US-China relations: restart Congressional visits to mainland to revive dialogue and understanding

SCMP | April 14 , 2023

From SCMP, 2023-4-14

 ■ With Congress playing a bigger role than ever in the US-China relationship, it is important for Beijing to restart face-to-face interaction with US delegations.

■ Engaging with US lawmakers will not be easy, but the risk is surely greater not to engage with an increasingly hands-on Congress.

By Wang Huiyao | Founder of the Center for China and Globalization(CCG)


Congress has arguably never played a bigger role in the US-China relationship. Since the 118th Congress convened in January, lawmakers have introduced a lengthy series of China-related bills, met Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, in both the United States and Taipei, questioned TikTok’s CEO and formed a new select committee that has labelled the Communist Party an “existential threat” to the US.

After this flurry of events, it is perhaps no wonder that the US Congress is seen as a hawkish and destabilising influence in US-China relations, at least in Beijing. But it has not always been this way.

After the “red scare” of McCarthyism in the 1950s, congressional activities such as the 1966 Senate hearings on China played a key role in building a climate in which rational discussion could take place again. It was driven by figures with a deep interest in Asia, such as senators Mike Mansfield and J. William Fulbright.

After president Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, Mansfield and Fulbright were among the legislators who visited China between 1972 and 1978 as part of congressional delegations. As the administration’s outreach to China waned with Nixon’s downfall and president Gerald Ford’s domestic preoccupations, these delegations became the most active channel of communication between the two governments to reach agreements on normalising relations.

These early visits, generally followed by reports and hearings that provided first-hand evaluations of China, played an important role in helping the rest of Congress and the broader American public understand China’s political system, its attitude towards the US, and the importance of improving bilateral relations.

Candid discussions with legislators helped Chinese leaders understand the dynamics and positions of Congress. The visits also served to promote economic cooperation in fields such as agriculture and aviation and left a strong impression on lawmakers which would go on to play key roles in shaping US foreign policy, including a young Joe Biden who made his first trip to China in 1979.

In recent decades, delegations of members of Congress and their staff have continued to visit China, allowing them to meet senior Chinese officials and learn about China for themselves through site visits, study tours and meetings. However, these in-person exchanges, which were already declining before the Covid-19 pandemic, have come to a halt for the past three years.

At a time when tensions between the two powers have reached new heights, this lack of face-to-face interaction has exacerbated misunderstanding and lack of trust. Now that China has reopened, it is time for a concerted effort to get US lawmakers to come back and see the country for themselves.

Last year, almost 40 members of Congress went to Taiwan, the most in a decade, and this year more delegations have visited the island. Beijing will continue to oppose these trips, but it can also welcome them to visit the mainland. When the next high-profile visit happens, it would be smart to adopt a more proactive approach and invite lawmakers to visit the mainland.

Engaging with members of Congress directly would let Beijing put its own spin on the visits and hopefully better manage these periodic disruptions to the US-China relationship. The Asia tour by Newt Gingrich in 1997 provides a case in the past, when the then-House speaker was persuaded to start his tour with a visit to the mainland for three days before going on to Taiwan via Tokyo.

Some lawmakers will refuse the invitation. Even so, there is no harm in China showing openness and a willingness to engage with Congress. Some lawmakers – such as California Democrat Ro Khanna, a member of the select committee on China – have expressed a willingness to visit. Despite the appearance of a bipartisan hawkish consensus, there is a diversity of views in Congress and a willingness to pursue a multifaceted approach to China that does not foreclose the possibility of stabilising bilateral relations.

Managing these visits will be tricky. Chinese officials will have to engage constructively with guests who have to play to a domestic audience which demands they be “tough on China”, especially as the 2024 presidential election countdown begins.

Minds will not be changed in a single visit, but at this stage any chance to interact and present a different side of the story would be an improvement. First-person experience can be surprisingly corrosive to preconceived ideas.

A year before his 1997 visit, Gingrich likened Beijing’s leadership to terrorists. After three days in China, he was pushing for stronger bilateral engagement and described meeting Chinese leaders as “the high point of my public life”.

Furthermore, Chinese lawmakers and top advisers should be encouraged to visit the US so more direct exchanges and frank dialogue can be conducted for both countries.

Of course, much has changed since the Gingrich visit, and even more since Congress helped lay the groundwork for the normalisation of US-China relations in the 1970s. Geopolitically, the power balance between the two sides has narrowed and they have lost a common foe in the Soviet Union.

Beating China has become a rare unifying cause in Congress. In the current climate, it is hard to imagine any lawmaker going out on a limb, as Mansfield did in the 1960s and 1970s, to advocate closer relations with China.

There is a huge gap between the world views of US lawmakers and Chinese officials, but it is surely no bigger than it was in the 1970s before China opened up to the world. For Beijing, engaging with US lawmakers will not be easy or without risk. Even so, it is surely a greater risk not to engage with Congress as it plays a growing role in shaping the US-China relationship.

From SCMP, 2023-4-14