Illustration: Craig Stephens
David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh

After the US midterm elections, don’t count on a Democratic Congress to soften Trump’s hard line on China

  • David Shambaugh says a confrontational bipartisan consensus towards China has taken shape, as antipathy grows across different sectors of US society
  • Until Beijing changes its repressive and aggressive policies and actions, the new American hard line can be expected to endure
With the all-important US midterm elections nearing, and the prospect that Democrats will take control of the House and possibly the Senate, many are wondering if such a change would herald any substantive change in the Trump administration’s or American policy towards China.

It is very unlikely that the election outcome will appreciably change the hardline China policy. The reason is because there now exists a quite strong bipartisan consensus for pursuing a toughened China policy.

Not only have Democrats and Republicans in Congress found consensus on the underlying rationale and elements of a hardened China policy, but it spans various professional sectors across the country.

If anything, if the Democrats take control of Congress (or even one house) the policy is likely to become ever tougher – as Democrats will push the Trump administration to be much more critical of China’s human rights abuses and increased repression.

They may well find a willing administration, as Vice-President Mike Pence’s recent speech on China contained numerous criticisms of human rights transgressions.
Without much notice, in recent years, a new national and bipartisan consensus was taking shape in the United States, but particularly inside the Beltway in Washington. The emerging consensus had to do with the progressively increasing difficulties felt by many sectors of American society vis-à-vis China.

Watch: US Vice-President Mike Pence accuses China of meddling in US elections

The US military and security community has long been concerned about China’s military modernisation and expanding footprint in Asia and across the Indo-Pacific. American (and other foreign) businesses have felt increasingly squeezed and discriminated against.
Foreign NGOs felt the constraining impact of China’s new NGO law, and many abandoned working in China. Academics find it increasingly difficult to do normal scholarly research in China as archives, libraries, interviews, fieldwork and other opportunities have become increasingly circumscribed.

China’s internal security services increasingly keep foreigners under surveillance, and entry visas have been tightened. China’s increasing presence on the world stage began to bump up against the US in regions where China had never been before. And, finally, since 2017, concerns began to grow about China’s “influence activities” inside the US and other countries.

For all of these reasons and in all of these disparate professional sectors, a broad-gauge reaction against China has been building for several years.

This represents a new consensus – an anti-China consensus – in America. It is important to recognise that this trend has developed progressively and over time – not overnight.

Donald Trump tapped into this growing anti-China sentiment during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Once in office, his administration flushed out the national security strategy and national defence strategy documents – both of which labelled China, explicitly for the first time, a “strategic competitor” of the US.

Subsequently, the Trump administration has been formulating a “whole of government” and “whole of society” response to dealing with China toughly across a wide range of issue areas.

The toughened policies of the Trump administration are mirrored, and backed up, in Congress, which is pushing back against China across a broad range of issues: Chinese investment and particularly attempted acquisitions of hi-tech companies and assets; technology theft and forced technology transfer; commercial and national security espionage; so-called “influence activities” on university campuses and in civil society; penetrating Chinese-American communities and buying up Chinese-language media; harassment of Chinese citizens in the US; Beijing’s expanding global influence and propaganda; its robust military modernisation programme and naval build-up; Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative; and other perceived challenges to the US.

The 116th Congress may get even tougher on these and other issues.

Efforts to counter many of these alleged transgressions by China’s governmental agencies were recently wrapped together in the National Defence Authorisation Act for the fiscal year 2019, passed with strong bipartisan support in Congress and signed into law by Trump in August.

This annual law, and many more China-related pieces of legislation now pending in Congress, share strange political bedfellows from across the political aisle.

Republican senators like Marco Rubio of Florida and John Cornyn of Texas find common concern and partner with Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Charles Schumer of New York and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Similar cross-party anti-China political alliances exist in the House of Representatives.

Senator Marco Rubio has been one of the most outspoken critics of China in Congress, but hardly the only one. Photo: AP

With such deep antipathy towards China in the Trump administration and Congress, a real bipartisan consensus has not only emerged – it will probably be impossible to change, barring a reversal of the Xi regime’s internally repressive and mercantilist economic practices.

The history of the past five decades shows clearly that only when China is perceived to be liberalising internally and working with the US externally can a positive bipartisan consensus in favour of cooperation with Beijing be forged.

There are some American China specialists who are arguing for re-engagement and stepped-up cooperation with Beijing, but their voices and arguments are not resonating very much in the current anti-China climate in Washington.

Absent a substantial reversal of Chinese policies and actions in a far more liberal direction domestically and more restrained direction externally, the new American hard line on China can be expected to endure indefinitely.

David Shambaugh is professor and director of the China Policy Program at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.