New China committee debuts, warns of 'existential struggle'

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The Associated Press

From left are Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, Tong Yi, a human rights activist, H.R. McMaster, a former national security adviser to President Donald Trump, and Matthew Pottinger, a former deputy national security adviser to President Donald Trump, are sworn in as a special House committee dedicated to countering China holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – A special House committee dedicated to countering China began its work Tuesday with a prime-time hearing in which the panel's chairman called on lawmakers to act with urgency and framed the competition between the U.S. and China as “an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century.”

While some critics have expressed concern the hearings could escalate U.S.-Chinese tensions, lawmakers sought to demonstrate unity and the panel's top Democrat made clear that he doesn't want a “clash of civilizations” but a durable peace.

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Tensions between the U.S. and China have been rising for years, with both countries enacting retaliatory tariffs on an array of imports during President Donald Trump’s time in office. China’s opaque response to the COVID-19 pandemic, its aggression toward Taiwan and the recent flight of a possible spy balloon over the U.S. have fueled lawmakers’ desire to do more to counter the Chinese government. The new Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party is expected to be at the center of many of their efforts over the next two years.

The committee's chairman, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., opened the hearing with a call for action. Addressing the difficulty of finding common ground on China-focused legislation, he said the Chinese government has found friends on Wall Street and in lobbyists on Washington's K Street who are ready to oppose the committee's efforts.

“Time is not on our side. Just because this Congress is divided, we cannot afford to waste the next two years lingering in legislative limbo or pandering for the press,” Gallagher said. “We must act with a sense of urgency.”

Gallagher is looking for the committee to shepherd several bills over the finish line during the next two years and issue a set of recommendations on long-term policies. So far, Gallagher appears to have Democratic buy-in and support. The vote to create the committee was bipartisan, 365-65.

Opponents on the Democratic side largely voiced the concern that the committee could stir an even greater rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. Gallagher said he is committed to ensuring the focus is on the Chinese Communist Party, not on the people of China.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., the ranking Democrat on the committee, said both Republicans and Democrats have underestimated the Chinese Communist Party. He said its goal is to pursue economic and trade policies that undermine the U.S. economy.

“We do not want a war with the (People's Republic of China), not a cold war, not a hot war,” Krishnamoorthi said. “We don't want a clash of civilizations. But we seek a durable peace and that is why we have to deter aggression.”

The hearing was interrupted by two protesters, one saying, “this committee is about saber rattling, it’s not about peace.” Both were ushered out by police.

The witnesses for Tuesday's hearing included two former advisers to Trump: Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser who resigned immediately after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; and H.R. McMaster, who was national security adviser from February 2017 to April 2018.

McMaster and Pottinger delivered sweeping assessments of what they said was the challenge the United States was facing from China. That ranged from combatting TikTok’s influence on Americans’ online discourse and reducing China’s dominance over supply chains to hardening Taiwan to make it impossible for China’s military to take.

Pottinger said the main emphasis of his testimony was to open people's eyes to how the U.S. has become too complacent. “Before we can seize the initiative we have to react to the fact that our national interest has been deeply undermined over the course of the last quarter century,” he said.

Tong Yi, a Chinese human rights advocate, amplified human rights concerns at the hearing. She was arrested in the 1990s after serving as an interpreter to a leading dissident who had urged the U.S. to condition trade on China's human rights performance. She spent nine months in detention before being handed a two-and-half year sentence for “disturbing social order" and sent to a labor camp, where she said authorities organized other inmates to beat her up.

“In the U.S., we need to face the fact that we have helped feed the baby dragon of the CCP until it has grown into what it now is,” she said.

Scott Paul, president of an alliance formed by some manufacturing companies and the United Steelworkers labor union, testified that "51 years of wishful thinking by American leaders" has failed to alter the dynamic that the CCP represents a “clear and present danger to the American worker, our innovation base, and our national security.”

The hearings come at a time of heightened rivalry and tensions between China and the United States. Both sides — the U.S. and its allies, and China — are consolidating military positions in the Indo-Pacific in case of any confrontation over self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its territory.

Last summer, Chinese warships and warplanes fired missiles over Taiwan in what were days of intense Chinese military exercises following then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the U.S. ally. President Xi Jinping’s government at the time rejected President Joe Biden’s declarations that his administration had no control over the actions of U.S. lawmakers.

And three weeks ago, the Biden administration used a Sidewinder missile fired by an F-22 to end the journey of what the U.S. says was a giant Chinese surveillance balloon traveling across U.S. territory.

Both incidents, especially the balloon, captured American public and political attention, and put debate over how to handle China in the center of U.S. political debate.

“It’s another indication of the negative slide, the downward spiral, in the U.S.-China relationship,” Michael Swaine, a Washington analyst of Chinese security studies, said of Gallagher’s committee. The hearings will add to political pressure on Biden, who has continued to stress a desire for limited dialogue with China, to take a harder line, Swaine said.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he worked with the Democratic leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-NY., in forming the committee and that the U.S. failures with China are the result of not speaking with “one voice.”

"We need to speak with one voice Republicans and Democrats alike," McCarthy said. “I think when you look at Gallagher and the work he’s doing with the ranking member, we’re trying to go in lockstep, and I think all of America is pretty much desiring for this.”

Gallagher said he suspects there are at least 10 pieces of legislation that the committee can endorse in a bipartisan fashion. Still, he said the members will be looking for support from McCarthy before backing any legislation. One of the biggest challenges is that jurisdiction over the issues involving China is spread across numerous committees and members of those committees will want a say.

“I think we can play a constructive coordinating function between the committees to ensure that good ideas don’t die just because of some committee’s cracks or they get referred to multiple committees," Gallagher said.

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Staff writers Farnoush Amiri and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.