The outcome of the political battle for control of the U.S. Congress is expected to affect the tone if not the substance of President Joe Biden’s approach toward China over the next two years.
China analysts interviewed by VOA said the current trend of tough-on-China policies is unlikely to change in a hyper-partisan Congress, but the better-than-expected showing by Biden’s Democratic Party could give him more room to maneuver.
“There's a strong consensus among Republicans and Democrats in the Congress on the need to pass legislation to protect American technological advantages, protect American defense regarding China,” Robert Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College and an associate at Harvard University's John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, told VOA Mandarin.
“I do expect the consensus on U.S.-China relations will hold, so pending legislation including defense policy and legislation on Taiwan, the Taiwan Policy Act, will not be interrupted by the election,” he added.
Dean Chen, an associate professor of political science at the Ramapo College of New Jersey, agreed that the current trend of toughening policy on China will remain.
“But if the Democrats continue to hold onto its slim majority over Senate, it does give President Biden some minor leeway to push his agenda at least at thwarting the Republicans’ more aggressive initiatives,” he told VOA.
A Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate?
While the balance of power remains too close to call, media outlets monitoring vote counting report the Republicans are expected to flip the House, while the Democrats could maintain their slim majority in the Senate.
With a majority in the Senate, experts say, Democrats would make it easier for President Biden to cooperate with China on select issues where the two countries’ interests align.
"We know the Senate relative to the House has slightly more say in foreign policy issue area," Chen said. "And Biden does want to leave some room for discussion for some collaboration with China, for example, on climate change."
Republicans are expected to win back the House with a much slimmer majority than they had predicted. The Republicans had anticipated a sweeping “red wave” victory as many voters have voiced amid widespread unhappiness over high inflation and fears of a recession.
While both parties have embraced increasingly tough rhetoric on China, analysts say Republicans have proposed more aggressive policies than Democrats.
“Republicans have been particularly interested - for instance, the United States’ support for Taiwan, being more heavy-handed about ensuring that various types of U.S. technology don't end up in Chinese hands, and trying to cut U.S. capital flows to Chinese companies that may have ties to the Chinese government,” said Anna Tucker Ashton, director of China corporate affairs at the Eurasia Group, a political risk management company.
Ashton told VOA she expects a Republican-controlled House will push China proposals forward and pressure the White House to take a tougher stance on Beijing.
Ross from Boston College said Taiwan remains the most sensitive issue in the U.S.-China relationship.
“The major issue with China policy and within the Taiwan Policy Act is to what extent the Taiwan Policy Act affords Taiwan the symbol of sovereignty and requires the White House to treat Taiwan diplomatically as a sovereign independent country,” he said.
“Republicans will push the White House to do that. And it may be more difficult for the White House to resist as we see Republicans taking a very high-profile position on this.”
China regards Taiwan as a wayward province and has not ruled out an invasion.
New China committee?
Last month, Bloomberg News reported Republicans have already indicated that if they win the House, they will set up a committee to investigate the origin of COVID-19 from China, look at allegations of theft of intellectual property from U.S. companies, and investigate whether China is dominating key industries in the United States.
Mike Gallagher, a Republican lawmaker from Wisconsin, told VOA Mandarin that he backs the China committee proposed by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the likely next House speaker if his party wins the majority.
“I think it'll be a way of usefully cutting across different committee jurisdictions, because China issues keep [being] referred to so many different committees. So you need a select committee like that to really rise above the committee parochialism,” he told VOA.
Chen with Ramapo College of New Jersey said that’s very likely to happen, especially as countries around the world are still keen to determine the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think that Democrats will also be supportive of it, because not only the United States, but also the world, want more objective answers to it,” he said.
How midterms are viewed by China’s leaders
In China, the state-run media outlet Global Times quoted Chinese academics saying that if Biden continues to suffer setbacks in a Republican-dominated Congress, he could seek to strengthen his voice on the international stage, including by continuing to confront Beijing.
“I think they (the Chinese) are going to be somewhat gratified that the Republicans do not control both houses of Congress, but they are also going to be worrying that Republicans controlling the House of Representatives will have a platform to push for more hostile policy toward China,” said Ross from Boston College.
Chen said a more important message has been sent to the Chinese people through this midterm election.
“I think the message it sends to countries like China is really going down to the notion that being a democracy, a mature advanced democracy like the United States, at the end of the day voters do have the will,” he said.
Chen pointed out that election results so far show that voters are displeased with Biden’s many policies, chief among them being the economy and inflation, so they are not going to reward his Democratic Party with a majority in the Congress.
“Nonetheless, they (the voters) are also uncomfortable with the irrational extremist messages coming from the Trump wing of the Republican Party, and consequently they also don't want to give the Republican Party the so-called ‘red wave,’” he said.
“I think the result ultimately comes down to rationality and objectivity, and I think that really gives a sharp contrast to countries like China where they don't even have elections,” he said.
VOA Mandarin Service reporters Yi-Hua Lee and Jie Xi contributed to this report.