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Opinion Congress on China: Don’t trust, and verify

The Huawei building in Shenzhen, China, on Dec. 11. (Alex Plavevski/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The Trump administration last week struck a trade deal with Beijing that heavily relies on trusting the Chinese government to improve its behavior and uphold a range of verbal commitments. But this week, Congress has passed legislation that seeks to confront China on a range of threats and challenges — based on the basic realization that Beijing cannot be trusted to keep its promises.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 is a huge bill that the Senate sent to President Trump’s desk on Tuesday. China is mentioned more than 200 times in its conference report. There was a bipartisan, bicameral consensus to include several new measures requiring the administration to report on Chinese bad behavior and then defend the United States and punish the Chinese government when it doesn’t fulfill its commitments.

For example, lawmakers added to the defense bill legislation that authorizes sanctions on Chinese companies that produce the illegal drug fentanyl or its precursors, or that help export these illicit items to the United States. Chinese President Xi Jinping promised the United States, three years ago and again last December, to crack down on fentanyl. But Congress is no longer taking his word on it.

“While China has announced a ban on fentanyl, given their history of breaking promises and predatory economic behavior, I am deeply skeptical China will persistently follow through,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told me. “This bipartisan bill creates mandatory sanctions to call China’s bluff and also holds the Trump administration’s feet to the fire.”

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Schumer decided to spearhead the legislation after reading about how the spike in fentanyl-related deaths in the United States in recent years could be traced back to China in a 2017 report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He joined with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on the effort.

Cotton told me the Chinese Communist Party has been waging an “opium war” on the United States using fentanyl for years and now the United States has to act to punish Chinese entities involved, regardless of Beijing’s promises.

“We would be foolish to trust Beijing’s promise to crack down on fentanyl after it turned a blind eye to the drug dealing of its pharmaceutical and chemical companies for so long,” said Cotton. “Our bill will sanction drug dealers in China, Mexico and elsewhere who are responsible for poisoning tens of thousands of Americans each year.”

Schumer and Cotton had already worked together last year in an effort to push back against Trump’s decision to ease restrictions on Chinese technology giant ZTE. This year, Cotton and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) worked together on legislation to prevent Trump from easing restrictions on Huawei, another Chinese tech company. There’s a lot of concern in Congress that Trump will ease pressure on Huawei as part of the trade deal, and lawmakers want to enshrine restrictions on the company into law.

The final version of the defense bill contains new restrictions meant to prevent the administration from taking Huawei off a Commerce Department list that bans American firms from working with the company without specific exemptions. The language was watered down, Bloomberg reported, after Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) intervened on behalf of Huawei. Nevertheless, the Trump administration will now have to demonstrate Huawei has actually curbed its sanctions-busting and is no longer a threat to national security before it can be taken off the list.

China’s efforts to infiltrate U.S. universities and research institutions will also get new scrutiny in the defense bill, thanks to the Protect Our Universities Act. Originally sponsored by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), this legislation mandates increased screening for researchers coming from China, Russia and Iran. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has been talking about the Chinese government’s efforts to steal U.S. research and technology for some time.

Inside the bill, there are several reporting requirements that Congress added to press the administration on other areas of concern related to China, including artificial intelligence, China’s Belt and Road economic strategy, Chinese expansion into the Arctic and Beijing’s coercion of Taiwan. Lawmakers are looking past the trade deal and trying to address the larger implications of China’s worldwide economic aggression and military expansion.

Trump administration officials insist that their new trade deal with China is not based on trust, but has real enforcement mechanisms if Beijing doesn’t honor its promises to stop stealing intellectual property, forcing U.S. companies to hand over technology, etc. But the details are scarce.

On Sunday, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer said Beijing will or will not honor its commitments depending on who inside the Chinese government is really in charge, the “hardliners” or the “reformers.”

“If the hardliners are making the decisions, we’re going to get one outcome,” he said on “Face the Nation.” “If the reformers are making the decisions, which is what we hope, then we’re going to get another outcome.”

Congress is not basing U.S. policy on the hope that “reformers” are going to be the ones in charge in Beijing — because all evidence points to the contrary. The record shows that Beijing almost never lives up to its commitments, especially on trade, and that the hardliners are firmly in charge. Therefore, the only sensible approach with Beijing is don’t trust, and verify.

Read more:

Max Boot: Trump’s smoke-and-mirrors trade deal with China

Henry M. Paulson Jr.: We’re letting China win the 5G race. It’s time to catch up.

The Post’s View: Be skeptical of Trump’s new trade deal with China

Josh Rogin: Trump is getting played by China on trade