Two recent developments demonstrate the US focus on China, is not going away even though officially, the Biden administration’s target remains Russia for the latter’s aggression on Ukraine.
Recent remarks by Christopher Wray, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, confirming that the Covid-19 pandemic originated from a lab incident in Wuhan, China and formation of a Special House Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) both signify a renewed push to signal that while Russia is a primary target of US actions, China remains a long-term threat to America.
The FBI’s tweet that “FBI Director Christopher Wray (had) confirmed that the Bureau has assessed that the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic likely originated from a lab incident in Wuhan, China,” reopened the debate on accusations made in the public domain since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, that the virus most likely leaked from a lab in Wuhan. These remarks can be contextualised against the framing of the US-China relationship as “an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century,” by the Chairman of a special House Committee of the American Congress dedicated to countering China.
The FBI chief Gray said (March 1, 2023), the Agency had, “…for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan… I will just make the observation that the Chinese government has been doing its best to try to thwart and obfuscate the work here, the work that we’re doing, the work that our US government and close foreign partners are doing”. The Wall Street Journal reported (February 26, 2023) that the FBI Director’s remarks come in the wake of new intelligence that prompted the US Energy Department to also conclude that an accidental laboratory leak in China most likely caused the novel coronavirus pandemic. The shift by the Energy Department, which previously was undecided on how the virus emerged, is noted in an update to a 2021 document by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines’s office. The Energy Department has thus joined the FBI in saying the virus likely spread via a mishap at a Chinese laboratory. The Energy Department’s conclusion is the result of new intelligence and is significant because the agency has considerable scientific expertise and oversees a network of US national laboratories , some of which conduct advanced biological research.
In recent times, Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate, have been making their own investigations into the origins of the pandemic and have been pressing the Biden administration and the intelligence community for more information. China, which had placed limits on investigations by the World Health Organization, has disputed that the virus could have leaked from one of its labs and has suggested it emerged outside China. However, the fact that Wuhan is the center of China’s extensive coronavirus research, has led several scientists and US officials to argue that a lab leak is the best explanation for the pandemic’s origin. Wuhan is home to an array of laboratories, many of which were built or expanded as a result of China’s traumatic experience with the initial severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, epidemic beginning in 2002.
The FBI Director’s remarks can be viewed against the backdrop of tensions between the US and China, which have been rising for years. China’s opaque response to the Covid-19 pandemic, its aggression towards Taiwan and the recent flight of a spy balloon over the US have fueled lawmakers’ desire to do more to counter China. The new Select Committee on the CCP, under Committee chairman, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisconsin, is expected to be at the center of many efforts in the next two years in this direction. At the first hearing, Senator Gallagher addressed the issue of finding common ground on China-focused legislation, and said the Chinese government had found friends on Wall Street and in lobbyists on Washington’s K Street, who are ready to oppose the committee’s efforts.
Senator Gallagher is looking for the Committee to shepherd several bills in the next two years and issue a set of recommendations on long-term policies. So far, Gallagher appears to have Democratic buy-in and support. The vote to create the Committee was bipartisan, 365-65. Witnesses for the first day’s hearing included, two former advisers to President Donald Trump: Matthew Pottinger, the Deputy National Security Adviser who resigned immediately after the 6 January 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol; and HR McMaster, who was National Security Adviser from February 2017 to April 2018.
McMaster and Pottinger delivered sweeping assessments of what they said was the challenge the United States was facing from China. That ranged from combating TikTok’s influence on Americans’ online discourse and reducing China’s dominance over supply chains to hardening Taiwan to make it impossible for China’s military to take. Pottinger said the main emphasis of his testimony was to open people’s eyes to how the US had become too complacent. “Before we can seize the initiative, we have to react to the fact that our national interest has been deeply undermined over the course of the last quarter century,” he said. The hearings come at a time of heightened rivalry and tensions between China and the United States. Both sides are consolidating their military positions in the Indo-Pacific in case of any confrontation over Taiwan,
Last summer, Chinese warships and warplanes fired missiles over Taiwan in what were days of intense Chinese military exercises following then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the US ally. President Xi Jinping’s government at the time rejected President Joe Biden’s declarations that his administration had no control over the actions of US lawmakers. And three weeks ago, the Biden administration used a Sidewinder missile fired from an F-22 Raptor to end the journey of what the US says was a giant Chinese surveillance balloon traveling across US territory.
Both incidents, especially the balloon, captured American public and political attention, and generated a debate over how to handle China in the center of US political debate. This is an important landmark as it signals an attempt by sections of the US government and legislature to restore focus on China, in terms of threat assessments.
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