Capitol Letter: China's Relationship With Congress Strained

Rep. Tom Lantos fought with the Hungarian underground as a Budapest teenager in World War II and was among the Jews rescued from the Nazis by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. As the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress, the San Francisco-area Democrat has made human rights-and their scarcity in China-a big piece of his political portfolio.

Lantos opposes normalization of trade relations and supports the sale of advanced Aegis destroyers to Taiwan. Two weeks before the U.S. spy plane went down on Hainan Island, he sponsored a resolution urging the International Olympic Committee not to award the 2008 games to Beijing unless it releases all political prisoners and generally reforms its human-rights practices. Lantos thinks the last couple of weeks have been instructive for lawmakers who have been willing, for reasons of political pragmatism or profit for the business interests they represent, to overlook China's behavior. "Many members have gotten a new insight into the nature of this regime," says Lantos.

China has never enjoyed a deep reservoir of good will on Capitol Hill. The 10-day standoff on Hainan Island has drawn it down further, alienating some who favor engagement and emboldening lawmakers already deeply suspicious of China's long-term intentions. In a Congress where bipartisanship is more often a concept than a practice, payback to Beijing is an issue attracting strong sentiment on both sides of the aisle. Members who kept a low profile while the 24 crew members were in Chinese custody are now becoming more demonstrative in their anger. On issues like trade and arms sales to Taiwan, a number of key lawmakers say they are re-evaluating the U.S.-China relationship.

"Is this a country that is ready to deal in the civilized world?" asked Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican.

Trade, a contentious issue before the spy-plane episode, is likely to become a major flashpoint this spring. With its entry into the World Trade Organization still pending (multilateral talks are snagged over Chinese reluctance to drop certain import barriers) the country's normal trade status (NTR) is subject to annual renewal by Congress at the request of the president. NTR seems to be at greatest risk in the House, where members like Lantos, long opposed to normalized trade, have been newly energized. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, has two-dozen cosponsors for a bill that would revoke China's current trade status. "This situation is indicative of the regard in which the Communist regime in China holds our government," Hunter said last week. "A favored trading partner with our country would follow proper protocol and not continue to hold our servicemen and women, along with our equipment."

While the Senate appears likely to support renewal of NTR, the House coalition that has backed it before is looking fragile. Rep. Robert Matsui, a California Democrat, told CQ Weekly that a significant number of the 73 Democrats who voted for permanent normal trade status last year-despite opposition from organized labor-would now oppose the extension. (Anger over the spy-plane affair isn't all that's involved. A number of the Dems voted for NTR out of partisan allegiance to President Clinton.) Rep. Henry Hyde, the influential chairman of the House International Relations Committee, also says he is leaning toward opposing renewal.

The first big test of how Hainan Island has changed the political environment for China could come within the next month when the Bush administration is expected to send its annual Taiwan arms-sales package to the Hill. Taipei is asking, among many other things, for four Aegis destroyers, ships with state-of-the-art radar and battle-management systems. China has vehemently opposed inclusion of Aegis in the package, and Bush will have to decide if he is willing to ignore their protests. Eighty-three House members signed a letter to Bush last week urging him to make the destroyers part of the package. Lantos, who was among those who signed, says that Chinese behavior over the last two weeks "has dramatically increased [Taiwan's] chances of getting the weapons it needs to defend itself."

There are other pressure points. Lawmakers are angry over the case of Gao Zhan, the U.S.-based academic now being held in China on spying charges. Earlier this month, members of both the House and Senate introduced bills to grant her American citizenship.

It's too early to tell whether all of this sentiment will translate into long-term changes in U.S.-China relations. Some members say the crisis ended a few days short of causing a major uprising on the Hill. They suspect that when short-term passions burn off, the status quo is likely to remain in place. "I think it will smooth out," says Sen. Craig Thomas, a Republican from Wyoming and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relation Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Thomas may be right, but before the smoothing out, look for the U.S.-China relationship to travel through some bumpy air in Congress.