Analysis & Opinions - Newsweek

A Republican Victory in the House Ties Biden's Hands on China, Russia, Iran

| Nov. 10, 2022

Excerpt from Newsweek article with comments from Chris Li

A Republican majority in the House of Representatives following a divisive midterm election would not only constrain President Joe Biden's ability to maneuver on domestic legislation, but would also likely hinder attainment of his foreign policy goals in the leadup to the next presidential election two years from now.

While conservatives may have hoped to attain an even larger majority in the nationwide series of votes that took place Tuesday, securing enough to take control of the lower chamber of Congress would give Republicans added influence in affecting the administration's outlook on key hotspots across the globe. Key among these are a strained bilateral relationship with China, Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine, and uncertainties over Iran, with whom resurrecting a nuclear deal seemed perhaps more unlikely than at any time during Biden's presidency.

Newsweek spoke with experts on all three foreign policy fronts. They predicted a push for a more aggressive approach on China, increased scrutiny on aid to Ukraine, and greater pressure to abandon nuclear talks with Iran in favor of a tougher strategy.

China

In many ways, Trump's legacy on China was among the most consequential influences on Biden's foreign policy. While the administration has sought to pursue a degree of cooperation with the People's Republic, the president has channeled his predecessor's rigor in a number of areas, including human rights, competition over technology and the disputed island of Taiwan.

"If the Republicans regain control of the House and possibly the Senate, Biden's options on China will narrow, whether he likes it or not," Chris Li, director of the Asia-Pacific Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, told Newsweek.

"First, the Admin will be consumed by the daily stuff of partisan infighting to a much greater extent than before, limiting the time and focus it can dedicate to managing U.S.-China relations," Li said. "But second, there's an adage in American politics never to let an opponent get to the right of you on a national security issue."

"Although the Biden Administration may be reluctant to acknowledge it," he explained, "a powerful factor implicitly motivating its calculus on China policy has been a desire to avoid looking 'soft on China' domestically, and therefore to adopt a more hawkish stance aligned more closely with Republican approaches."

Li recalled how under Biden's top diplomat, Antony Blinken, the State Department has retained a number of policy points produced under his predecessor, Mike Pompeo. Calls for even more severe measure have emerged most openly in Republican circles, but also among Democrats, leaving less room for a potential detente.

"If the Republicans regain control of one or both chambers of Congress, expect domestic political pressures on the Biden administration to increase," Li added, "and any effort to stabilize the U.S.-China relationship or to construct 'guardrails' around the current competition — as the Admin claims it seeks to do — to be scrutinized heavily by the Republicans, who will aggressively exploit any perceived weaknesses."

For both Beijing and Washington, Li said, "the uncomfortable truth is that domestic political dynamics — rather than a clear-eyed assessment of national interests — are increasingly driving foreign policy decision-making in both countries."

But in the U.S., in particular, this domestic pressure has translated into developments that have a left a serious impression on what both governments consider to be the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Lawmakers have taken matters into their own hands, both in a deluge of bills featuring increasingly harsh language against China, as well as travel to Taiwan.

As the likely end of her tenure approached in the leadup to Tuesday's election, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the first in her position to visit the contested island in a quarter of a century, outraging China, which conducted massive military exercises around Taiwan and suspended cooperation with the U.S. on a number of key issues.

"President Biden has argued that in relations with China, a mix of competition and cooperation is necessary," Li said. "But as the overall health of the relationship continues to deteriorate, competition will become the dominant paradigm, while any space for cooperation will shrink.

"Unfortunately," Li added, "because both countries share certain vital national interests — such as avoiding a conflict that could escalate into a general war — the bilateral relationship will grow more dangerous day by day."

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:A Republican Victory in the House Ties Biden's Hands on China, Russia, Iran.” Newsweek, November 10, 2022.