On China, Republicans Split Between Engaging With Joe Biden or Eviscerating Him

A group of Republican lawmakers has issued a damning assessment of President Joe Biden's early China strategy, as the party considers how to push the new administration toward a tougher line on Beijing and punish it if it fails.

The 120-member Republican Study Committee released a briefing document on Tuesday summarizing Biden's approach to China as: "Bad policies, bad personnel."

The group, chaired by Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, is the largest conservative caucus in the House. Banks has said he plans to use its clout to influence China policy.

The committee lauded Biden's predecessor Donald Trump as "the first president to take on Communist China in a generation," holding Beijing to account "for stealing U.S. intellectual property, infiltrating the U.S. education system, hijacking international organizations and spreading disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic."

Long-term concerns about Chinese behaviour converged under Trump, prompting bipartisan agreement that Beijing represents a problem to be addressed. Previous administrations had hoped that engaging with the Chinese Communist Party would encourage a more liberal regime while swelling U.S. coffers.

But Beijing used its new-found wealth and influence to entrench its authoritarianism at home and push for new territory and power abroad. The CCP is unapologetic about its human rights abuses and assertive in its territorial disputes. Its attempts to dodge blame for the coronavirus pandemic have also rankled with democracies worldwide.

On the campaign trail, Biden vowed to be tough on China, seeking to dodge allegations from Trump and other critics that he would return to a softer, more cooperative relationship with Beijing.

"The Biden administration has already taken a number of disastrous steps to undo President Trump's success in countering China," the Republican Study Committee claimed in its memo. "The Biden team so far has exhibited a pattern of weakness and a return to Obama's failed approach of engaging rather than holding China accountable for its bad behavior.

"The Biden administration's foreign policy team is overwhelmingly made up of a number of individuals who either have had links to the CCP, or have a record of weak statements and actions on confronting it."

The officials named in the memo include Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

"Despite tough talk on China, such as Secretary Blinken saying that Trump was right to take a tougher approach to China, the Biden administration's actions have shown they will do the opposite," the committee said.

Not all Republicans are taking such a combative stance. In the Senate, some GOP members are looking to build bridges with the Biden White House to create a bipartisan Beijing strategy.

Anger at Chinese trade practices, human rights abuses, territorial expansion and propaganda output were one of the few things that united the two parties during Trump's term. With Washington, D.C. still divided, this may be one of the few flags around which both parties can rally in the coming years.

After Biden's first call with President Xi Jinping, Senator Jim Risch of Idaho—the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—told Newsweek he was encouraged by the president's mention of human rights abuses and other American grievances.

"I am glad to see that President Biden increasingly views China as a serious competitor to the United States, and that he raised Taiwan, coercive economic practices and human rights," Risch said.

"I'm also encouraged by the China policy review currently underway at the Department of Defense. COVID-19 has taught us that the Chinese Communist Party is willing to undermine global health to preserve its standing, and that fact demands a cautious approach towards pursuing cooperative initiatives with China, whether on climate change or other issues."

Whether their approach is combative or cooperative, Republicans are set to keep the pressure on Biden and his team. The party saw China as a vote winner in last year's election. The economic impact of the pandemic, concerns over globalization and the decline of U.S. manufacturing, plus traditional worries about military hegemony, are a potent combination. Add to this the increasingly well-publicized human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

"China must be our top foreign policy priority," Risch said, adding that he had introduced the STRATEGIC Act, which calls for a clear strategy for competing with Beijing and coordinating with allies in Europe.

"I plan to conduct congressional oversight of the Biden administration's China policy and strategy for the entire Indo-Pacific region," Risch said. "The challenges China poses are an American issue and I expect the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats to work across the aisle on effective, concrete and politically sustainable policies that have the support of the American people."

Newsweek has contacted the White House for comment on the Republican Study Committee memo.

Joe Biden at Milwaukee town hall event
Joe Biden is pictured during a CNN town hall at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on February 16. The Republican Study Committee has criticized the president's early moves on China. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images/Getty