Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has instructed eight separate Senate committees to quickly prepare China-related bills in the coming weeks, with instructions to make the effort as bipartisan as possible. The goal is to merge many small bills into comprehensive bipartisan legislation to be passed on the Senate floor next month. The aim of the project is a worthy one: to drastically increase the resources and attention the United States is committing to competition with China on the economic, manufacturing and scientific fronts.
The core of the legislative package will be the Endless Frontier Act, led by Schumer and Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), which pledges $100 billion to revamp the National Science Foundation. When announcing the project last month, Schumer said the goal was to “outcompete China and create new American jobs” in a long list of industries including semiconductors, artificial intelligence, 5G telecommunications, quantum computing and biomedical research. He called on Congress to act quickly.
And yet, even at this relatively early stage, Schumer’s China initiative is falling victim to partisan politics and bureaucratic dysfunction. Senate aides on both sides lamented that Schumer is rushing a complicated piece of legislation. Most committee staffs are still getting organized. The hurried schedule allows little time for real negotiations.
Republicans complain that their ideas are getting short shrift, especially proposals that focus on national security, China’s economic aggression or the Chinese Communist Party’s influence and interference operations in the United States. There’s skepticism that Schumer truly wants to include GOP ideas on China rather than just push Democratic spending priorities. But Young is urging his colleagues from both parties to get on board.
“Confronting and competing with the People’s Republic of China is the most significant geostrategic challenge that our country will face for the foreseeable future,” Young told me. He called the project “a rare opportunity for us to come together and advance legislation that will enable us to not only compete with China but to invest in the American people.”
Democrats don’t know whether the GOP is more interested in addressing the China challenge or keeping China as a political cudgel to use against the majority and the Biden administration. And if bipartisanship fails on the China legislation, opportunities for cross-aisle cooperation going forward will look dimmer.
This attempt at a bipartisan China approach will succeed only if Democrats take on some Republican proposals and if Republicans negotiate in good faith. Republicans must acknowledge the rising pattern of hate and violence against Asians and Asian Americans and do more to confront it. Democrats must acknowledge that confronting the Chinese government’s malign behavior is not the same thing as attacking the Chinese people, who are not responsible for their government’s actions.
“One of the areas they see as our weakness is our political division,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) told me. “Here’s the one thing Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party fear the most: a strong, sustainable, bipartisan strategy addressing the rise of China.”
This drive to respond to the Chinese government’s escalating internal repression and external aggression is often presented as a false choice between a new and dangerous Cold War or doing nothing. Beijing’s goal is to exacerbate divisions in U.S. society by playing into our existing tensions. Both sides must resist the temptation to politicize the China issue.
The good news is that there’s actually a lot of consensus on China policy, both in Congress and in the country. There are dozens of China bills out there that have sponsors in both parties, on subjects ranging from technology to human rights. But unless Congress can figure out how to legislate again, there is little chance the rest of our democracy will be able to fix itself enough to rise to the China competition.
The Biden administration is trying to engage Beijing, together with U.S. allies, from what national security adviser Jake Sullivan calls a “position of strength.” That’s an attempt to persuade China’s leaders to acknowledge that their strategy cannot come at the expense of free and open societies. Democracies are entitled to protect their citizens’ security, prosperity, freedom and public health.
If Congress could show a unified front to support this goal, the Chinese government might be convinced that it can no longer ignore the valid concerns of the international community. It’s not an effort to increase tensions. It’s what both parties should see as the best chance of avoiding the conflict that neither the United States nor China seeks.