Lost in all the manic coverage of the Chinese spy-balloon incident was an extraordinary act by Congress that reveals the degree to which American lawmakers have coalesced around an exceedingly bellicose outlook toward Beijing. On February 9, with barely any discussion, the House of Representatives voted unanimously, 419 votes to zero, to pass House Resolution 104, “Condemning the Chinese Communist Party’s Use of a High-Altitude Surveillance Balloon over United States Territory.” Though lacking any legal status—the Senate did not adopt a similar measure, so it was not sent on to President Biden for his signature—the resolution provides political cover for those in the White House and the Pentagon who favor a tougher line towards China, including a more permissive stance regarding the use of force.
Asserting that the balloon intrusion of February 2–4 was only one of many Chinese surveillance operations directed against this country and that intelligence collection of this sort “poses a threat to United States interests and security,” the resolution avows that “it should be the policy of the United States to promptly and decisively act to prevent foreign aerial surveillance platforms” from violating US territory. In other words, shoot them down.
Nowhere in the resolution is there any acknowledgement that the administration may have overreacted to the balloon intrusion—for example, by shooting down three hobbyists’ devices in the days following the initial incident—or that the original event might prove the occasion for talks between the US and China on methods for avoiding future blunders of this sort. Rather, it is largely devoted to hostile, condemnatory language making such accommodation increasingly difficult.
One could argue that this resolution was adopted in a moment of mass hysteria on Capitol Hill, with every representative keen to demonstrate outrage over the balloon intrusion and a firm commitment to decisive countermeasures. Still, among the 419 lawmakers who voted on Resolution 104, one might think some would have expressed skepticism about the severity of the Chinese balloon threat and questioned the need to respond with an extravagant show of military force. But no, every member of the left-progressive “squad,” including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley, voted “yea,” as did progressives Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna of California. Where was their voice of reason?
The Perilous Challenges Ahead
This unanimous display of anti-Chinese fervor bodes poorly for the future of US-China relations, particularly coming at a moment when Congress and the White House face a host of vexing challenges to bilateral ties. These include a fresh round of provocative congressional visits to Taiwan, a bipartisan drive to boost defense spending to even more stratospheric levels, and a new congressional committee determined to counter China’s global influence, including its pernicious tendrils in US society.
Last summer, a visit to Taiwan by then–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi produced a dangerous rupture in US-China relations, with China firing a salvo of ballistic missiles around the island and announcing the suspension of talks on climate change and military crisis management.
Only after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, on November 14, was President Biden was able to persuade him to resume US-China talks on the climate threat. But talks between US and Chinese military officials on crisis avoidance measures have yet to resume—a deeply worrisome matter, as illustrated by the failure of communications over the balloon incursion. Neither side, moreover, has backed away from their overriding demands: on Beijing’s side, that the US stop resisting its efforts to secure Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland; on Washington’s side, that China cease threatening Taiwan with invasion.
Now, with Congress poised to pass a host of additional measures aimed at pummeling China, leaders of the Republican majority in the House are making plans for another round of high-profile congressional visits to Taiwan. The new House speaker, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, said as early as last July that he would visit the island if the Republicans won a majority in the midterm election and he became its leader. Then, on January 23, Punchbowl News reported that the Pentagon was already making plans for such a visit, expected to take place later this year.
A visit by McCarthy to Taiwan is sure to raise tensions to at least the same level as witnessed during Pelosi’s visit seven months ago. Indeed, Chinese officials have already warned him against making such a trip. “We urge certain individuals in the US to earnestly abide by the one-China principle,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning on January 30, referring to McCarthy’s travel plans and the notion that Taiwan and China are both part of “one China.”
When Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, China responded by mobilizing its air and naval forces for elaborate military maneuvers in the surrounding area, prompting many ardent Chinese nationalists to demand that Beijing employ those assets in preventing her plane from landing. As McCarthy prepares to visit the island, we can be certain that Beijing will undertake a comparable show of military force—and to face similar calls for drastic action to prevent his arrival. The question thus arises: With all the bellicose rhetoric emanating from Beijing and Washington, will Xi be able to contain these responses at the same level as seen last August, during Pelosi’s visit, or will he feel compelled to raise them one or two notches higher? And if so, what might that entail?
Last time around, Beijing did not interfere with Pelosi’s flight and Chinese forces did not engage with those of the United States or Taiwan. This time, we have to assume that Xi will be forced to take more extreme steps—ones likely to involve provocative military actions that could easily result in armed clashes with US and/or Taiwanese forces. The Pentagon, we know, is already planning for such contingencies as it prepares for McCarthy’s visit. And if Resolution 104 is anything to go by, any Chinese move to impede McCarthy’s trip will prompt bipartisan calls for a harsh US military response. In fact, is this what McCarthy hopes/assumes will occur? Is this the way World War III will erupt?
