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Feb 10, 2023, 7:18am EST
politics

Senators are talking about another big China bill

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The News

REUTERS/Pool

Senators are looking to take another swing at an expansive piece of legislation aimed at helping the U.S. counter China, after lawmakers cut the measure from last year’s big semiconductors and science bill.

Leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are planning to introduce a new version of the Strategic Competition Act, a wide-ranging bill designed to thwart Beijing’s foreign influence that touched on everything from military aid to rules around university fundraising. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the panel’s chair, says he wants to “expand” the original legislation to tackle even more areas of the U.S.-China competition.

“There are many, many different dimensions to the China challenge,” Menendez told Semafor after a hearing on China with top Biden administration officials. “While the Strategic Competition Act went a long way to identifying and dealing with many of them, it wasn’t totally exhaustive.”

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The committee’s top Republican, Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, told Semafor that he and Menendez have agreed to pursue a bipartisan China bill “early in this Congress,” without offering specifics. Risch said during the hearing that he wants the effort to incorporate legislation he introduced last year to bolster the State Department’s economic corps and crack down on intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer.

The original Strategic Competition Act — introduced in 2021 with bipartisan support — sought to check China on the world stage by beefing up America’s own economic and military ties abroad.

Among a long list of measures, it would have sent more military assistance to allies in the Pacific, bolstered development bank lending to replace Chinese investment in Latin America and the Caribbean, encouraged a greater U.S. presence in Africa, and provided more money to promote democracy in Hong Kong. It also would have created a new $1.5 billion fund to “counter the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party globally.”

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Fans have praised the bill’s goal of strengthening the U.S.’s diplomatic hand. “Global engagement through trade and diplomacy is critically important and unfortunately it’s the area where the United States is much weaker than it should be,” said Martijn Rasser, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “There’s large swaths of the planet where we only have a token presence, and that is something China recognizes and is taking advantage of.”

Some foreign policy analysts who favor de-escalating tensions with China expressed concern about the bill’s more hawkish measures, including sections supporting Taiwan that could potentially have angered Beijing.

Michael Swaine, director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, called the bill a “de facto declaration of a cold war with the People’s Republic of China.”

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Separately, higher education groups fretted about a provision requiring the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. to review foreign gifts to universities that exceed $1 million, among other things.

It’s not exactly clear how senators plan to expand on the bill, but they say discussions are happening behind the scenes on the next phase of China legislation.

“There’s been a lot of conversation among members,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., one of the bill’s original cosponsors, told Semafor. He added that he wasn’t sure what Menendez was envisioning but predicted it would “build on the CHIPS act,” the bipartisan legislation last year that infused billions in the domestic semiconductor industry to help the U.S. compete with China in the technology realm.

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Morgan’s view

As many predicted, taking on China appears to be the one issue that’s quickly united this divided Congress. A Strategic Competition Act 2.0 seems like a natural place for the parties to start looking for common legislative ground.

The bill enjoyed bipartisan support and passed the Senate as part of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s original China competition bill. However, it was ultimately left out of the final CHIPS and Science Act, as lawmakers decided to go with a slimmed-down version in the interest of time after disputes over the House and Senate versions.

Recent events have probably made coalescing around a China bill even easier. Although Democrats and Republicans have spent the past week bickering about whether President Joe Biden made a mistake by allowing China’s spy balloon to float across the U.S., both parties agree Beijing committed an outrage. The House just yesterday passed a resolution condemning China over the balloon in a 419-0 vote — an almost unheard of show of bipartisanship in the current environment.

“The balloon was a very visible sign of what we all knew — that is, China is aggressive. They’re aggressive on the economic front, their military capacity is expanding,” Cardin told me.

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Room for Disagreement

Just because there is bipartisan agreement on China doesn’t mean any one bill will easily sail through Congress.

There are dozens of lawmakers who want to put their stamp on the U.S. China policy, and the journey of the CHIPS and Science Act — it went through multiple iterations and took more than a year to pass, with near-death experiences along the way — demonstrates how thorny the process can get. It’s also possible that other China-related efforts could take precedence. Lawmakers are preparing bills on restrictions on foreign technology and outbound investment in China, for example.

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The View From China

The Senate’s push is also sure to inspire angry responses from Beijing at a time of already high tensions, potentially complicating the Biden administration’s push to set relations on a better track. In 2021, China’s Xinhua state news service ran an article headlined, “U.S. Strategic Competition Act of 2021 shows dangerous, zero-sum view: scholars.” Presumably, the outlet’s editors won’t be any happier with the bill’s sequel.

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