Normally, the election of a speaker of the US House of Representatives doesn’t make much news, but not this year. After four days of voting and 15 ballots, Republican Kevin McCarthy was elected speaker in the early hours of last Saturday. To get over the top, McCarthy gave into a long list of demands from far-right members of his paper-thin Republican majority.
Starting Monday this week, the new Republican majority began exerting its control over the House. Votes on the rules package, the establishment of select committees, and symbolic bills destined to go nowhere broke tightly along party lines, giving the Republicans a series of narrow victories.
One vote, however, stood out because of its overwhelming bipartisan support. By a vote of 365 to 65, the House approved the establishment of a select committee to focus on the sharpening economic and security competition between the US and China. The official name of the committee is “United States House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.” A select committee is a special committee established to address a specific issue. Unlike standing committees, select committees disband once their work is done.
The establishment of a select committee on China by a strongly bipartisan vote in a sharply divided House is big news because it means gives both parties a cause to rally behind. Representatives can use the vote to show their constituents that they can go beyond partisan bickering and work with the other party. This is particularly important for representatives in closely divided districts where independent voters decide elections.
The committee also helps US President Joe Biden by allowing him to argue that his increasingly strident tone on China has bipartisan support in Congress. Though Biden’s rhetoric has not been as harsh as his predecessor Donald Trump’s, Biden has continued many of Trump’s tariffs and has become increasingly hawkish on China by imposing restrictions on Chinese technology. At the end of December, for example, Biden signed a bill, sent to him from the previous Democratic-controlled Congress, that banned the use of TikTok on federal government devices. This year, the Biden administration is planning to roll out new restrictions on Chinese investment and high-tech.
Meanwhile, down in Florida, “Trumpish” Governor Ron DeSantis, who is now considered the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president in 2024, is considering a bill banning Chinese citizens from buying farmland and housing in Florida. DeSantis said that “We don’t want to have holdings by hostile nations.” Trump himself comes in next behind DeSantis in most evaluations of the race for the nomination, has already established his anti-China credentials, making is likely that an anti-China Republican will be the nominee.
By the time that select committee finishes it work, the 2024 election cycle will be in full swing. With bipartisan support behind it, its hearings and recommendations will no doubt bolster the deepening critique of China. In December, then speaker-to-be McCarthy and Rep. Mike Gallagher, now head of the select committee, wrote on the “Fox News” website, “To win the new Cold War, we must respond to Chinese aggression with tough policies ….”
A Cold War between the US and China of the sort that lasted nearly 50 years between the US and the Soviet Union creates immense stress for the world. In Cold War I, the competitors used state power at will to compete directly and indirectly with each other. Proxy wars were fought, nations were divided, client states were built, and generations grew up with the fear of nuclear annihilation. The division of Korea into two hostile, competing states is a product of Cold War I.
Cold War II is about to begin, but it doesn’t have to. The great Athenian historian Thucydides identified three causes of war: honor, fear and national interest. This applies to cold wars, too, and all these elements are pushing the US and China toward Cold War II. Of the three, fear is running strongest and driving political decisions.
The national interest of both sides, however, continues to support a stable relationship based on economic interest. Both nations need each other more than their leaders are willing to admit. China will soon face a demographic crisis that will stunt its rise. The US is already embroiled in a cold war with Russia, and can ill afford another. Both sides need to pull back and focus on their long-term interests rather than political theater of the moment.