Several pieces of US legislation targeting China – including one that could close Hong Kong’s representative offices in America and another that would all but block US investment in China’s AI and other hi-tech sectors – cleared a key congressional committee on Wednesday.
A bill that would bolster Washington’s cooperation with India, Japan and Australia and others that would authorise further action aimed at protecting China’s Tibetan and Uygur populations from alleged human rights abuses also passed without objection.
None of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s 51 members voted “no”, according to an electronic poll held later in the day on some of these bills.
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The results underscore strong bipartisan interest in Washington in sending a message to Beijing, despite recent closer engagement between Biden administration officials and their Chinese counterparts.
On Wednesday, a bill introduced by the panel’s chairman, Texas Republican Mike McCaul, and New York Democrat Gregory Meeks, the ranking member, would require American firms investing in Chinese companies developing AI, quantum computing, hypersonics and semiconductors to report such activity.
The House bill goes beyond the restrictions the Biden administration announced this year on investments that firms can make overseas, a move aimed at blunting China’s access to technologies that could undermine US national security.
Biden’s executive order targets “semiconductors and microelectronics, quantum information technologies and certain artificial intelligence systems”.
Both measures include investments in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau. The House bill also targets investments in North Korea, the Russian Federation and other “countries of concern”.
“Whether it’s [US]$1 or $1 billion, US investors should not be involved in these hi-tech areas that will shape and define the future,” McCaul said in a committee mark-up hearing.
Describing the legislation as “the strongest countering China bill ever”, McCaul added: “The time now calls for bold new ideas instead of old failed approaches.”
The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office Certification Act would require the White House to “remove the extension of certain privileges, exemptions and immunities” to the offices if it decided that Hong Kong no longer enjoys a high degree of autonomy from Beijing.
Sponsored by Republican congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, the bill was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is now expected to go to the full chamber for a vote.
A Senate version of the bill passed that chamber’s foreign relations committee in July, but has not yet been put to a vote on the floor.
In response, the Hong Kong government on Wednesday condemned Congress for “gross interference”, calling the bill “factually wrong”.
“It aims to achieve political objectives by smearing and attacking the work of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices,” it said in a statement, slamming the legislation for its “complete disregard” of Hong Kong’s status “under one country, two systems”.
Assuming both chambers pass the bill and Biden signs it, the American leader would be required to explain to Congress why the city’s offices in the US should retain or lose their diplomatic privileges, which were granted under the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992.
That law went into effect ahead of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997 and was intended to keep American trade and other privileges the city enjoyed in place following the transfer of control.
The city’s three representative offices in the US – in Washington, New York and San Francisco – would be required to close within 180 days if the president opted for decertification.
Both versions of the legislation include a “disapproval resolution” clause that would allow Congress to override the president’s assessment and force the offices to close.
The congressional committee on Wednesday also passed a bill urging Washington to bolster cooperation with India, Japan and Australia, which with the US comprise the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad.
Introduced in September by Meeks, the Strengthening the Quad Act seeks to upgrade the grouping by establishing an inter-parliamentary working group to enhance dialogue between the legislatures of the four member countries.
The Quad was established in 2004 for humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, but remained largely dormant until 2017.
Resurrected by then-US president Donald Trump as a group of democracies against an “autocratic” China, the alliance has since been embraced by Biden as part of his Indo-Pacific strategy. In March 2021, Biden elevated the group to the leaders’ level and hosted the first-ever Quad Leaders’ summit in virtual format.
Meeks on Wednesday called the Quad “more important than ever”, citing “an increasingly precarious and unstable Indo-Pacific region”.
The legislation would provide the informal grouping sustained support in all four member states, ensuring it was well resourced, he added.
Though the Biden administration has claimed that the Quad is aimed at “maintaining peace and stability” in the Indo-Pacific, Beijing has criticised it as a “small clique” that is “bent on provoking confrontation”.
Without naming China, the Strengthening the Quad Act calls on the US to expand cooperation on issues such as freedom of navigation and overflight, the peaceful resolution of disputes as well as democratic resilience in the Indo-Pacific.
It also urges the US to ensure that the region is “free from undue influence and coercion”.
Despite assertions that the Quad had no military dimensions, Democratic congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia said it would not be “effective” if China had “nothing to fear”. Connolly called on America’s partners to invest in their own militaries.
“That’s the whole point of the Quad,” said Connolly on Wednesday. “It’s not a unilateral American action.”
McCaul described it as a body that “complements” the Aukus alliance, a trilateral security pact comprising the US, Britain and Australia.
Earlier this year, the panel approved authorisation to sell up to two nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines to Australia under Aukus. McCaul hoped Congress would pass the measure as part of the 2024 National Defense Authorisation bill.
Last week, Beijing and Washington traded accusations after China’s military said it had driven away a US warship in the contested South China Sea. The US Navy countered that it was on a “routine freedom-of-navigation operation”.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, a key transit point for commercial shipping in an area of immense natural resources. Other parties to the dispute include the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 said China’s claims had no legal basis.
While the US does not make any territorial claims there, it has repeatedly challenged Chinese assertions of sovereignty through its freedom-of-navigation operations.
As Beijing’s infrastructure initiatives are another area of concern for Washington, the proposed legislation involving the Quad asks member countries to collaborate with global and regional financial institutions to back competitive, transparent, and sustainable development and infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific.
Human rights were another focal point for the committee on Wednesday.
The Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act, which passed the committee without the need for a roll-call, would amend the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 to authorise government efforts to counter disinformation about Tibet from Beijing.
The legislation would make it official US policy that “Tibet” refers to not only the autonomous region as defined by the Chinese government but also the Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.
While Washington considers Tibet part of the People’s Republic of China, it does not hold that Beijing’s control over the region is consistent with international law.
The Uygur Policy Act of 2023, also approved on Wednesday, would appoint a “special coordinator for Uygur issues” in the US State Department.
It would authorise funding for human rights advocates to speak in countries part of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, an intergovernmental group comprising mostly majority-Muslim countries.
In addition, the act pushes the US government to develop a coordination plan with “like-minded countries” to pressure Beijing to close all detention facilities and “political re-education” camps housing Uygurs and other minorities in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
The Chinese government has repeatedly denied the existence of such camps, claiming the facilities are “vocational training centres” aimed at responding to the threat of religious extremism.
Later on Wednesday, the House select committee on the Chinese Communist Party held a commemoration at the US Capitol for the one-year anniversary of the “white paper” protests.
The demonstrations erupted on the mainland last November after a deadly fire broke out in an apartment in Urumqi, Xinjiang, which many believed resulted from the government’s strict “zero-Covid” lockdowns. Protesters’ demands ranged from dismantling lockdowns to urging democratic freedoms in China.
Flanked by pro-democracy activists from the Hong Kong, Uygur and mainland Chinese communities, Republican congressman Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the committee’s chair, said: “There comes a point when tyranny becomes so obvious, and the censorship so overbearing, that slogans, arguments [and] manifestos are no longer even needed.”
“All you need is a blank sheet of paper.”
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