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US-China relations: be thankful war between the superpowers is limited to board games – for now

The United States and China have been on a collision course over the contested South China Sea for some time. However, the critical challenges are no longer over the horizon but are now being framed in the US Congress.

Bipartisan committees and lawmakers are demanding hearings, recommending sanctions and engaging in war games to express deep concerns over trade, technology development and Taiwan.

The deep chasm in US-China relations is playing out among many policymakers and in Congress, where the Republican-controlled House of Representatives’ steps to curb China’s rising economic influence were first witnessed with the passage of House Resolution 11 that formed a select committee on competition between the US and China’s Communist Party.

Across the political spectrum, this body provides legislative recommendations on US-China economic competitive issues. Their primary interests include restoring supply chains and ending economic dependence on China, supporting Taiwan, publicising ongoing Chinese interference and influence campaigns, identifying infiltration attempts directed at US academic institutions and exposing operations of China’s security services.

Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher, the committee chair, and Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi are driving the bipartisan committee fight against China. They were responsible for one of several bills aiming to ban TikTok from operating in the US.

For now, it’s TikTok rather than China’s actions in the South China Sea that is eliciting strident rhetoric from Washington lawmakers, some of whom demand a complete ban of the app, which has been ordered taken off US government devices. Expect to see the 118th Congress undertake even more restrictive efforts that could result in a nationwide ban.

TikTok isn’t Congress’ only concern regarding China, though. Last week, Gallagher took to the political stage again to conduct a tabletop war game exercise in concert with the Washington think tank Centre for a New American Security, surrounded with select committee members in the House Ways and Means Committee room.

War games focused on conflict between the US, mainland China and Taiwan have proliferated in recent years among Washington think tanks and the Rand Corporation, a global research organisation with roots in Cold War competition with the Soviet Union.

It’s easy to understand war-gaming’s appeal to some as US-China relations continue to deteriorate and Taiwan remains in the cross hairs of a potential military confrontation.

Jonathan Cham, a policy analyst at Rand, says war games are tools to simulate scenarios and allow players to practise making consequential decisions in low-stakes environments. The war game regarding Taiwan illustrates Washington’s approach to diplomatic, economic and military options if the US and China were to ever go to war over the island.

The results of Gallagher’s war game signal the potential for more than a protracted conflict. They suggest that the US could struggle to defend Taiwan and resupply it with weapons after China begins its aerial bombardment of the island.

“These simulated war games help to understand all possible dimensions of a US-China conflict. It’s another tool that the US can bring to bear to help avoid a conflict,” said Andrew Metrick, a defence analyst at the Centre for a New American Security.

Although the US maintains close unofficial relations with Taiwan and sells arms to the island for self-defence, it remains deliberately vague on whether it would intervene in the event of a mainland invasion. It is noteworthy, however, that a bipartisan delegation of members of Congress accompanied House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on his meeting in California with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.

Gallagher and Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska have introduced the Sanctions Targeting Aggressors of Neighbouring Democracies (Stand) with Taiwan Act of 2023. The bill proposes crippling, comprehensive economic and financial sanctions on China in the event that Beijing initiates a military strike on Taiwan.

According to Washington law firm Mayer Brown, which also has offices in Shanghai and Beijing, other Congressional committees are rallying around the China economic competition issue. These include the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Texas Republican Michael McCaul, who has effectively drawn his “red lines” about China’s unfair economic competition with the US.

McCaul and his Foreign Affairs Committee have wasted no time in passing a series of China-related bills and resolutions targeting Beijing. The legislation included a wide array of issues, including February’s spy balloon incident, forcible organ harvesting and a group of bills designed to rein in Beijing’s rising economic power.

Last October, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security issued rules aimed at restricting China’s ability to obtain advanced computing chips, develop and maintain supercomputers and manufacture advanced semiconductors.

McCaul’s committee has also issued bulletins aimed at exposing China’s “global malign influence” and what it deemed predatory Belt and Road Initiative projects for harming too many countries through a debt-trap diplomacy campaign. For example, a report from March highlights how Djibouti had, as of 2018, US$1.4 billion in loans from China, a substantial percentage of its GDP.

With the 2024 political campaign ramping up, both Republican presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are already whipping up crowds with vitriolic speeches about China’s ideological, technological, economic and military threats to the US.

DeSantis also served as a House Foreign Relations Committee member from 2017 to 2019. He has repeatedly called for the Florida legislature to block land purchases in the state controlled by the Chinese government, plus curbs on its investments in technology and state universities.

The optics regarding relations between the US and China look bad for both Washington and Beijing as global challenges continue to mount. The world should be grateful that, for now, war between the two nations is confined to a board game.

Read the article on the South China Morning Post

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