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak.
All of this also comes as the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China has come to a standstill, with two years of tit-for-tat tariffs escalating tensions and hurting both economies.
The contentious trade war, which the administration unofficially began in March 2018, has come to define the complicated relationship between the two countries, with the White House clearly stating that the U.S. would prioritize competition over cooperation with China.
However, Larsen disagrees with this zero-sum approach, saying there are issues like climate change that must be addressed by both sides.
“The two largest economies in the world are going to have to find ways to eventually cooperate on issues while recognizing there are areas where we’re competing,” the congressman said.
Larsen said the heightened tensions with China have shifted the U.S. political landscape. He sees three new groups emerging, with no clear partisan lines: one-time security hawks who have turned into “punishers” favoring sanctions, “decouplers” hoping to sever the Chinese and U.S.; economies; and “salvagers,” who argue that despite China’s malign behavior, the world’s two largest economies must cooperate on areas such as nuclear proliferation.
Larsen said he and his Republican counterpart, Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.), who is also member of the U.S.-China Working Group, belong in the salvagers camp.
Speaking at the USIP briefing, LaHood said the current rivalry needs a dose a realism. He argued that decoupling the world’s two largest economies and severing closely intertwined supply chains is costly, complicated and difficult.
LaHood also said tariffs are not the solution because U.S. companies benefit from, and rely on, China’s enormous middle class of 500 million consumers.
The two countries had moved toward a possible resolution in their trade war, signing a phase one deal Jan. 15. It stipulated that that the U.S. would cut its existing tariffs on China by 50%, so long as China increased its purchases of American products by $2 billion over the next two years.
Just two weeks later, however, tensions exploded as the novel coronavirus spread rapidly across China and the Trump administration barred all travel from non-U.S. citizens who recently visited the mainland.
Tensions again flared after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, with the U.S. and China pointing fingers at the other over their handling of the pandemic.
“What has happened post-COVID has affected our relationship with China,” said LaHood. “There’s much more animosity and anxiety, and it is palpable.”
LaHood said Congress has passed around 350 bipartisan resolutions on China since the pandemic hit the U.S., with both Democrats and Republicans seeking to hold China accountable for its “deceitfulness” and “lack of transparency.”
“That has bled into a lot of other issues related to national security,” LaHood said. “We are in somewhat of uncharted territory with China.”
Part of this unknown terrain includes a new law China passed recently criminalizing disloyalty to the Communist Party in Hong Kong. LaHood called the effort to crack down on pro-democracy in Hong Kong and China’s larger human rights violations “distressing.”
Congress has responded to China’s reported human rights abuses against its Muslim Uyghur minority — which has been forced into detention and “re-education” camps — with increased sanctions on Chinese officials. (Beijing has threatened retaliatory action against the U.S.)
Human rights abuses are areas in which the Trump administration should be getting involved —by teaming up with other countries, according to Larsen. The Democrat said he wants to see outreach from the Trump administration to “like-minded” global allies to address ongoing concerns with China.
“Global problems don’t go away even if the United States backs away from it or takes an approach where only the U.S. is trying to address them … in a U.S.-only way,” Larsen said.
LaHood agreed. “The ‘going at it alone’ approach — which arguably this administration has done — there are consequences to that. I think we’re seeing that in some of these instances where we need our allies,” he said.
One course of action could be cobbling together a sanctions regime, recruiting several countries to impose sanctions on China until certain priorities are met, Larsen suggested, arguing that sanctions by a single country are less effective.
The success of such a multilateral campaign, he said, would depend on the ability of the U.S. to get other countries on board.
“Just because China wants to suppress human rights as a matter of policy,” Larsen said, “does not mean either the U.S. or like-minded countries have to accept that.”
Cami Mondeaux is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.