- Bipartisan calls for a response to China’s growing power are driving two major new bills in the Senate and House.
- Both are forceful responses, but they present critical choices as to how extreme the turn in the US’s China policy will be.
- Michael D. Swaine is director of the Quincy Institute’s East Asia program. Marcus Stanley is the Quincy Institute’s advocacy director.
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Under Donald Trump, the beltway’s view of China shifted from one of relative complacency to one verging on alarmism.
The bipartisan consensus on the need for a significant response to the rise of Chinese power has now driven major new China legislation in both the Senate and House. While both bills are forceful responses to China’s increasing power, they present critical choices as to how extreme the turn in America’s China policy will be.
The Senate bill on China (the Strategic Competition Act or SCA, which recently passed as part of S.1260, larger China legislation) is full of inflammatory assertions about Chinese motives and intentions. It contains changes in policy that would significantly increase the chances of a conflict with Beijing.
Prominent among these are measures and rhetoric that appear to create a fundamental change in US policy toward Taiwan.
Despite a throw-away line about not violating the US “One China” policy, the bill asserts a vital US interest in keeping Taiwan separate from China. The legislation would thus undermine long-standing policies that have allowed the US to navigate relations with both Taiwan and China since 1979 without confrontation or conflict.
The bill would ban the State Department and other agencies from restricting the ability of US government officials to interact “directly and routinely” with the government of Taiwan, as well as force the State Department to change other diplomatic protocols toward Taiwan.
The bill clearly implies that a separate Taiwan is a vital US national security interest, and even critical to the defense of Hawaii. It also calls for joint US military training and exercises with the Taiwan military, an unprecedented step which would directly escalate tensions in the Taiwan strait.
Such fundamental changes in US policy not only risk military conflict, but also make progress with China more difficult in every area of mutual concern, including trade, climate change, and managing future pandemics.
The SCA goes well beyond anything the Biden Administration, which has explicitly signaled its desire to maintain long-standing Taiwan policy, has been willing to do. These measures are presumably designed to deter Beijing from aggressive measures against Taiwan by showing how much the US values the island.
But abandoning the “One China” policy would do the opposite, backing China into a corner where it might see no alternative to the use of force. Moreover, there is no conclusive evidence that China has decided to seize Taiwan by force.
Under Xi Jinping, China has not fundamentally changed its strong preference to unify with Taiwan through long-term political pressure and intimidation, not outright military invasion.
In fact, Gen. Mark Milley, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just informed Congress in public testimony that China does not currently have either the intent or the capacity to conquer Taiwan by force.
In the absence of an explicit Chinese shift toward military force, the measures in the SCA risk escalation and triggering more aggressive Chinese actions, up to and including a war with the United States over the independence of Taiwan. Such an increase in tensions would clearly increase the threat to the people of Taiwan and US allies in the region.
Fortunately, the House counterpart to the Strategic Competition Act, the EAGLE Act (H.R.3524), introduced by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory Meeks, addresses the same issues but in a way that is much less likely to escalate tensions in Asia.
Like the SCA, the EAGLE Act explicitly recognizes Taiwan as a “vital part of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy” and expresses support for Taiwan in numerous ways. But it does not contain provisions that would force the US government to reverse decades-old diplomatic protocols with respect to Taiwan and move toward a commitment to militarily oppose unification.
Like the SCA, the EAGLE Act contains a wide range of policy statements and findings asserting the US commitment to prevent Chinese dominance of the Indo-Pacific region and support Taiwan and our allies there, as well as to compete with China in other regions of the world.
The EAGLE Act, however, also states that the US and China should “work to reduce the risk of conflict,” improve military-to-military communication to ” assist in crisis management, and “strengthen stability and reduce suspicions” by cooperating with China where interests align.
While the EAGLE Act sets out an aggressive posture in the Indo-Pacific, it grants the executive branch flexibility to manage the relationship with China in ways that will not escalate military tensions, alienate potential allies in the region, or undermine the possibility of diplomatic progress on issues of mutual concern.
Predictably the common sense balance struck in the EAGLE Act has already led some to attack it as being “soft.”
Reportedly, Chair Meeks is under heavy pressure from China hawks in the House to incorporate measures from the Senate bill, especially those that reverse the multi-decade US policy with respect to Taiwan. Congress should follow Chairman Meeks’ leadership and reject this course.
The United States is at an inflection point regarding our relationship with China. There is widespread consensus that significant changes are needed. But those changes can happen in extreme ways that will endanger our Pacific allies and regional peace and development by triggering a cycle of escalation with China, or they can occur in a way that signals that the US is willing to pursue a moderate course if China does.
While it is being conducted behind closed doors and has received little public attention, the current conflict between House and Senate over how far to go in our Taiwan policies is one of the key places this choice will be made.
Michael D. Swaine, director of Quincy Institute’s East Asia program, is one of the most prominent American scholars of Chinese security studies and the author of more than a dozen books and monographs about China.
Marcus Stanley is the Advocacy Director of the Quincy Institute.