Russia and Global Security Risks
COVID-19: US Congress vs. China

At first glance, congressional activity is hardly worth exaggerating. The numerous resolutions should be considered not so much as ready-made foreign policy decisions, but in the context of public policy and positioning in the eyes of voters, especially against the backdrop of the upcoming presidential campaign. However, one cant underestimate the efforts of the congressmen. First of all, because the activity of the Republicans is in tune with the position of the administration, writes Ivan Timofeev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club. 

In the United States, a political campaign against China is gaining momentum in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic. The Trump administration has taken a tough stance against Beijing, blaming China for a significant share of the damage caused by the epidemic. However, so far it has not made any concrete moves. Such moves are most likely to include economic sanctions against individual citizens of the PRC who are associated with government entities or organisations the Americans deem responsible for the spread of COVID-19. Anti-Chinese sentiment is growing in Congress, which may push the administration to impose sanctions. The main initiators there are also Republicans. Over the past month and a half, a number of bills have been submitted to Congress that specify ways of imposing sanctions against China in connection with COVID-19. Along with the bills, a series of resolutions has also been proposed condemning China, calling it to account, and at the same time again raising a number of other problems, including human rights and minority rights.

At first glance, congressional activity is hardly worth exaggerating. Like any parliament, it is a public policy body. Unlike career civil servants in the executive branch, congressmen care about resonance, publicity, and a sharp and bitter reaction to important problems. Therefore, numerous resolutions should be considered not so much as ready-made foreign policy decisions, but in the context of public policy and positioning in the eyes of voters, especially against the backdrop of the upcoming presidential campaign. The initiators of most anti-Chinese initiatives are precisely the Republicans, who are trying to seize the initiative and make the matter part of the campaign agenda.

However, one can’t underestimate the efforts of the congressmen. First of all, the activity of the Republicans is in tune with the position of the administration. This means that if the bills on China and COVID-19 pass through the House of Representatives and the Senate, there will be no big obstacles to the bills, especially if they give the president freedom of action in calibrating sanctions and other measures. It is also important that the administration often takes the lead and takes measures that are only at the discussion stage in Congress itself. From the administration’s point of view, this is the right move, as it allows it to report to the Congress from prepared positions – “You are only discussing, but we have already done.” The President of the United States will most likely not wait for the bills to pass, but simply use the powers given to him by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA – 1977). He may well declare a state of emergency in connection with the alleged actions of the PRC and the threat of an epidemic, and issue one or more executive orders introducing certain sanctions against Chinese citizens or organisations.

Trade War and Sanctions: An Illusory Link
Ivan Timofeev
The connection between trade relations and sanctions is hardly worth overestimating. The application of sanctions is an independent direction related to political issues. China has a number of opportunities to retaliate. The aggravation of relations between such big players carries risks for the global economy, and they can affect Russia.

In Congress itself, activity against China and COVID-19 is increasing. A number of resolutions condemning China were tabled for discussion. They aptly illustrate the changes in the anti-Chinese narrative. One of the first such resolutions appeared in the Senate in February (No. 497 of February 11, 2020). It noted the merits of Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, one of the first doctors to warn of the dangers of the new virus. He died from COVID-19 and, according to the US position, became a victim of censorship by the Chinese authorities. The resolution was quite moderate; it called on China to be open and cooperate with the United States. At the same time, purely political elements appear in it, for example, “support for the people of China in their demand for freedom of speech.”

Subsequent documents take on a sharper tone. House Resolution No. 907 of March 24, 2020 condemned the PRC for censoring reports of the virus in the initial stages of the epidemic, for turning down a proposal to cooperate with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a month, and also for denying that the disease is transmitted from person to person. Gripes and demands that were not directly related to COVID-19 were added to this. In particular, they included calls to release the detained Uyghur Muslims and close all programmes related to forced labour. This conflation of the response to COVID-19 theme with other sensitive issues only further politicised the countries’ discordance. A similar resolution (No. 552 of March 24, 2020) was adopted in the Senate. It directly blamed the epidemic on the Chinese government and called for an international investigation led by the medical authorities of the United States and other affected countries. An important part of the resolution is a call to the international community to calculate the damage, as well as to identify mechanisms of compensation for damage by the PRC. Later, the House of Representatives also supported these requirements.

An interesting development of the narrative took place by the end of April 2020. Resolution of the House of Representatives No. 944 (April 28, 2020) directly linked the COVID-19 epidemic with the suppression of human rights in China. Even more interesting is the call to the United States and other affected countries to withhold payments on loans from China, in payment of damage caused by COVID-19. Such a proposal is especially interesting, as it comes from the legislators of a state where China is a major creditor.

Along with the resolutions, congressmen also offered a series of bills. On March 26, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives on the need to develop a strategy for demanding reparations from China. On April 7, a bill was proposed in the House to posthumously award Dr. Lee Wenliang with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the United States. On May 4, a voluminous bill, the Law on Justice for Victims of Coronavirus, appeared in the Senate.

As expected, a series of bills appeared, the adoption of which would mean the imposition of sanctions against China. So far, there are three such bills. Moreover, each new set of proposed measures was more radical than the last. The first draft, entitled “Ending Chinese Medical Censorship and Cover Ups Act of 2020," was proposed by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. It involves freezing assets (blocking sanctions) and launching visa sanctions against PRC officials who are responsible for censoring and restricting information, including on epidemiological issues. The president will have to make a list of such persons (if the bill is adopted) at least once a year.

The second was the bill of Republican Senator Tom Cotton and a number of his party members under the name of Li Wenliang Global Public Health Accountability Act. It involves similar blocking and visa sanctions against Chinese officials, whom the US President considers to be involved in the censorship of medical information, including with respect to COVID-19. Innovation is the norm; the president is obliged to compile lists of persons against whom sanctions will be imposed, the opinion of Congress, as well as “reliable information received from states and non-profit organisations that monitor human rights and global medical problems”.

Finally, the third bill was introduced by Senator Lindsay Graham (who is already well-known in Russia), together with several of his associates in the Republican Party.It reflects the already well-known mix of COVID-19 and human rights issues. The President is obligated to verify within 60 days that China has provided a complete and comprehensive response to any investigation into COVID-19 conducted by the United States, allies, or UN organisations; closed all wet markets, which may become a source of risk for new diseases; and released all “democracy supporters” in Hong Kong who have been arrested since the start of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Obviously, all these requirements are simply not feasible, neither technically nor politically. If they are not complied with, the president is authorised to use at least two types of sanctions out of six. To blocking and visa restrictions are added bans on issuing student visas to the Chinese, a ban on US financial institutions from lending to Chinese organisations, a block on loans to international organisations, and a ban on companies with a controlling stake in the hands of the Chinese from participating in stock quotes.

In other words, unlike the previous two bills, we are talking about much more radical measures. The US executive is unlikely to support such a bill in its current version. If the administration applies sanctions, it is more likely to be according to the model of the first two bills. Lindsey Graham’s “Draconian Sanctions,” are fraught with great damage to Americans themselves.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.