COMMITTEE SPOTLIGHT: Senate Foreign Relations

March 19, 2021

In the 117th Congress, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is led by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ). This is Menendez’s second chairmanship of the Committee. Senator James Risch (R-ID), who was chair in the previous Congress, is the Ranking Member for the minority. The Committee was previously chaired by Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Bob Corker.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, established in 1816, was one of the original 10 standing committees of the Senate. The Committee has been instrumental in shaping U.S. foreign policy, from considering, debating, and reporting treaties like the purchase of Alaska and the establishment of the United Nations to its jurisdiction over all diplomatic nominations. 

The Committee will be at the center of a wide swath of the Biden administration’s agenda, as the President and his appointees have placed an emphasis on rebuilding American alliances and partnerships abroad, competing with China, properly staffing the State Department, and returning to negotiations with Iran – all of which the Committee has a vested interest in and oversight over. Both Chairman Menendez and Ranking Member Risch have been vocal about the China challenge for many years, and the focus of the committee is likely to found there. Each has authored legislation that would guide a more confrontational approach to China. Menendez has the America LEADS bill while Risch has the STRATEGIC Act.

Menendez has stated, “China challenges us across every dimension of power—political, diplomatic, military, economic, even cultural—offering an alternative and deeply disturbing model for global governance… The America LEADS Act will serve as a launching pad to help our nation emerge from this dark chapter of our history, truly confront the challenges China poses to our national and economic security, and once again lead from a place of strength and reverence for our highest values.”

The Biden administration has already signaled that China will be the key international priority as well, with President Biden virtually convening the heads of state of the Quad – India, Japan, Australia, and the United States – for the first time this month. Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin recently traveled to South Korea and Japan, and Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Chinese officials in Alaska this month. There is broad bipartisan concern on the Committee about a number of actions taken by the Chinese government, including its encroachment on Taiwan, the repression of democracy in Hong Kong, the genocide of the Uyghurs, intellectual property theft, and forced technology transfers, debt trap diplomacy, and more. 

On Wednesday, March 17, the Committee held a hearing titled “Advancing Effective U.S. Policy for Strategic Competition with China in the Twenty-First Century.” The Committee sought witness insight to develop an effective Indo-Pacific strategy vis-à-vis China; to understand China’s growing influence around the world through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), especially in Latin America through its development and funding, and participation at multilateral organizations; and the landscape of technological competition and how best to create an even playing field to protect intellectual property rights and combat unfair trade practices. Throughout the hearing, there was an emphasis on the bipartisan nature of the concern towards China, with Ranking Member Risch stating, “…strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China must be the United States’ number one foreign policy priority. The challenges posed by the Chinese Communist Party are urgent and we must act accordingly. We must also maintain U.S. political will for the long haul, because these challenges will shape U.S. foreign policy and the international system for decades to come. Republicans and Democrats should work together to ensure that the U.S. and its government treats China as the top foreign policy priority and the Indo-Pacific as the priority region in terms of policy, resourcing, and personnel.”


Some of the key issues discussed during the hearing include:

  • Indo-Pacific Strategy – Chairman Menendez raised whether America’s Indo-Pacific strategy should be a function of China policy or whether China policy should be a function of Indo-Pacific strategy. The witnesses replied that given the expanse of Chinese defense policy regionally, and the important role allies will play in this competition, the Indo-Pacific should be at the center, rather than China. Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) raised whether the Quad should be expanded to include more countries, noting the interest NATO has shown in working with the Quad. The witnesses were largely supportive of expanding the Quad, especially with nations with similar values and interests, and as long as the focus of the Quad is on expanding free trade and democracy.
  • International Development – Several senators raised concerns about China’s use of international development assistance to increase their influence around the world, with Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) noting that China has a significant advantage in spreading its influence in South America when the United States is absent from the region. The refrain from Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Mitt Romney (R-UT), and Chris Murphy (D-CT) was consistent in emphasizing that when the United States does not offer alternatives for development funding and grants, China is able to move ahead with its initiatives. They argued more effort should be placed on working with European and Asian partners in international financing to confront China’s often debt-laden development agreements.
  • Technological Competition – Several senators raised concerns about the state of technological competition with China, with Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) asking whether it was worth engaging with China on cyber and space norms. The witnesses were consistent in that China will not change its cyber behavior anytime soon, so the United States should work with allies to create norms and protect them. The witnesses noted the lack of open-source information about Chinese technology transfers and said combating this will require private-public efforts. The witnesses also stated that R&D to outcompete China will require public-private efforts, as the government is able to prioritize long-term investment in a way that many companies cannot. 
  • Climate Change – With President Biden creating a new Cabinet position of Special Envoy on Climate, there have been some concerns that the United States will sacrifice leverage in other negotiations to extract concessions on climate issues. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) asked how best to balance the need to cooperate with China on climate and the need to address China’s human rights violations. The witnesses stated the United States should not trade values to ensure Chinese support on climate action, noting that climate action is in China’s own best interest.