The Disappointing Senate China Bill

U.S. and Chinese flags fly along Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House in 2011. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

What began as an ambitious, multipronged legislative overhaul to jump-start America’s ability to compete with the Chinese regime is ending as a largely toothless messaging bill. The Senate just passed a 1,400-page $200 billion disappointment. The legislation was supposed to demonstrate Congress’s intent to confront Chinese Communist Party malfeasance and to modernize U.S. development of critical technologies, but the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act will do little of what it set out to accomplish.

Yesterday’s vote was preceded by months of negotiations and a lengthy discussion that invited lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to submit amendments. Four separate bills merged last month to create the final USICA package, the cornerstones of which were called the Endless Frontier Act and the Strategic Competition Act.

Initially, the former granted $100 billion to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct research on critical technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, while the latter included a number of measures to equip the executive branch with more tools for drawn-out geopolitical competition with Beijing. It was encouraging sign that members of both parties could coalesce around the goal of confronting the Chinese party-state, and funding basic research is, in theory, a worthy role for the federal government.

But the devil is always in the details, especially in such a sprawling, cobbled-together bill. Conservatives complained that Endless Frontier disbursed too much money to the NSF, which has little experience with the technologies in question and even less of an ability to prevent the Party’s theft of intellectual property developed with the help of NSF grants. As a result of the concern, the funding was pared down a significant amount to $81 billion. Still, the security problem persisted: With Beijing engaged in an aggressive military-civil fusion program designed to leverage intellectual-property theft for its military buildup, funding a significant R&D push without adequate safeguards is foolish and risky.

Meanwhile, the Strategic Competition Act portion of the since-consolidated bill includes some concrete measures to combat Uyghur forced labor and apply a national-security investment-review process to foreign gifts destined for universities. It did not, however, do much else of consequence besides include language for numerous sense-of-Congress statements. In fact, well over 100 sections of the consolidated bill are symbolic or merely create new reporting requirements.

A flurry of amendments sought to strengthen the bill last month, with varying degrees of success. The addition of the CHIPS Act, a $52 billion package to spur U.S. semiconductor production, shows that Congress is mindful of the risk of losing access to semiconductors produced overseas during a crisis. (Taiwan, obviously in China’s crosshairs, is a huge source of advanced semi-conductors.) But when the rubber hits the road, pork-barrel politics may overwhelm strategic considerations.

Senator Ben Sasse was also able to gain inclusion of a change that doubled funding to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the conservative alternative to the NSF for a more serious tech-competition hub — but even that amendment couldn’t solve the security problems with the NSF funding. In fact, an amendment proposed by Senators Jim Risch and Marco Rubio that would have created a stringent security-screening process for sensitive technological research got shot down.

The bill isn’t going to get any tougher in the House, which is preparing to vote on its companion measure. One alternative vision for the USICA comes from the House’s Republican Study Committee, which called for provisions that, among other things, would have sharpened sanctions authorities aimed at Chinese military companies and tech firms in the U.S., increased foreign-influence disclosures for think tanks and nonprofits, and prohibited all funding of U.S. universities by the CCP. Their Democratic colleagues aren’t taking that advice, though. The House Foreign Affairs Committee, where the USICA companion legislation originated, last month introduced the “Eagle Act,” a watered-down version of the Senate package.

Meanwhile, progressives and isolationists, led by Representative Ilhan Omar and the Quincy Institute, a pro-“restraint” think tank, decried the bill’s supposed contribution to a “Cold War mentality.” At least three of the 65 groups that signed a Quincy Institute–sponsored letter against the Strategic Competition Act echo Beijing’s line on the Uyghur genocide. The reflexive progressive opposition to the legislation is based on the cynical and indefensible claim that a tough U.S. stance toward China, as the letter puts it, “inevitably feeds racism, violence, xenophobia, and white nationalism.”

The USICA, thankfully, reflects a turn away from the Beltway perspective that once sought to court Chinese engagement no matter what and opposed any serious effort to assert America’s rightful national-security interests. Otherwise, it is a fizzle.


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