The growing polarization on display ahead of the US midterm elections next week does not bode well for the Biden administration. If Republicans gain a majority in the US House of Representatives, as polls suggest, they will unleash a torrent of debilitating partisan attacks on the administration. The Jan. 6 committee will be disbanded; US President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, will be investigated; Biden could face impeachment proceedings; and the wing of the Republican Party beholden to Fox News host Tucker Carlson and his adulation of the Kremlin will threaten to block funding for Ukraine. Although increased congressional scrutiny on some issues will be welcome—for example, to examine the administration’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal—much of it will be painful for the White House and unnerving for US allies concerned about US leadership.
But as far as competition with China is concerned, divided government could be just what is needed to unite Americans around the administration’s strategy. This is because Republicans tend to push Democratic administrations to deliver on defense and trade—two critical pillars of competition with China. At the same time, any potential divisiveness will be tempered by the fact that the US Congress and average Americans agree on confronting the China challenge more than they agree on just about anything else.
Consider historical precedents. Going into the 1994 midterm elections, the Clinton administration had spent most of its political capital on ambitious domestic initiatives, such as health care reform. US defense spending was on a long downward slide while foreign policy was mired in protectionist fights with Japan and internal squabbling over most-favored nation status for China. After Republicans took control of the House and essentially blocked then-President Bill Clinton’s domestic agenda, he focused his efforts and political capital on national security. The fights with Japan came to a sudden halt, and in 1996, Clinton and then-Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto issued a joint declaration strengthening and expanding the US-Japan alliance to deal with regional contingencies like North Korea and Taiwan for the first time, expanding an alliance that had been badly adrift only a few years earlier. The Republican-controlled House also reversed cuts in defense spending and put the US military’s budget on a steady upward trajectory. Something similar happened after the Republicans took the House and Senate from the Democrats in then-US President Barack Obama’s first midterms in 2010, which ultimately created the bipartisan coalition that convinced the Obama administration to ink the 2011 framework agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This 12-country trade and investment pact would have shifted the strategic balance in Asia had the Trump administration not pulled out of the agreement in 2017.
Skeptics will argue that the pro-defense, pro-trade Republican Party no longer exists—that it was destroyed when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. It is true that the Republican base has become more skeptical of trade agreements, and dangerously isolationist voices have emerged within the party’s “Make America Great Again” wing. But there is also more bipartisanship in Congress on competition with China than ever before. Indeed, this is one of the few areas of consensus in Washington these days. It was a bipartisan coalition that pushed through the CHIPS and Science Act in August, which will arm the administration with $50 billion to revitalize the US semiconductor industry, attract allied investment to the United States, and maintain the free world’s edge over China in the race to dominate emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. The original author of that bill was Sen. Todd Young, a Republican from reliably conservative Indiana, and the bill was co-sponsored by liberal stalwart Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. The China threat makes for strange bedfellows indeed.
And although Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, a Freedom Caucus populist expected to chair the House Judiciary Committee, will likely dominate headlines with impeachment hearings and attacks on the FBI and Justice Department, the committees with jurisdiction over defense, diplomacy, and trade will be under the helm of internationalists in the Reagan-era mold. If ranking Republican member Rep. Mike Rogers takes over the House Armed Services Committee, he can be expected to push the Defense Department to break bureaucratic obstacles slowing down initiatives with allies, such as the Australia-United Kingdom-United States agreement (known as AUKUS) to build nuclear-powered submarines and cooperate on advanced military capabilities. With Republicans on the committee talking about a defense budget in excess of $1 trillion, that likely means more military capabilities for the Indo-Pacific no matter what loud isolationist voices on the fringes might say. Rep. Adrian Smith, the ranking Republican member on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, hails from agricultural goods-exporting Nebraska, and he will be sure to push the administration to overcome its inertia on trade to cut new deals and open markets in Asia. Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has solid national security credentials as a former counterterrorism task force leader in the US Justice Department and as chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. He has been a clear-eyed advocate of stronger alliances to counter Chinese coercion.
The American public also supports stronger alliances, accelerated technology competition, and more ambitious trade policies. A new survey commissioned by the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre (USSC), which I direct, reinforces findings by other institutions—including the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Pew Research Center—that Americans strongly support their country’s alliances with Japan, Australia, and South Korea. Compared to the last such USSC poll two years ago, the share of Americans who think these alliances make the United States safer jumped 14 percentage points. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and nuclear threats as well as China’s saber-rattling in the Taiwan Strait, the American public likely recognizes that alliances are about the United States’ own security, not just international benevolence or an albatross around Washington’s neck. Although only 20 percent of Americans favor complete economic decoupling from China, majorities in the United States, Japan, and Australia think their countries are too reliant on China economically, would be willing to pay significantly more for smartphones not made in China, and support technology innovation among democratic allies to compete with China.
Even on trade, a Republican-controlled Congress may push the administration forward more than one might expect. Although a significant majority of Biden voters say the United States should join trade agreements like the TPP—and a plurality of Trump voters say it should not—two-thirds of all Americans agree that it is “important to expand trade and investment with Asia.” If Smith chairs the House Trade Subcommittee in a few months’ time, he will find that Americans back his call for more ambitious trade policies. He will likely push a reluctant US Trade Representative’s Office to turn the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework—a fancy name for not much more than a dialogue—into a substantial rule-setting compact, as long as no one calls it a “trade agreement” or the “TPP.”
None of this is to argue that populism, polarization, and the rise of post-truth discourse in American politics is without strategic consequences. Jordan’s slash-and-burn attacks on US government institutions will surely get more attention around the world than the mundane, laborious work of committees legislating on defense, diplomacy, and trade. Foreign audiences are already looking at the election with concern. Fully three-quarters of Japanese and Australians view the US midterm elections to be important to their own countries, the USSC’s survey found, while half of Australians professed alarm at the state of US democracy. But if Biden loses the House as expected and perhaps even the Senate, the administration may be surprised to find new congressional momentum building for competition with China in the Indo-Pacific. If anything, the administration may have to temper congressional eagerness to go after China, judging from the recent promises of Republican House leadership. Biden should seize these opportunities and fill in the missing pieces of his China and Indo-Pacific strategies.