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Divided Congress makes China bargaining chip

By Shi Peipei | China Daily | Updated: 2022-11-29 07:43

People walk on Times Square in New York, the United States, Nov 23, 2021. [PhotoXinhua]

Republicans secured a narrow majority in the House of Representatives on Nov 16 though the final results of the 2022 midterm elections are still to be announced. It was not the expected red wave for the Republicans, but enough to reorder the balance of power in Congress and frustrate President Joe Biden's agenda. In the Senate, Democrats maintained control of the chamber.

Historically, the party in charge of the White House will suffer a setback in the midterm elections. This is almost a given. Moreover, this year's midterm elections were the first after the US reallocated House seats and gerrymandered districts based on the 2020 census results. The Republican Party was expected to gain a greater advantage in this redistricting. However, the Republican Party did not achieve the predicted super victory "Red Wave". Why? In addition to the political and social polarization in the United States, there are two other key factors for the Democratic Party's better-than-expected performance: former president Donald Trump's high-profile participation and the Supreme Court's repeal of abortion rights.

Trump's high-profile support of various candidates became a destructive force for the Republican Party in this election. The candidates endorsed by Trump in key states lost their matchups, with his handpicked Republican Senate candidates in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada all losing.

The other important factor was the impact of the Supreme Court repealing abortion rights. In June the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, removing the nearly 50-year-old constitutional guarantee of abortion rights and giving the states the power to significantly restrict or ban abortion. The conservative justices' decision fundamentally reshaped US society by overturning the landmark 1973 precedent, which sparked a political firestorm in society. The Democrats seized on protecting abortion rights as a key issue in the midterm elections, and the Democratic messaging on abortion rights helped the party win in key states. In other words, the Democrats' success in the midterm elections was not driven by enthusiasm for Biden or the Democratic Party, but by the widespread rejection of Trumpism and the far-right.

With the Republican takeover of the House, the political dynamics in the next two years will be very different as the political turmoil is deepening and bipartisan trust is at its lowest level in decades. The Republicans leading the house will certainly launch investigations into Biden's administration, even a politically motivated impeachment is possible. However, Democratic control of the Senate ensures that whatever agenda the Republicans push through is likely to be dead on arrival in the upper chamber.

But even if the domestic agenda is blocked in the bitter partisan battle, the current US policy toward China will not change, with the Republicans in charge of the House taking a tougher stance toward China. Republican lawmakers will pressure the Biden administration on a number of China-related issues, including the traceability and accountability of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing the defense budget, intellectual property theft, and the Taiwan question. Although the Democrats still hold the majority of seats in the Senate, they may push a tougher policy due to their fear of appearing weak compared to the Republicans on China-related issues, thus forming a unified and tougher position of both parties on China. Given the fact that the two parties are polarized, cooperation on China-related issues becomes a way for the two parties to strike a deal for progress in pushing the domestic agenda.

The candidates for the Republican leadership seats are hardline anti-China hawks. These important seats have a direct impact on the setting of major congressional issues, especially those involving the China agenda. Kevin McCarthy, who was nominated to serve as House speaker, is a staunchly hawkish anti-China leader within the Republican Party. McCarthy has publicly stated in the media that if the Republicans can take the House, they will pass tougher legislation against China in areas such as the traceability and accountability of COVID-19, intellectual property theft and export controls. Mike McCaul, the likely chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said if Republicans take back the House, he will make it a priority to restrict technology exports to China. His policy priority will be strengthening export controls to prevent China's intellectual property theft.

The continued bipartisan shift toward a confrontational stance on China may result in more confrontation between the two countries, which however should be avoided. So the agreement reached between the presidents of the two countries on restarting bilateral talks as part of the international climate negotiations during their face-to-face meeting in Indonesia on Nov 14 is worth rejoicing. This breakthrough in the effort to avert catastrophic global warming has raised hopes for the resumption of formal dialogue between the two countries. Now let's see what happens.

The author is an associate researcher with the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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