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Senate Foreign Relations Committee: China Consensus

Just hours before the U.S. Senate passionately diverged on American foreign policy in Yemen last Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) fervently converged on American foreign policy on China during their “A New Approach for an Era of U.S.-China Competition” hearing. Republican and Democrat senators issued scathing attacks on China’s behavior and proposed countering those actions through regional alliances and partnerships and bipartisan legislation.

Holding the power to guide Senate foreign policy legislation and debate, the SFRC rebuked China’s economic, political, and military conduct. Senators’ statements and questions probed China’s trade practices, state-backed companies, intellectual property theft, espionage, mass incarceration of Uyghurs, cyber capabilities, the militarization of the South China Sea, and Confucius Institutes.

“China steals our intellectual property…intimidates its neighbors…exports corruption and its authoritarian model…uses cheap financing as a debt trap and has built a police state,” the new SFRC chairman, Senator Jim Risch (R-ID), said in his opening statement.

SFRC ranking member and steadfast critic of President Trump, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), concurred stating that “Xi Jinping has overseen the emergence of a neo-Maoist authoritarian model and a total surveillance state.” He added, “I agree with President Trump when it comes to recognizing the scope of the challenge that China presents to the United States and to the entire international order.”

Despite Trump disputing the importance of U.S. alliances such as NATO, Republican committee members agreed with their Democrat counterparts and repeatedly asserted the importance of U.S. allies and partners in rebuffing China. “The strength of the United State is found in our alliances and partnerships,” Risch underscored. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), who sponsored the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) that emphasizes Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships, said, “In order to deal with an assertive China, we first and foremost need a stronger network of allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.”

Noting the consensus on the China challenge, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) said, “[S]urely this committee can and should work together with our Administration to develop a sustained and bipartisan strategy for dealing with China.” Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) echoed, “[W]e have to work in a bipartisan basis to continue to deal with this China threat.”

Committee members also aimed to garner bipartisan support for already introduced legislation that counteracts China’s aggressive efforts. Senator Todd Young (R-IN) explained the merits of his National Economic Security Strategy legislation, which would scrutinize and combat “predatory economic practices by China and others,” and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) reviewed his Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act that aims to “address foreign threats to higher education” like Confucius Institutes.

Notably, Coons stated that he “hope[s] to be introducing…legislation soon” that implements recommendations of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report. Such legislation would include enhancing “consultations [with U.S. allies and partners] on mitigating the export of dual-use technology to China,” requiring the Director of National Intelligence to analyze impacts of China’s Belt and Road facilities on “freedom of navigation and sea control,” and various other steps aimed at thoroughly parrying China’s behavior.

The SFRC consensus on China coincides with broader U.S. government agreement on the China threat. With Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) – a vocal critic of China’s human rights abuses, economic practices, and conduct in the South China Sea – as the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a U.S. president who has repeatedly attacked China, future SFRC legislation confronting China will very likely receive bipartisan support from both the Senate and House of Representatives and be signed into law by Trump.

“As we enter a new era of relations with China, we must be clear-eyed and honest about the challenges ahead,” Risch said. The SFRC appears not only clear-eyed and honest on the China challenge but also in consensus on working with regional allies and partners and developing legislation to comprehensively confront China’s behavior.