Asian American Democrats jostle for top slot on new GOP China committee

Tom Williams

WASHINGTON — Asian American lawmakers are making the case to House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries that he should appoint one of their own as the top Democrat on the new GOP-controlled select committee to examine competition between the U.S. and China.

Amid a rise in anti-Asian violence spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, they want to make sure the panel is striking the right tone, remaining sensitive to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and not further fanning the flames of xenophobia.

The Asian American lawmakers, however, can’t agree on who that top Democrat should be.

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said she has spoken to Jeffries and recommended that Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., should be the ranking member. Kim, a former State Department official who later was a national security adviser in the Obama White House, has also spoken with Jeffries, D-N.Y., about the role, he said Thursday.

Chu made it clear that she is advocating for Kim in her personal capacity — not on behalf of the Asian Pacific American Caucus, which held a lengthy meeting about the topic Wednesday but has not endorsed a specific candidate for the job.

“I felt that it was important to have somebody in that ranking position who not only had the expertise — which Andy certainly did with his 10 years at the State Department — but also who could push back at xenophobic rhetoric,” Chu said in an interview Thursday.

“Because this committee could devolve into that, and we know that when there is that xenophobic rhetoric, AAPIs pay the price,” she said, using the common initialism for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

But at least two other caucus members have expressed interest in the ranking member slot, as well: Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., a member of the Intelligence Committee, and Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a former Commerce Department official who represents a heavily Asian American district in Silicon Valley.

“The Republicans made it very clear that the committee is primarily focused on … counterintelligence and economic espionage issues, which have been the focus of my own work, especially on the Intelligence Committee,” Krishnamoorthi said in an interview. “I think it’s crucial that an intelligence background inform our efforts, especially given that the chair of the committee, Mike Gallagher, comes from the Intelligence Committee, as well.”

Khanna, a former deputy assistant secretary of commerce focused on trade during the Obama administration, added, “I represent an Asian American majority district, wrote a long piece in Foreign Affairs on rebalancing trade with China to reduce tensions and would have the confidence of progressive and CAPAC colleagues.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former CIA analyst who is eyeing a possible Senate bid in 2024, has also expressed interest in the top role on the China panel. But while the Asian Pacific American Caucus is divided, its members agree that the ranking member of the new panel should be Asian American.

“If they did an Africa select committee, would we not pick an African American member? Think about that," a caucus member said.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., appointed Gallagher, R-Wis., as chairman of the new select committee, which is charged with examining military, economic and technological competition between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party.

The House this week voted 365-65 to create the special panel, with Democrats casting all of the no votes.

“This will be a very bipartisan committee,” McCarthy told reporters Thursday. “I think we have lost jobs to China or intellectual property, ’cause many times we don’t speak with one voice from America.”

While Democrats said they respect and can work with Gallagher, an Iraq war veteran who is on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, they said they worry others could use the China committee as a platform to promote anti-Asian rhetoric, fearmongering and scapegoating that could lead to harm to an Asian American and Pacific Islander community still reeling from a spate of high-profile violent attacks.

Chu pointed to former President Donald Trump’s calling the Covid-19 pandemic “the China virus” and “Kung flu” as one of the reasons the country had a dramatic spike in hate crimes and other incidents against Asian Americans. She also said that in 1982, U.S.-Japan economic competition reached a “boiling point,” leading to the murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin by two white autoworkers.

“So this is something that we’re very, very cognizant about. Using these kinds of words in such a zealous way could very much hurt AAPIs in this country,” said Chu, who is Chinese American.

“This could be a committee that does important things, solid things. But if it’s just a vehicle for China-bashing, it doesn’t serve anybody.”

In addition to advocating for Kim, Chu said she has recommended that Jeffries place four Asian Pacific American Caucus members on the special panel: Kim, Krishnamoorthi, Khanna and Mark Takano of California, the top Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Democrats get seven slots on the committee. A Jeffries spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Kim, Krishnamoorthi and Takano all joined then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last year on her historic delegation to Taiwan, a move that inflamed tensions with Beijing.

"My family has experienced this discrimination. I've experienced it. And there's no doubt there's been a rise in xenophobia," Kim said in an interview just off the House floor. "But the challenge is our competition with China could go on for a long time, it could get even more difficult.

"I have concerns about some of the threats and challenges that the CCP has engaged on too, so I want to make sure we're strong on national security," Kim added, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com