The Committee that Ended the Age of Engagement?

The U.S. Congress’ special China committee has a packed agenda for the few months left this term. But its most consequential work may be done: a more confrontational U.S. policy towards China.

Set up at the start of last year in the House of Representatives, the Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party has racked up notable successes in its brief existence. Its scrutiny put Wall Street and Silicon Valley on notice to police their investments into China. Its investigations showed that Chinese tax programs support the export of ingredients for fentanyl, and got the Department of Homeland Security to step up inspections of small packages, tightening a loophole potentially used to import goods made with forced labor in Xinjiang.

On the legislative front, the panel’s leading members helped craft the law that will force TikTok’s Chinese owner to sell or shut down the platform in the U.S. if the company is not successful in challenging it.

The Select Committee accomplished much of this via a parade of livestreamed hearings, published reports, and publicized letters requesting information from big-name American companies like Apple and BlackRock. The Committee managed this with a bipartisanship that is rare in Washington. The panel’s founding chairman, Republican Mike Gallagher, and leading Democrat, Raja Krishnamoorthi, often appeared to act and speak in lockstep. And that gave the Committee greater credibility in Washington.

The Biden White House and State Department often crafted China policies—from investment restrictions to diplomatic initiatives—with an eye on the Committee. American companies have particularly dreaded the panel’s focus on how their China businesses might be compromising U.S. national security. One business representative likened the committee’s inquiries to falling under the “eye of Sauron.”

In sum, the Committee, with its bipartisanship and use of the public spotlight, has helped shift Washington’s political consensus on Beijing. China, with its large economy and military and technological ambitions, is now more firmly rooted as a global rival that requires an aggressive U.S. response, whether it’s more arms for Taiwan or more restrictions on technology exports.

Policies that long held broad political support and that underpinned U.S.-China ties—like the normal, low-tariff trade treatment Washington grants China and most other countries—are now up for debate; the Committee has recommended revoking the trade status, getting Democrats to join with Republican trade skeptics. Members of Congress are questioning the efficacy of diplomatic engagement with Beijing.

James Mann, the author of several books on U.S. policy toward China, says that prior to the Committee’s existence, members of Congress largely took part either in partisan critiques of administration policy toward Beijing or in efforts to defend “the rapidly fading era of engagement.”

“The significance of the Select Committee was that with it, Congress began to break out of these patterns,” says Mann, who is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “The Committee was able to achieve some bipartisan consensus—not always, but frequently enough. And it was able to focus on policy and strategy amid the rhetoric.”

A shift in the U.S. toward a less compromising approach to China was underway years before the Committee’s founding. Many in Washington credit that change above all to Xi Jinping, the more assertive course he has charted for China abroad, and the greater repression he has overseen at home. The Trump administration opened a trade war with China to combat what it saw as Beijing’s unfair trade practices. It and later the Biden administration issued national security strategies that singled out China as intent on disrupting the global order. President Biden has sustained the Trump tariffs and added more of them.

American public perceptions have soured on China. A survey from the Pew Research Center released in May shows that for the fifth year in a row more than three quarters of Americans hold unfavorable views on China.

The Committee has contributed to shaping those views. It has moved what political science wonks call the “Overton window”—the range of publicly acceptable options—in favor of more hawkish policies on China. That likely presages a bumpier, more confrontational U.S.-China relationship than the already unsteady, friction-filled state of current relations.

Jessica Chen Weiss, a political scientist who spent a year working at the State Department and who has become a prominent critic of Washington’s gelling hardline consensus on China, says the Committee has “supercharged” efforts in Congress and in states to pass legislation and other measures about China.

“It’s the most prominent example of a broader trend in the U.S. Congress to take up China as America’s greatest threat, and not appreciate some of the challenges with treating it in that way,” says Chen Weiss, a professor at Cornell University. She cites a need to talk with Beijing to avoid conflict over Taiwan, for example, or enlist Chinese help to stanch the flow of chemicals Mexican cartels use to make synthetic opioids.

In contrast, Gallagher and the other members of the Committee believe that talking too much to Beijing is part of the problem. Gallagher, who stepped down from Congress in April and who didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article, has argued that the U.S. must recognize that it is engaged in a Cold War with China in order to muster the resources and policies to deter Beijing and avoid a hot war.

