With new bill, Jim Risch seeks to redefine U.S.-China relations, critical for Northwest

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, speaks to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, during a break in a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on the State Department’s 2021 budget on Capitol Hill Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Washington. Risch has co-authored a sweeping bill that aims to reset the U.S. relationship with China. (By Greg Nash / The Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – With relations between the world’s two biggest economies increasingly strained in recent weeks, an Idaho senator is trying to define a clearer U.S. strategy toward China.

Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican who chairs the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, unveiled sweeping legislation July 22 that aims to counter China’s trade practices and military build-up, invest in U.S. competitiveness, and bolster alliances and international organizations.

In an interview with The Spokesman-Review, the Idaho lawmaker laid out his vision for the relationship and why he thinks America’s top three foreign policy priorities should be “China, China and China.”

Relations between the two countries hit a new low after the Trump administration ordered China’s consulate in Houston closed July 21, accusing diplomats working there of stealing trade secrets from American companies and universities.

U.S. officials say the alleged activity is part of a broad pattern of economic espionage by Beijing, including two Chinese nationals who were indicted July 22 in Eastern Washington on charges of hacking the Hanford nuclear site and companies developing coronavirus testing and vaccines.

Risch said the theft of U.S. intellectual property – which costs the American economy between $225 billion and $600 billion annually, a 2017 report estimated – has helped China become the world’s fastest-growing economy. A company controlled by the Chinese government stole nearly $9 billion worth of trade secrets from Boise-based semiconductor maker Micron Technology, according to a 2018 indictment.

“They’ve come centuries in decades,” he said, “and a lot of it’s been because they’ve stolen every good idea we have, except our government and freedoms. And because they’ve moved so quickly, they have not felt the consequences of the rule of law and international norms that we – the United States and other developed countries – have been living by for decades and even centuries.”

President Donald Trump and his allies have also escalated their criticism of China recently, an apparent campaign strategy with the election less than 100 days away. Trump has taken to pointedly calling COVID-19 “the China virus,” and in a speech July 23, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on U.S. allies to force change in the Chinese government, framing the U.S.-China relationship as a divide “between freedom and tyranny.”

“We, the freedom-loving nations of the world, must induce China to change,” Pompeo said, “in more creative and assertive ways, because Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity.”

The Chinese government retaliated for the closure of its facility in Houston, the first consulate opened after the countries normalized relations in 1979, by ordering the U.S. consulate in the city of Chengdu shuttered. That strategically important diplomatic post was responsible for monitoring the western provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, both sites of widely documented human rights abuses.

In a July 30 op-ed published in Politico, China’s top diplomat in the U.S. called for the two countries to reset relations. Ambassador Cui Tiankai called the U.S. decision to close the Chinese consulate in Houston “only one in a series of moves to demonize China and ramp up ideological confrontation.”

“Obviously it’s probably the most tense it’s been since 1979, when diplomatic relations were established,” said J. Norwell Coquillard, executive director of the Washington State China Relations Council. “The parties aren’t talking to each other directly, they’re talking over each other.”

Robert Hamilton, Gov. Jay Inslee’s international trade adviser, said the situation is even more worrying than pre-1979, because now “we have more connections that will be disrupted, whether it’s students or tourists or investment or trade.”

Risch said the economic relationship with China, the world’s largest exporter of goods for more than a decade, is especially important to the Northwest. The trade war between the two countries that began when Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese goods in 2018 has hurt some American farmers, though China agreed to buy more Washington and Idaho potatoes under a trade deal reached earlier this year.

“Idahoans and Washingtonians are as much affected by foreign policy matters as are people in California, or New York, or Texas or anywhere else,” Risch said. “Idaho farmers and Washington farmers are very aware that what happens on the international stage affects them and their prices dramatically.”

Idaho exported $417 million in goods to China in 2018, nearly 10% of the state’s total exports that year, according to the Idaho Department of Commerce. A 2018 analysis by credit rating agency Fitch found that Idaho’s economy was more susceptible than any other state’s to harm from the ongoing trade war.

Washington is the most trade-dependent state in the nation, Coquillard said, with roughly 40% of jobs tied to overseas commerce, and China is the state’s top export destination. Not only is the Chinese market important for products like cherries, wheat and Boeing airplanes, but goods from other states are also exported through Washington.

But amid the tit-for-tat tariffs of the trade war, exports from Washington to China dropped by half from 2017 to 2019, Hamilton said. Chinese foreign direct investment in the U.S. fell from $46.5 billion in 2016 to $4.8 billion in 2019, according to data from the economic research firm Rhodium Group.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said he gives Trump credit for calling out China for not playing by the rules, but the administration has lacked a coherent strategy to dealing with China.

“I think there’s a pretty strong bipartisan sense that a lot of the previous assumptions that guided our China policy had been proven wrong,” said Manning, who worked on foreign policy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “I compare it to the second stage of grief. We were in denial for a while and now we’re just blindly angry.”

“The problem is that’s an attitude, not a policy,” Manning said. “Sooner or later, we need to evolve past the anger and outrage and find some kind of competitive coexistence with the Chinese.”

Risch’s bill – which he co-authored with GOP Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Todd Young of Indiana – seeks to do just that, proposing a policy of “managed strategic competition” with China. The 160-page tome includes provisions designed to counter China’s intellectual property theft and military build-up, make the U.S. technology sector more competitive, and restore frayed ties with allies and international organizations.

That last set of measures puts the senators somewhat at odds with the White House. Under Trump, the U.S. has withdrawn from the World Health Organization and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade agreement the Obama administration pushed forward as a way to counter Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific Region.

“The irony to me is we keep withdrawing from international institutions, creating a vacuum, and then we complain about Chinese influence,” Manning said. “It’s like a Marx Brothers movie.”Asked about the decision to withdraw from TPP, Risch was diplomatic, though he was one of 26 GOP senators who signed a letter encouraging Trump to reconsider the move in 2018.

“Certainly, the president has views on trade that are very distinctive,” he said with a chuckle. “The president is very much into bilateral arrangements instead of multilateral arrangements. Now, you can agree or disagree with that, but the foundation is the same, and that is: we need relationships.”

Risch emphasized that having a coherent policy toward China should not be a partisan issue and said that the bill was crafted with input from Democrats on the committee. But a spokesman for the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, said his party is writing its own legislation, though he declined to detail how the bills differ.

“Ranking Member Menendez does not believe the Trump administration has a real strategy for competition with China,” the spokesman, Juan Pachon, said in a statement. “So he has been creating the statutory basis for a comprehensive approach to a new U.S. China policy centered on our allies, our values, and replenishing the sources of our national strength and competitiveness here at home. That is an approach that is simply not encompassed in any proposal so far, and we hope to unveil it in the coming weeks.”

Coquillard said that with China’s economy on pace to soon become the world’s biggest and its population of 1.4 billion dwarfing the United States, America needs to work with its allies to establish a more workable relationship with China.

“You have to have a unified approach to China,” he said. “They need a little push-back in certain areas, and going alone is not going to be successful. The systems are different, our way of looking at the world is different, but we need to coexist.”

Risch said he envisions a future where China follows the example of the U.S. and its allies, and the stakes are high.

“The relationship that we would hope to have would be with a developed country that acts like other developed countries,” he said. “That is, they adopt and live by rule of law and international norms. It’s been a very successful model for the rest of the planet, and if they’re going to join the international stage they have got to do that. If we don’t get them to embrace those things, it’s going to be a very long 21st century for us and every other developed country.”