Beware Beijing, A Hawk is Circling
When describing China’s future in 1925, U.S. Senator William Borah (R-ID), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), said, “There is no power which can master [China] or hold them in subjection.” Today, instead, the discussion is whether any nation can hold back a China bent on subjecting others. New SFRC chairman, Jim Risch, (R-ID) is a China hawk that intends to focus the powerful committee on addressing and confronting China’s belligerent economic and military behavior, and Beijing should be ready to face the consequences.
With the power to guide foreign policy legislation and debate in the Senate, hold UN and State Department nomination hearings, and scrutinize U.S. foreign aid and military assistance, the SFRC is both a tool and platform to craft, support, and critique U.S. foreign policy. Assigned to the SFRC after his 2008 election, Risch – a former Idaho state senator, two-time Idaho Lieutenant Governor, and Idaho Governor – developed a reputation as a supporter of economic and military pressure on North Korea, Russia, Iran, and China.
As his constituents fell victim to harmful Chinese actions, however, Risch’s focus centered on China. In 2016, a China-backed chip maker and Taiwanese semiconductor company stole trade secrets worth $8.75 billion from Idaho-based Micron Technology, the second-largest U.S. semiconductor chip maker, and then sued Micron for patent infringement in Chinese courts. Risch and Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) wrote a letter detailing the economic espionage and lawsuit to U.S. President Donald Trump.
With his anticipated SFRC chair election approaching, Risch continued to reinforce the China threat. Citing not only repeated Russian violations but also “new strategic threats from a rising China,” he supported Trump’s call for withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which some analysts said limited U.S. capabilities against China’s expanding intermediate-range missile arsenal.
Risch’s stance on China has hardened further after his chairmanship election. Even as Idaho faces the largest economic risks of all U.S. states from the U.S.-China trade war, Risch supports Trump’s tactics in halting China’s bellicose economic policies: “Well there’s always short term pain when you’re elbowing to get a leg up on the opposition…In this particular case, the pain that’s being felt is significantly more in China than it is in the United States right now.”
Risch added that Chinese challenges supersede Russian risks. “The largest concern of ours should be China,” he responded to a question on the Russian threat. “If they [China] continue to go down ways that are not in keeping with the rule of law, that is a serious, serious problem that we got to counter.”
At the February 27 “Assessing the Role of the United States in the World” hearing, Risch’s inaugural statement as SFRC chairman previewed his priority of confronting China’s economic conduct, a sensitive matter for Beijing. “It’s no secret that China seeks to surpass us both economically and militarily. One of the primary ways that they have attempted to do this is by stealing our technology and intellectual property,” he said. “In order to compete on a global scale, there must be adherence to rule of law, that is paramount…This is a serious threat to our national interest and to the interest of our allies and friends.” In turn, China can expect Risch to lead SFRC legislation targeting Chinese companies’ theft of American intellectual property.
Moreover, Risch may concentrate on another issue critical to Beijing: U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. China-Taiwan relations expert, Dr. Elizabeth Freund Larus, indicated in The Diplomat that she expects Risch “to keenly follow developments on Taiwan,” which may result in his past support of arms sales to Taiwan transforming into an SFRC objective. Such legislation marshaled by Risch and the SFRC will defy China who “is firmly opposed to any country to have any military links with Taiwan.”
While Republican heavy hitters – Marco Rubio (R-FL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Mitt Romney (R-UT) – and influential Democrats on the SFRC have opposed aspects of Trump’s foreign policy, SFRC bipartisan consensus on the China threat will enable Risch to pilot legislation rebutting Chinese economic espionage and increasing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
The U.S. Congress and Trump, who has repeatedly attacked China, have also reached consensus on the need to counter aggressive Chinese behavior. Passed by landslide votes in the Senate and House of Representatives and signed into law by Trump, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act urges the U.S. “to combat intellectual property violations and commercial cyber-enabled theft…in the People’s Republic of China” and to “conduct regular transfers of defense articles to Taiwan that are tailored to meet the existing and likely future threats from the People’s Republic of China.” A whole-of-government consensus on China guarantees Risch will play a decisive role as SFRC chairman in addressing and confronting China’s hostile economic and military behavior.
In 1925, Chairman Borah predicted that no power could cripple the nascent Chinese nation. Now, alongside a circling flock of China hawks in Washington, Risch seeks to sink the SFRC’s talons into Beijing and prove Borah wrong.
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