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Opinion Will China get our country moving again?

Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds during the closing session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday.
Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds during the closing session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday. (Sam Mcneil/AP)

We typically see fear as a negative emotion, and it often can breed hostility, self-involvement and even hatred. But fear can also be a constructive force. We drive more carefully because we fear accidents, save because we fear hard times ahead and protect our children because we fear anything that could hurt them.

So it is with the fear the current regime in China is spreading across the U.S. political spectrum. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has centralized power, demolished democratic freedoms in Hong Kong and signaled a far more aggressive challenge to both the United States’ economic well-being and its influence in the world.

Our response to this fear does not have to descend into warmongering, and it shouldn’t mean abruptly cutting off cooperation with China in areas where, as on climate action, partnership is necessary.

But the danger China poses could fundamentally reorder U.S. attitudes toward government’s role in domestic economic growth, research and development in ways that leave the United States stronger. If President Biden’s agenda flies under the banner of “Build Back Better,” part of the “better” is likely to include steps to maintain the United States’ technological advantages and reduce U.S. dependence on China in key areas.

The new view was outlined in a February 2020 article in Foreign Policy magazine by Jennifer Harris, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser. “U.S. firms,” they wrote, “will continue to lose ground in the competition with Chinese companies if Washington continues to rely so heavily on private sector research and development, which is directed toward short-term profit-making applications rather than long-term, transformative breakthroughs.”

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They added that “the United States will be more insecure if it lacks the manufacturing base necessary to produce essential goods — from military technologies to vaccines — in a crisis.”

The implications of this approach might come to be called Sullivan’s Law: “We’ve reached a point,” Sullivan told NPR in December, “where foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy.”

This view has an important ally in Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Schumer told me that his original engagement with the China challenge came after a 2003 visit to Crucible Industries, a steel company in Upstate New York whose owners said they could not compete effectively because of Chinese currency manipulation.

Schumer’s concerns have since broadened beyond currency issues to the theft of intellectual property and, more generally, to what he calls China’s “mercantilism.”

If “we have a dominant industry that does well,” he said, the Chinese government will “keep it out of China until they can steal from us, learn from us and then compete with us.” Schumer is particularly alarmed that China might overtake the United States in areas that affect both economics and national security, including artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing.

In 2020, Schumer introduced the Endless Frontier Act, which proposed spending $100 billion over five years to boost tech research and development through the National Science Foundation, which would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation. The bill also included $10 billion to create regional technology hubs, and new money for university research and college and graduate school scholarships.

The potential for bipartisanship on this set of questions is underscored by the co-sponsorship of the original Senate bill by Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.). In the House, it’s co-sponsored by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), one of the body’s most progressive Democrats, and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a rising GOP national security voice.

Schumer and his allies are looking to introduce a new version that will also boost funding for domestic manufacturing of semiconductors and expand other domestic supply chains. And, as the majority leader, it’s Schumer who picks the bills that get on the floor, which virtually guarantees a legislative rendezvous with the future of our technology policy.

If support for these ideas scrambles ideological lines, so will the opposition. More libertarian-inclined Republicans will remain wary of anything that smacks of industrial policy, and a resurgence of economic nationalism is seen a threat to global growth by analysts of various stripes. Some, especially on the left, will worry that a military-technology complex will be this era’s echo of the Cold War’s military-industrial complex.

But the Cold War metaphors are instructive in another way. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, it set off a national panic that “made liberals out of nearly everyone on the education issue,” as the historian H. W. Brands wrote in his 2001 book, “The Strange Death of American Liberalism.” One result was the 1958 National Defense Education Act, as Congress “began searching for ways to produce scientists and engineers who would equal Russia’s.” Another, of course, was the space program.

Fear of falling behind an adversary has long been a powerful prod to national renewal. Even in a hyperpartisan time, that might still be true.

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