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Congress established the bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, or U.S.-China Commission as it is commonly known, in October 2000, as part of the 2001 Defense Authorization Act. The creation of the commission was an effort to placate critics of the decisions by the Republican-controlled Congress and the Clinton administration to grant China permanent trading status and to approve its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Those critics were diverse-human rights advocates; Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate, including hawks who considered China a military threat to the United States; and critics of free trade agreements.
The commission’s legislatively-mandated mission is to “monitor, investigate, and submit to Congress an annual report on the national security implications of the bilateral and economic relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and to provide recommendations, where appropriate, to Congress for legislative and administration action.” Public Law 108-7, the amendment to the initial authorization, charges the commission to focus on the following areas: economic reforms, proliferation practices, energy, U.S. capital markets, corporate reporting, regional and economic security impacts, U.S.-China bilateral programs, WTO compliance, and media control by the Chinese government.
The U.S.-China Commission’s annual reports are typically lengthy, with scathing criticisms of China and long lists of recommendations for Congress and the executive branch. In large part, the commission’s recommendations are routinely ignored, although other China critics cite the commission’s findings to bolster their own conclusions about security and economic threats from China.
Following the release of the commission’s 2005 report, the neocon-led Center for Security Policy (CSP) issued a release saying: “The commission is to be commended for its tireless work in exposing the rising threat from the East to American security.” The CSP release noted that the commission’s analysis “tracks closely with the testimony delivered in July  by Center President Frank J. Gaffney Jr. before the House Armed Services Committee, in which Gaffney warned, ‘The PRC’s aim is inexorably to supplant the United States as the world’s premier economic power and, if necessary, to defeat us militarily'” (CSP Decision Brief No. 05-D 57, November 9, 2005).
The 2006 commission report avoided the slash-and-burn attack on China of the error-laden 2005 report, but nonetheless contained alarmist assessments of China’s threat to U.S. national security and well-being. In his review of the 2006 report, Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists concluded: “The challenges for the United States and its allies in the region is not, as the commission seems to believe, to continue to deploy more and better weapons to counter China’s military modernization, but to figure out how to create a foreign policy that ends the mistrust” (Strategic Security Blog, November 27, 2006).
What’s more, Kristensen charges that the commission not only gets some of its facts wrong but also fails to put the facts in their proper context. The commission, for example, expresses alarm that China is “modernizing” its military forces but fails to note that so are all of China’s neighbors-as well as the United States. “All these players,” wrote Kristensen, “are engaged in a dangerous game of deterrence that creates fear and suspicion and triggers requirements for better weapons and bolder war plans.”
In an apparent attempt to elevate the purported threat of China to the United States, the commission claims that China is expanding its submarine fleet-which it is not-and that it is continuing “to improve its older intercontinental ballistic missiles”-which, while true, has been under way since 1985.
A striking addition to the 2006 report is the alarmist warning that China is becoming a threat to U.S. dominance in space. The provenance of this analysis is commission Chair Larry Wortzel, who in addition to his position as vice president for policy at the right-wing Heritage Foundation was the former director of the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College.
In a 2003 report for the Heritage Foundation entitled “China and the Battlefield in Space,” Wortzel predicted: “The newest battlefield for China will be in space” (Heritage Foundation, WebMemo #346, October 15, 2003). In that paper, Wortzel warned that, “From a defensive standpoint China is seeking to block the United States from developing its own anti-satellite weapons and space-based missile defense systems.” He charged that China and Russia are backing a UN treaty that would ban conventional and non-nuclear weapons in space, while at the same time “China is developing its own weapons”-a claim he failed to substantiate. Wortzel also maintained that China is developing offensive anti-satellite systems that could jam or ram enemy satellites, although this claim was based on the speculation of blogs rather than on hard intelligence.
Opening a dialogue with China about its offensive and defensive strategies in space was one of the 10 U.S.-China Commission recommendations that Wortzel considered most urgent. The commission’s report came out a few months after the release in August 2006 of the Bush administration’s National Space Policy, which stressed the importance of “unhindered U.S. operations in and through space to defend our interests here.” The policy opposes any treaty that would limit U.S. space research or operations-an explicit rejection of an initiative supported by most members of the United Nations, including Russia and China, that mandates a global ban on weapons in space.
Writing in Salcon.com, Andrew Leonard says the 2006 commission report “reads like a Cold War screed.” He concluded: “The era of extraterritoriality is over. The rest of the world can’t tell China what to do. We have to figure out how to help it to do what both it and the world needs” (Salon.com, November 11, 2006).
Though bipartisan, the 12-member commission-the Republican and Democratic Party leaderships appoint six members each-is composed almost exclusively of fierce critics of China. For example, the commission’s vice chairman in 2005 was Roger Robinson, a resident scholar at the hawkish CSP. Like most commission members appointed by the Republican leadership, Robinson has stressed the supposed threat an economically powerful China poses to U.S. national security. Echoing the view of other commissioners, Robinson said: “The impact of China on our nation’s economy-through such venues as trade, U.S. investments in China, China’s acquisitions in the United States, and currency valuation-inescapably affects our national security” (USCC Annual Report Statement of Vice Chairman Roger Robinson, November 9, 2005).
In 2006, commission members included Chair Larry Wortzel, former director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation; Daniel Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI); Peter Brookes of Heritage; Thomas Donnelly of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and formerly of AEI and the Project for the New American Century; Kerri Houston of the right-wing Frontiers for Freedom; and Fred Thompson of AEI. All six Republican-appointed members are associated with right-wing think tanks in Washington, DC.
Democratic appointees generally come from professions that deal with trade issues, either in labor, government, or business. Those appointed by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), a longtime opponent of normal trading relations with China, are ardent critics of China’s trade and labor practices. One of these is George Becker, who sits on the AFL-CIO’s executive council and is the president of the United Steelworkers, which has long argued for trade protections for U.S. industry.
USCC Annual Report Statement of Vice Chairman Roger Robinson, Press Conference to Announce USCC Annual Report, November 9, 2005.
Hans Kristensen, "U.S.-China Commission Report Toned Down; Errors Remain," Strategic Security Blog, November 27, 2006, Federation of American Scientists.
Michael Goldfarb, "Space Supremacy," Weekly Standard, November 2, 2006.
Larry Wortzel, "China and the Battlefield in Space," Heritage Foundation, WebMemo #346, October 15, 2003.
"About the Commission," U.S.-China Commission, www.uscc.gov/about.
"U.S. Panel Seeks Broader Sanctions Against China," SpaceWar, November 16, 2006.
Andrew Leonard, "Nancy Pelosi and the Butchers of Beijing," Salon.com, November 20, 2006.
Statement of Chairman Larry M. Wortzel, Release of 2006 Annual Report to Congress, U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission, November 16, 2006.
Peter N. Spotts, "Alarm over China's Arms Pursuit in Space," Christian Science Monitor, November 20, 2006.