The Battle to Lead the Fight In Raising the Defense Budget
Congress will no doubt raise the Department of Defense appropriation for fiscal year (FY) 2024 significantly above what is sure to be the mammoth, record-setting amount to be requested by the Biden administration on March 9. What is yet to be ascertained is how much above the president’s request the congressional appropriation will climb, and how this will imperil Biden and the Democrat’s plans to secure funds for domestic priorities, like education, health, and climate change.
Last spring, the Biden administration submitted a Pentagon budget request of $773 billion for FY 2023, which began on October 1. This amount was deemed wholly insufficient by China hawks of both parties, who competed with one another in boosting that amount by many tens of billions of dollars. In the end, they succeeded in raising the Pentagon allotment by $44 billion, increasing its FY 2023 appropriation to a record-setting $817 billion.
The Biden administration’s budget request for FY 2024 Pentagon spending is certain to exceed last year’s top line of $817 billion by a substantial amount—$30–40 billion at the minimum—and hawkish members of Congress will undoubtedly vie with one another in advocating multibillion-dollar increases on top of that. With the balloon incursion still in people’s minds, many members will be calling for even greater investment in ships, planes, and missiles intended for use against Chinese forces. A final defense authorization of $900 billion—50 percent higher than the amount allotted during the first Trump administration—is not out of the question. At the same time, funding for the domestic programs sought by the Biden administration, including measures intended to aid the working poor and overcome the perils of climate change, are likely to be axed or greatly reduced in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
A Committee to Investigate Everything China-Related
On top of all this, the Republican-controlled House has created a Select Committee on China and invested it with the authority to investigate every aspect of China’s malign behavior, here and abroad.
The select committee will be chaired by Representative Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a former Marine intelligence officer who’s made no secret of his intent to use this forum to expose and combat China’s hostile activities. When asked about his top priorities as committee chair, Gallagher told Politico, “We’re going to be looking at the big picture…. what are the long-term investments we need to make to win this new Cold War with Communist China.” Winning this war, he went on to explain, involves eliminating US reliance on Chinese rare earths and other critical minerals as well as overcoming Chinese efforts to infiltrate and distort US cultural and educational institutions. “Ultimately,” he asserted, the “new Cold War [is] an ideological competition between two competing systems of government and the values inherent in them.”
Hearings by the select committee are probably likely to focus on ways to better defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack and more decisively sever US trade links with China. But given Gallagher’s emphasis on the ideological dimensions of the new Cold War, they are also likely to examine Beijing’s influence-seeking operations. For Gallagher, this means everything from TikTok, which he views as an instrument of the CCP, to critical race theory, which he describes as “self-loathing” supplied by China.
In what sounds eerily reminiscent of McCarthyite thinking from the original Cold War (just change the acronym CCP in the following sentence to USSR), Gallagher and Kevin McCarthy told Fox News,
The Select Committee will demonstrate how the CCP uses ‘United Front Work’ and authoritarian tactics to cultivate foreign elites and silence criticism of CCP atrocities…. [It] will expose how the CCP uses lobbying at the local, state, and federal level to advance CCP dogma against our interests…. Finally, the Select Committee will investigate the CCP’s attempts at infiltrating our academic institutions.
Where all this will lead is anyone’s guess, but it could entail some very ugly hearings on Chinese Communist influence in academia and the media, resulting in increased levels of violence directed at Chinese Americans (really, against all Asian Americans, as most whites cannot distinguish between people of Chinese descent and other Asian Americans) and the demonization of those (like myself) who call for diplomatic solutions to our disputes with China.
A New Tonkin Gulf Resolution?
For historians (and former opponents) of the Vietnam war, two key events stand out in the evolution of US military involvement: the Tonkin Gulf Incident(s) of August 2–4, 1964, and passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 7. The original incident, involving alleged North Vietnamese torpedo attacks on US destroyers cruising off the North’s coast, was cited by President Lyndon Johnson as justification for direct US military involvement in the war against South Vietnamese insurgents. The resolution, adopted by every member of the House and all but two senators—Wayne Morse (D-Ore.) and Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska)—authorized the president to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” by the North Vietnamese, effectively providing Johnson with a mandate to escalate the war. (Gruening, it should be noted, served as editor of The Nation from 1920 to 1923.)
What is significant, in hindsight, is the alacrity with which Congress accepted the Pentagon’s account of what occurred over those early days in August (only one torpedo attack, if any, is now thought to have occurred, and the second claimed attack, on August 4, is now assumed to be the product of misread or imagined radar traces) and the near-unanimity with which it voted to support military action, of any sort, against North Vietnam and its southern allies.
This brings us back to Resolution 104 and the current congressional rush to indict China. Like the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the February 9 measure condemns China with nary a hint of doubt about what occurred and is equally devoid of dissenting voices. With such negligible resistance to warmongering, we can only face with trepidation a more serious crisis, say over a clash between US and Chinese ships or planes in the area around Taiwan. If we are to survive such an encounter, progressives and peace advocates must work now to identify possible successors to Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening and encourage them to rally their colleagues in Congress against the drift to war.