As the Biden administration made clear that it would adopt many aspects of the Trump administration’s approach to China, it seemed as though a new bipartisan consensus had emerged on countering Beijing.
And to a large extent, one has. Both parties have begun emphasizing the need to push back on the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to exercise more influence in the world. The Senate has passed a massive bipartisan legislative package that would reform and grant funding to U.S. technological research and development to that end. The Senate bill, despite its many faults and omissions, has the backing of Democrats and Republicans working in concert to meet the geopolitical challenge of the moment.
But unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the House’s companion legislation. The House Foreign Affairs Committee last week held markup sessions on the EAGLE Act, a China bill conceived by the panel’s Democrats to mirror the parts of the Senate package that don’t involve technology. (The House already passed legislation mirroring the Senate bill’s provisions on scientific research funding last month.)
For all the bipartisan agreement on certain fundamental aspects of China policy — particularly Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang — there remain significant schisms between the two parties about how to address the challenge. “Unfortunately, Democrats passed up the opportunity to work on a meaningful, bipartisan legislation to counter the threats of the Chinese Communist Party and instead made it another green energy bill,” said Representative Michael McCaul, the panel’s top Republican.
In addition to their complaints that the EAGLE Act puts money into an unaccountable U.N. climate fund, McCaul and his colleagues charge that Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks and other Democrats are rushing through the bill despite its failure to address the CCP’s egregious behavior on the international stage. In response, these Republican critics have proposed a dizzying number of amendments — the committee’s website lists 98 — to toughen the House legislation, which is essentially guaranteed to pass out of the Democratic-controlled committee. But their proposals, for the most part, will not make it into the final bill.
Starting last Wednesday, a series of committee meetings yielded hours of quick, sometimes acrimonious debate on the dozens of amendments that Republican members put forward. The conversation did not always remain cordial. On Thursday afternoon, debate on a measure to penalize the NBA for kowtowing to the CCP’s position on Hong Kong and other human-rights issues sparked a clash over procedure, offering some telling insight into where the China debate currently stands in Congress.
“We’re getting a lot of proposals that are you know — that are hortatory, that are not effective, that are gonna keep us here for hours and hours and days and days at a time, but that are actually not well thought through as legislation,” said Representative Tom Malinowski, a Democrat who has led the way on a number of measures to address Beijing’s behavior. He pointed out that a separate bill under consideration would already have the effects Republicans seek. Given that there were nearly 100 amendments put up by the committee’s members, Malinowski’s criticism was likely fair in some cases.
But Republicans Andy Barr and Mark Green offered a riposte: If Democrats are serious about bipartisan action on these issues, why did party leadership decline to appoint anyone to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s China Task Force and a panel investigating the coronavirus’s origins? (Both efforts are now steered exclusively by Republican members and don’t have the same powers that they would have if they’d been blessed by House leadership.)
“If you really don’t like a bill, that might mean that there might be a lot of amendments to try to make it a better bill to fit your side. To suggest that there’s some kind of tactic here — you got a 600-page bill, and you don’t like a lot about it, that might mean there’s a lot of amendments, and you might want to record a vote on it,” said Green, about Republican demands for roll-call votes that extended the duration of debate.
Later, a Republican aide put it more bluntly to National Review: “The markup wouldn’t have taken so long if they hadn’t dropped such a terrible bill.”
And Republicans tried to make it better. They really did.
The EAGLE Act currently fails to do much about malign Chinese influence networks operating in Western democracies. One amendment, proposed by Representative Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), would have created new sanctions to target the Party’s shadowy “United Front” network, which seeks to coopt the Chinese diaspora abroad, foreign elites, and minorities and business leaders within China to do Beijing’s bidding. A blockbuster report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute explained the impact of the network on the world’s democracies last year: “This undermines social cohesion, exacerbates racial tension, influences politics, harms media integrity, facilitates espionage, and increases unsupervised technology transfer.” The United Front has been so effective that Xi Jinping has used Mao Zedong’s formulation in referring to it as a “magic weapon.”
Like many of the other measures rejected last week, Wilson’s amendment to the bill is a no-brainer, but Democrats opposed it. “The malign descriptor is undefined, and the broad generalities contained in this amendment leaves [sic] such sanctions open to significant politicization and ambiguity,” Meeks said. But the sanctions would have been required to meet a restrictive five-pronged test, making it all but impossible to wield them against anyone but participants in United Front efforts.
That Democrats would oppose such an innocuous and important amendment suggests that they’re not interested in strong efforts to counter some of the essential parts of the Party’s strategy. It’s certainly encouraging that, say, calling out China’s Uyghur genocide has broad bipartisan support, but the consensus, at least in the House, is pretty limited beyond that, backing Taiwan, and some other core issues.
That was illustrated when Democratic members spoke out against a number of Republican amendments that would prohibit new EAGLE Act funding for the U.N. Green Climate Fund from being sent to China, where forced labor plays a significant role in solar-panel supply chains. They also opposed amendments that, among other things, would pull federal assistance from the production of films that honor Chinese requests for political censorship, crack down on U.S. exports of sensitive technology, and require the executive branch to put together a report identifying Chinese nationals involved in fentanyl trafficking.
It’s true that some of the Republican proposals, such as a Wilson-authored amendment concerning China’s ties with Iran, won adoption. But the debate over the EAGLE Act suggests that while Democrats in Congress are happy to talk tough on China, too few of them are up to the task of crafting concrete measures to confront the threats Beijing poses to the global order.