Earlier this week two leading congressional voices on U.S. China policy were kind enough to take time to talk with me about it. One spent the bulk of our conversation describing China as a brutal dictatorship he believes could fall within a decade if there is strong U.S. leadership. The other focused on the relationship, rather than the country. He described U.S.—China relations as akin to the stock market: certain to see ups and downs in the short term but, with proper care and attention, likely to yield modest positive returns over the long-term.
The two men represent very different constituencies within the country. Frank Wolf is a Republican from northern Virginia. Rick Larsen is a Democrat from a district on the west coast of Washington that stretches from just above Seattle up to Bellingham. They also represent two very different lines of thought within the Congress on how to conduct U.S. China policy.
Frank Wolf seeks to inspire a Reagan-like toughness that calls out an evil, corrupt government for oppressing its people, while building up U.S. defenses to stop it from threatening its neighbors. Rick Larsen works to engage a less odious-looking Chinese government by participating in complex and protracted negotiations over economic and military disputes that are unlikely to ever be satisfactorily resolved in favor of either side. Wolf hopes for a relatively quick victory in a new Cold War against a tyrannical adversary on the wrong side of history. Larsen hopes to lay an institutional foundation within the Congress that can help members slog through the long-term, day to day hard work of maintaining peaceful and productive relations between two of the largest and most influential nations in the world.
Neither man disparaged the other or their respective points of view. Both noted that China policy is not a partisan issue in the U.S. Congress. The veteran Republican from Virginia, who is retiring at the end of this term, spoke affectionately of his work with the Democratic Minority Leader from San Francisco, Nancy Pelosi, who consistently opposed Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status for China because of its record on human rights, including labor rights. The comparatively junior representative from Washington State, now in his 7th term, has assiduously assembled what started as a handful of interested representatives into the 86-member U.S. China Working Group. The bi-partisan assembly, composed of “neither panda huggers nor dragon slayers,” aims to provide accurate information, promote dialog, protect U.S. interests and avoid future conflict. Neither Ms. Pelosi nor Mr. Wolf is listed as a member.
The real divide on China in the U.S. Congress is not between left and right or Republican and Democrat, but between those who view the Chinese government as evil and those who maintain some skepticism about that claim. Few in Congress view China as a friend to the United States or an upstanding member of the international community. But those who side with Congressman Wolf see a despotic regime, hated by its own people, that is an inherent threat to peace and prosperity. Those with doubts about that claim see China’s domestic politics as beyond U.S. reach, while the nature of its international behavior allows for mutually beneficial outcomes given the right set of policies, arrived at through routine engagement, negotiation and cooperation.