Congress faces China in the great game for tech superiority

Greg Nash

When Beijing first released its audacious “Made in China 2025” strategy for dominating global markets in the critical technologies of the future, it was a shot directly across the bow of the United States. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) followed through with massive government subsidies and support for Chinese companies in sectors such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, semiconductors, electric vehicles and 5G networks. The strategy encouraged some of Beijing’s worst market-warping policies, from forcing companies to surrender technology as the entrance fee to the Chinese market to an ongoing campaign to steal intellectual property from Western companies via industrial espionage and cyber hacks

The CCP responded to widespread criticism of “Made in China 2025” by talking about it less while continuing to pursue its goals of technological domination by whatever means necessary. Beijing’s not-so-subtle pitch to global customers is that their techno-authoritarian system is far superior to the liberal democratic model as represented by a United States government beset by political squabbling and hyper-partisanship.

This week the U.S. Senate finally fired back, challenging that narrative with the bipartisan, China focused U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. The $250 billion proposal includes a range of measures designed to strengthen our footing for long-term competition with China, support research and development in critical advanced technologies and secure supply chain vulnerabilities exposed by increased geopolitical tensions and pandemic-era disruptions. The 68 to 32 Senate majority should be commended for firmly backing America in the great game for technological superiority in the 21st century. 

In recent years the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress’s “Geotech” initiative has promoted U.S. government and industry cooperation at this crossroads of geopolitics and technology. We have long encouraged lawmakers to respond to the gauntlet thrown down by Xi Jinping and CCP programs like “Made in China 2025,” with its web of state-owned and state-affiliated companies advancing Beijing’s geopolitical goals. The United States should certainly not try to “out-China, China” by imposing planned-economic programs or state control of corporate decisions. Instead we need to make shrewd, long-term investments in our own innovation engines like the National Science Foundation, National Labs, NASA and other R&D hubs. The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act is an important step in that direction.

While addressing this vital technology competition, the legislation also includes measures to refocus our efforts to counter Beijing’s influence campaigns and call out their human rights atrocities. It calls for regional strategies to be developed, as China has aims not only to eject the United States from the Indo-Pacific, but also to weaken our influence in Europe, Africa and Latin America. The legislation rightly recognizes that the challenge from China will increasingly be contested on the field of commercial competition in areas such as energy, natural resources and supply chain security. The economic statecraft required must also leverage our values, so the proposed legislation rightly addresses the Uyghur genocide and the crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong. 

We will be the first to acknowledge that the Senate bill is far from perfect, but that is a reflection of the consensus building and tradeoffs inherent in winning overwhelming bipartisan support. Importantly, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act resulted from something like regular order, with input from Democratic chairs and ranking Republicans on a half a dozen committees, and votes on dozens of Democratic, Republican and bipartisan amendments over the course of several weeks. With complimentary measures in the House already under consideration, we are confident that regular order and the conference committee process — along with the urgency of responding to China’s challenge — will address some of the legislation’s shortcomings.

The competition with China will be waged over the course of decades, not one or two legislative cycles. This legislation is thus just one move forward in a series of steps — legislative and executive — that will be needed to posture the United States for future success. Looking ahead, support for R&D will need to be accompanied by support for innovative manufacturing and a more thorough integration of advanced technologies. Simply being first to discover a technology is not all that is required to establish leadership in that field. Unfortunately, it will also take more than legislation to change the mindsets that have allowed Beijing’s influence to find its way, via willing and unwilling conduits, into Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. 

Still, Beijing’s favored narrative that America is too politically divided and feckless to respond to its challenge will steadily weaken if our lawmakers continue to work across the aisle to strengthen our nation for this long-haul competition. The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act also comes at an important time, with President Joe Biden in Europe this week trying to rally the like-minded democracies of the G-7, NATO and the European Union to rise to the challenge posed by the ascendance of authoritarian regimes around the globe. 

With the U.S. Congress now engaged in the great game of “Geotech” and the ongoing race for technological superiority, and with two successive presidential administrations tackling competition with China head-on, America is once again poised to lead an alliance of democracies as only it can. 

Dan Mahaffee is Senior Vice President at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress (CSPC). James Kitfield is a Senior Fellow at CSPC. 

Tags Chinese Communist Party Economic history of the People's Republic of China Joe Biden made in china Made in China 2025 National Labs National Science Foundation U.S. Congress U.S. Innovation

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