Friday, January 17, 2014

Partisan Divide Threatens US-China Relations

The US House of Representatives. Photo credit:

The botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, has had a serious impact on President Obama’s popularity and ability to push policy initiatives through Congress. As Obama’s popularity has tumbled to the lowest point of his presidency, the fortunes of Republicans in Congress have risen. Recent polls reveal that Republicans have a slight edge over Democrats in the generic congressional ballot, a poll in which Americans are asked which candidate they favor in the midterm elections scheduled for November.

If Republicans take control of both houses of Congress, the implications for US-China relations could be serious. In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign Relations from October 30 to November 6, 2013, only 13 percent of Republicans approved of the way President Obama was handling China, versus 68 percent who disapproved. Democrats approved of his China policy by a margin of 51 to 35 percent.

In the poll published in December, 23 percent of Republicans surveyed said they had a favorable view of China, while 67 percent said they had an unfavorable view. This compares to 36 percent of Democrats who offered a favorable view and 53 percent who offered an unfavorable view.

Opinion of China (percentage)
Party Favorable Unfavorable
Republican 23 67
Tea Party 16 77
Democrat 36 53
Independent 37 52
ALL 33 55
Opinion of Obama’s Handling of China
Party Approve Disapprove
Republican 13 68
Tea Party 7 82
Democrat 51 35
Independent 25 56
ALL 30 52
Source: Pew Research Center in Association with the Council on Foreign Relations, poll of 2,003 Americans conducted October 30 to November 6, 2013.

Among Republicans who identify as Tea Party supporters, opinions of China and Obama’s China policy are especially negative. Only 16 percent hold a favorable view of the country, and just seven percent approve of the way the president is handling China.

The poll reveals a sharp drop in China’s popularity among both parties, but the drop among Republicans is especially severe. Since Pew last surveyed opinions in September 2012, the percent of Republicans who said they had a favorable view of China dropped 12 percentage points, while those who said they had an unfavorable view rose 16 percentage points.

Obama’s unpopularity is calling into question his ability to get congressional approval of important foreign policy initiatives. There is strong bipartisan support for passage of a new Iran sanctions bill, legislation President Obama has threatened to veto. At last count, 59 senators, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), had issued statements endorsing the legislation, eight votes short of the number needed to overturn a presidential veto.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats. Assuming Republicans hold onto the House of Representatives, big changes would come to Washington if both chambers were controlled by Republicans. Policy initiatives as they affect US-China relations would be in the crosshairs. Hearings would be held, resolutions put forward.

The center of Congressional criticism of China’s human rights policy is the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. The current chair is Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). If the Republicans maintain control of the House, the chair will likely be taken by Congressman Chris Smith (R-New Jersey). With the retirement of Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), Smith will arguably become China’s biggest critic in the House, ready to attack China on a wide range of issues including family planning abuses, treatment of religious and ethnic minorities, and alleged persecution of dissidents.

The two most important committees in the Senate that deal with China are the Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee. If the current minority leaders of the committees become chairmen, the Armed Services Committee would be chaired by Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would be chaired by Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee). Corker is seen as a moderate on China (he opposed imposing sanctions over Beijing’s alleged currency manipulation), but Inhofe is a hawk, most recently introducing a resolution attacking China over its aggressive moves in the South China Sea, sure to be an issue during the coming term.

The only Republican senator sitting on both the Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee is Senator John McCain (R-Arizona). He has a record of being outspoken on China. In August 2013 he flatly declared that the Senkaku Islands were Japanese territory, prompting a speedy riposte from Beijing. In March, McCain sat on a panel with Chinese Vice Minister Zhang Zhijun in Munich. He warned the vice minister that the Arab Spring was coming to China, and he highlighted Tibetan self-immolations in his critique of the country’s human rights record. Tea Party favorites Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) sit on the Armed Service Committee, and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.