“Victory requires openly admitting that a totalitarian regime that commits genocide, fuels conflict, and threatens war will never be a reliable partner,” Gallagher wrote in an essay in Foreign Affairs in April, co-authored with Matt Pottinger, a former deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration and a member of what Gallagher has referred to as his “brain trust” on China.

The essay criticizes the Biden administration’s efforts over the past two years to stabilize relations in Beijing, saying its emphasis on high-level talks risks prizing process over outcomes. They call for sharply higher defense spending, including an extra $20 billion a year for five years devoted to deterrence in the Taiwan Strait.

Gallagher’s departure deprives the Select Committee of its most prominent exponent. Bipartisan cooperation is likely to become harder the closer November’s general election becomes. It’s not clear if the committee will be renewed in the next Congress, especially if Democrats win back control of the House.

Still, the committee has investigations and hearings in the pipeline that will ensure it remains a force for the coming months. The current chairman, Michigan Republican John Moolenaar, is trying to sustain Gallagher’s momentum. He has laid out an agenda focused on military deterrence, restrictions on American investments in China, and combating Beijing’s influence operations in the U.S. He has talked of possibly rolling a series of China bills into a single legislative package. Such a move would generate media attention, making it difficult for legislators who oppose the measures and want to buck the consensus on China.

Backers say the Committee’s widely credited bipartisan approach is politically necessary to meet the magnitude of the challenge China presents. On a practical level, the Committee has no power to legislate, so its recommendations are more likely to be taken up by legislating committees if they carry both Democratic and Republican support.

Putting American business on the backfoot also weakened a powerful group that long advocated for stable ties between the two largest economies. At the Committee’s first public hearing, Gallagher called out the Communist Party’s “friends on Wall Street, in Fortune 500 C-suites, and on K Street who are ready and willing to oppose efforts to push back.”

Having a dedicated committee to work on China issues was largely the brainchild of Gallagher, a former Marine intelligence officer with a Ph.D. in Cold War strategy. A few weeks into the Committee’s work last year, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Democrat minority leader Hakeem Jeffries called its members in and endorsed the need for bipartisanship.

Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi largely hewed to that spirit. Hearings and investigations mainly bore down on China’s actions, rather than on administration policies and shortcomings, which often are the focus of congressional oversight committees that tend toward divisiveness.

Doing so helped carve out a middle ground centered on China as a challenge.

“Our committee’s work suggests that there is a growing bipartisan consensus around the nature of the threat and the need to attack it with more urgency and creativity,” Gallagher said on the American Foreign Policy Council’s Great Power Podcast in March, a few weeks before stepping down.

How the U.S. should respond to challenges presented by China, however, is more contentious. When the committee was compiling a report on economic competition, some Democrats nearly revolted when Gallagher and other Republicans wanted to recommend that the U.S. revoke permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China. In the end, enough Democrats, some of whom initially balked over the consequences of such a move, went along to support its inclusion.

“We think that there should be a recognition that we are not in the world of free trade with China anymore,” Krishnamoorthi said in an interview. He notes that Beijing’s economic policies have already prompted tariffs, sanctions, and other penalties from successive U.S. presidents. “We’re kind of in a situation where we should just call a spade a spade, and note that hopefully, we can return back to the PNTR regime. But that’s not where we are right now.”

Much of the jostling in the Committee and on Capitol Hill is over how aggressive Washington should be towards Beijing. Gallagher and other Republicans have pushed for the Biden administration to maintain pressure on Beijing through “competitive actions.” The Washington term covers sanctions, diplomatic maneuverings, and other measures that they say would put the U.S. in a stronger position but that detractors say could lead to dangerous destabilization.

A consistent dissenter has been Andy Kim, a former State Department officer and New Jersey Democrat in the House now the Democratic nominee for senate. He was the lone “no” when the Committee approved a series of recommendations last year to provide more weapons to Taiwan, increase security ties with the island, and beef up the American military in the region.

In a rush to confront Beijing, he says, Republicans on the Committee often forget about raising U.S. competitiveness. He chides them for not voting for the Chips and Science Act, though the landmark Biden initiative’s centerpiece committed $50 billion to revive a leading-edge U.S. semiconductor industry.

“Some of my colleagues think that we are on the potential precipice of war,” Kim says. “When you think that war is something that is likely and could happen very soon, that just puts you at a very different place, in terms of posture.”