Randall Hill | Reuters

From the Center

There’s an old saying in politics: be suspicious of anything that passes by a unanimous vote.

Under normal circumstances, the only legislation that passes through Congress without any opposition at all are bills to rename post offices or honor Olympic medalists. So when the House voted 419-0 to condemn China for the surveillance balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina last week, it was notable that members of both parties stood together even in such a highly polarized political environment to rebuke the Chinese government for its violation of U.S. airspace. 

It was even more notable that Republican members, who were barely able to unite to elect a House Speaker of their own party a few weeks earlier, set aside an alternative bill that would have instead criticized President Joe Biden for his handling of the incident (and which would have almost certainly passed on a straight party-line vote). And the group of Democrats who often vote against anti-China measures to guard against prejudice faced by Asian-Americans stood down as well. 

This followed on another similar vote last month, when in the first days of this new Congress, the House voted to create a new select committee to investigate China’s human rights, economic and military policies. While not unanimous, this measure was by an overwhelming margin in which every Republican member was joined by more than two-thirds of House Democrats. Last year, Biden was able to pass a bipartisan bill that authorized billions of dollars in semiconductor subsidies by framing it as protection against Chinese technological dominance.

But the emergence of China’s surveillance device, coupled with the U.S. military’s decision to shoot down no fewer than three other unidentified airborne objects over North America last weekend, has ratcheted up public concern about China from an abstract concern and growing animosity into something just short of panic. Despite the intricate economic ties that bind the two superpowers together, we appear to creeping closer to a new Cold War.

For the foreseeable future, Democrats and Republicans will compete to see who can sound tougher in their condemnations of Beijing. Biden’s public statement after ordering the destruction of the Chinese balloon was enthusiastically aggressive, GOP criticism of the president was equally bellicose, and even the president’s Democratic allies are letting it be known that they expect more from the White House. While there are considerable geopolitical reasons to avoid further escalation – most notably the role that Xi Jinping seems to be playing to convince Vladimir Putin to avoid the use of biological or tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine – there is no political downside for any American politician expressing belligerence toward China.

The Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, as it is officially known, will hold their first hearings next month. In clear contrast with the publicity hounds and ideological outliers who will populate the House Oversight Committee, both Republican and Democratic leaders have appointed respected and measured foreign policy and security experts to the panel on China. Chairman Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and ranking member Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) have teamed up across party lines in the past, have developed a solid working relationship and seem to be equally determined to keep their committee’s work from descending into the type of knee-jerk partisanship that has turned Congress into such a circus in recent years.

The divisions that have poisoned our politics for years has been an ongoing feature in American history, but it tends to subside when the country faces a seminal threat such as a war or other type of foreign menace. The tensions with the Soviet Union that characterized the decades after World War II were not coincidentally a time in which the ideological distance between the two major parties was unusually small. The question is whether similar unity can exist again as the Chinese challenge grows.

The danger is that forcefulness turns into jingoism and then into open conflict. But Gallagher, the leader of the House’s work in this critical area, reminds us of the ultimate goal, for the Congress and the country:

“A Cold War paradigm reminds us that we should endeavor to make sure it stays cold and doesn’t turn hot, and that our core function is deterrence and preventing hot war.”

We’ll see if such a measured approach can sustain in the face of unyielding political pressure from both sides. But it’s a good place to start.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

Read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.