So often an easy target for US politicians looking to win votes out of job fears, the China issue has played a remarkably low-profile role in campaigning for the November 7 midterm Congressional elections.
To be sure, trade protectionist sentiment and fears of outsourcing still resonate in the rustbelt and in areas which depend heavily on small and medium light industrial enterprises. Throughout the current Congressional session, numerous non-binding resolutions and "sense of Congress" declarations have been introduced and passed, condemning China on everything from crackdowns on dissent to forced abortions to unscrupulous exchange rate policies.
But as a leading China-watching Congressman told me: "China just is not a big election issue this year."
Instead, larger problems loom for the American electorate. By and large, the election is shaping up as a referendum on the Bush White House and the Republican majority Congress. Americans are losing faith and patience in their government to deal with challenges ranging from the Iraq War, to ballooning budget deficits, to concerns about health care, employment, and retirement security.
Republican candidates are distancing themselves from these problems while Democrats smell blood. China is a secondary concern – over-the-horizon at best.
Even before electioneering began in earnest, when Congress was in session, several opportunities to take tougher positions on China were passed over.
There are a range of bills awaiting action – such as the Global Internet Freedom Act, the China Currency Act, and even a bill introduced by Senator Byron Dorgan, Republican of North Dakota, to withdraw normal trade relations status from China. But these bills have languished.
Even actions which presumably would have more widespread support – such as the Schumer bill to slap an across-the-board tariff of 27.5% on all Chinese imports if China continues to manipulate its currency – have never been brought to the floor for a vote.
As for Taiwan, the recently-passed Defense Authorization Act in the end did not authorize American generals and admirals to visit Taipei (they are currently prohibited from doing so). The State Department expressed opposition to that part of the bill, and the votes could not be mustered in support.
Similarly, Congress has taken no serious action to support a free trade agreement with Taiwan, in spite of active lobbying by friends and representatives of Taiwan to do so.
Make no mistake, the occupants of Capitol Hill have not morphed into "panda huggers". But taking on China – in addition to being a distraction from currently more pressing foreign and domestic policy issues – would represent a challenge by Congress to their President.
To give the White House its due, it has skillfully deflected Capitol Hill concerns with a policy that is engaging Beijing to extract occasional, positive moves, such as slightly relaxing its exchange rate and voting with Washington in the UN to censure Iran and North Korea.
It also bears mentioning that a slightly more nuanced and judicious understanding of US-China relations is finding its way into the halls and offices of Capitol Hill.
But this may be the calm before the storm. Looking past the November election, it is likely the Capitol Hill heat will turn up on China. Should the Democrats succeed in taking one or both houses of Congress, expect all manner of partisan legislative action to come down on President Bush and the Executive Branch.
China-bashing will not be at the top of the list, but the President's engagement-oriented approach to Beijing would make for an easy target.
Long pent-up and strongly-held views on the Democratic left and Republican right about China's human rights record, proliferation activities, and unfair trade practices will get a far greater hearing. Real legislative action on these issues will be more likely.
Even if the Republicans retain their majority in Congress, it may not be smooth sailing for China-Capitol Hill relations.
As President Bush enters his last two years as a lame duck, and with his Vice President out of the running for the White House in 2008, Republican members of Congress will be far less hesitant to challenge the Administration's China policies.
Ambitious members of Congress, seeking to build constituencies for a run at the White House – Democrat and Republican alike – would likely find traction in taking a tougher line on China.
Moreover, many of the difficulties in US-China relations are not going away any time soon, and are likely to get worse over the next two years: the trade deficit, intellectual property rights violations, energy security, China's ambivalent approach to Iran and North Korea, and Beijing's increasingly harsh stand on dissidents, religious practice, media censorship, and civil society activity.
Both in session and on the campaign trail, current and would-be members of Congress have not given China much priority. Watch for that to change with the opening of the 110th Congress in January.
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