President Joe Biden and congressional leaders are eager to take a hard stance on China. But some left-leaning Democrats and activists are lobbying for a softer touch, worried new anti-China policies will inflame racism against Asian Americans and lead to an unending conflict with Beijing akin to a new Cold War.
More than 60 activist groups and at least four prominent lawmakers are stepping up their criticisms as the Senate pushes through this week a package of anti-China bills that enjoy backing from members of both parties and the White House. Any coordinated opposition could gum up the ongoing amendment process on the Senate floor, or throw a wrench in future efforts to reconcile the measure with the House’s slower-moving initiatives against China.
The pushback comes as Biden positions China as America’s chief global adversary, casting the 21st century as a battle between U.S.-led democracies and autocratic governments led by China. Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle agree that the threat justifies a new package of new bipartisan bills that would spend hundreds of billions of dollars to confront China, the world’s second-largest economy.
Progressive lawmakers and activists are dismayed by what they see as bipartisan unity to repeat American foreign policy mistakes. Rushing to position China as an existential threat to the U.S. would commit the country to decades of wasteful spending and military engagements, they say, while fueling hatred at home similar to the Islamophobia seen after 9/11.
“We need to distinguish between justified criticisms of the Chinese government’s human rights record and a Cold War mentality that uses China as a scapegoat for our own domestic problems and demonizes Chinese Americans,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of a group of lawmakers pressing Biden and congressional leaders to take a more cooperative approach to relations with Beijing.
For now, many members of Congress aren’t willing to publicly challenge the rising anti-China sentiment, and none are yet planning to oppose China-related bills, like one co-sponsored by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. That could change if the bills continue to single out China for penalties, lead to increased military spending and ignore opportunities for cooperation.
Already, even some who back Schumer’s bill, the Endless Frontier Act, are speaking out against anti-China rhetoric coming from Congressional leaders and the Biden White House.
“I strongly reject any anti-China rhetoric associated with this bill, and we must be vigilant about the impacts of such rhetoric on AAPI communities at a time of increased hate crimes,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), one of the House sponsors, while emphasizing he still supports the bill’s provisions to boost domestic tech research and production. “We won’t be able to solve the challenges of the 21st century like the climate crisis and global health unless we have relationships that harness partnerships across the globe, including China.”
Some lawmakers are also concerned about ballooning military spending in response to a perceived threat from China — one they say is far overblown compared to Beijing’s actual capacity to threaten the U.S.
“Our defense budget is already 3.5 times the size of China’s — we’re on track to spend $530 billion more than China on defense spending this year,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who founded the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) last year. “We don’t need more money towards military buildups abroad — we need to prioritize diplomacy in our foreign policy.”
Stoking tensions with Beijing will also make it harder for Biden to achieve his signature foreign policy goals, like combating climate change and the Covid pandemic, the lawmakers argue. And despite legislation that passed this week, broadsides against China could inspire more anti-Asian American bias at home, countering the White House’s efforts to calm racial strife after years of xenophobic rhetoric in the Trump era.
“Progressives are cautioning against falling into the trap of treating conflict with China as a way to build bipartisan unity,” said Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “We should listen now about the potential impact of a new U.S.-China Cold War.”
Increased tension between China and the U.S. has already been accompanied by a surge in anti-Asian backlash. A recent paper from the group Stop AAPI Hate reported that the number of verbal or physical attacks or civil rights violations against Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders in the United States nearly doubled from 2020 to 2021. To many activists, the pattern is painfully similar to the rise in anti-Muslim hate following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We can see this throughout U.S. history, most recently with Islamophobia and the war on terror, where we could have leaders of both parties be very carefully anti-racist and say ‘Islam is not our enemy,’ but that didn’t stop widespread Islamophobia and acts of violence,” said Tobita Chow, director at the progressive advocacy group Justice Is Global.
The anti-China bills are heightening those concerns. On Monday, the Senate voted to begin floor debate on Schumer’s centerpiece for the package, the Endless Frontier Act, S. 1260 (117). The next day, it was combined with a litany of other bills, like the Strategic Competition Act, (S. 1169 (117)), which would increase military surveillance of China and assistance to U.S. allies in Asia. The new package, renamed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, is expected to get a floor vote before the end of the month.
Chow’s organization and a coalition of over 60 other anti-war and progressive groups released a joint statement this week decrying the messaging around Endless Frontier, which they say needlessly casts China as a villain. They also were highly critical of some provisions in the Strategic Competition Act, which they argue will strain economic ties between the nations and curtailing future opportunities for cooperation with China on climate, the Covid pandemic and other issues of global importance.
“Anti-China framing for such initiatives is not only politically unnecessary; it is harmful, as it inevitably feeds racism, violence, xenophobia, and white nationalism,” the groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Quincy Institute and Working Families Party, wrote.
Backers of the anti-China push in Congress say they are only being realistic about how to handle an ever-more-aggressive government in Beijing. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a progressive House sponsor of Endless Frontier, said it is “perfectly appropriate” for lawmakers “to want to make sure that our values of freedom and liberal democracy win, and we don’t allow authoritarian or surveillance capitalism to win.”
Instead of a new Cold War, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), said they aim for “strategic competition” with China.
“We need to be clear-eyed in understanding that China today, led by the Communist Party and propelled by [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s hyper-nationalism, is unlike any challenge we have faced as a nation before,” Menendez, lead sponsor of the Strategic Competition Act, said. “If we are to develop a regional and international order consistent with progressive values, then we must be realistic about the China we have, not the China we want to have.”
For now, Menendez said the push to confront China will continue in Congress. He and his colleagues won’t “turn a blind eye” to China’s aggression toward its neighbors and its “campaign of genocide, forced labor, forced sterilization, and other abuses” in the Muslim-majority northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang, he said.
Progressives say they agree with holding China accountable for those atrocities, but urge the U.S. to be more cautious about its tactics. In Xinjiang, Xi’s crackdown has used strategies ripped from the U.S. war on terror, Omar said, including justifying mass surveillance and arbitrary detention of citizens due to a perceived threat of Islamic radicalism.
“So we’re also overdue for a serious reckoning with the way our own war on terror language has been used by Xi and others to commit the gravest of human rights violations,” Omar said.
Emily Birnbaum contributed reporting to this article.