Capitol Hill has begun a welcome and long-overdue effort to better understand China. Sparked by a spate of Congressional alarm about China last year, increasing numbers of members now recognize the country’s growing importance to American interests – for better or worse – and the need to get smart on Beijing’s agenda sooner rather than later.
Five Congressional groups – four of them formed since 2004 – focus specifically on getting members better educated on China issues. These groups are the House US-China Interparliamentary Exchange Group (1999), the Senate US-China Interparliamentary Exchange Group (2004), the Congressional China Caucus (2005), the China Working Group (2005), and the Senate China Working Group (2006).
The first two groups meet with counterparts from the National People’s Congress, but have relatively small memberships and lack well-established means to broadly report their findings. The newly-formed Senate China Working Group could prove more heavyweight but it is still early days.
It is the Congressional China Caucus (CCC) and the China Working Group (CWG) that are currently the most proactive in generating information.
While endorsing broad, neutral goals such as "educating members" and "increasing Congressional engagement" on China issues, both groups have carved out their own policy niches.
For the 36-strong CCC, it is shipbuilding, security, intellectual property, industrial espionage, human rights, and religious freedoms. The CWG, which has 35 members, looks at business opportunities, economic issues, military and security questions, and space.
Members in the House groups are more likely to shape their approach based on narrower constituent concerns in their home districts. For example, Randy Forbes, the founder and co-chair of the CCC, is a conservative Republican from a district in southwest Virginia where active military personnel, military veterans, and the shipbuilding industry are important constituents. Among his principal affiliations, Forbes serves on the House Armed Services Committee and is founder and chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.
He has expressed concerns about Chinese military-industrial espionage and, when meeting President Hu Jintao this year, requested Hu’s approval to lead a Congressional delegation with unfettered access to Christian groups in China.
The CWG is co-chaired by Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican from a district just north of Chicago, Illinois. It is home to many internationally-oriented firms – or their employees – such as Abbott Laboratories, Allstate Insurance, Baxter Healthcare, Boeing, Household International, Motorola and United Airlines.
Kirk’s background includes schooling in Mexico, a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics, and service as a Naval Reserve intelligence officer with a number of overseas assignments, all strengthening his internationalist orientation. His co-chair, Rick Larsen, a mainstream Democrat, represents a district just north of Seattle, Washington, which is home to several naval bases as well as the Everett Boeing manufacturing plant.
Some analysts make the simplistic claim that the CCC takes a "tougher" line on China, while the CWG favors more "engagement." While there may be some degree of truth to this, it is more interesting to note that about 10 members of Congress are in both groups, and on some issues – particularly military and security issues – the two groups share similar concerns.
It is too early to say for sure what influence these groups are having. And there are certainly members of Congress who will not be convinced to take a better-informed approach to dealing with China.
But these groups and their members are making progress in generating a better Congressional foundation to address concerns with China and promoting useful solutions for those concerns. For the past year, the two House groups have regularly held meetings with American business and government leaders dealing with China, as well as with the Chinese officials.
On the ground
Forbes traveled to China twice in 2005. In January 2006, Kirk, Larsen, and another member of the CWG, Representative Tom Feeney, visited China, including a stop at the Jiuquan Space Launch Center, a first for a Congressional delegation. Most recently, the Senate Interparliamentary Exchange group visited the country in August.
Over the past year, new legislation has been introduced in Congress – though not yet voted on – to enhance US interests while improving US-China relations.
One bill, sponsored by Kirk – with 10 other co-sponsors, including Larsen – proposes expansion of the US diplomatic and commercial service officer presence in China, improvement of Chinese language and cultural studies at all education levels, and grants to US states for promoting exports to China. Kirk and Larsen are also promoting the idea of a military hotline between Washington and Beijing.
Forbes reportedly will propose legislation to establish better US inter-agency coordination to address the increasingly complex US-China relationship.
Perhaps most importantly, the activities of these groups allow members of Congress to avoid the pitfalls for US interests that would arise from – in the words of Kirk – a "relentlessly negative and highly misinformed" view of China. Given the complexities facing the US-China relationship, any progress on that front would be welcome news for American interests.