U.S. lawmakers intensify bipartisan efforts to counter China

FILE PHOTO: Chinese and U.S. flags flutter outside the building of an American company in Beijing
FILE PHOTO: Chinese and U.S. flags flutter outside the building of an American company in Beijing, China January 21, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

April 22, 2021

By Patricia Zengerle and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A bipartisan U.S. congressional push to counteract China picked up steam on Wednesday as a Senate committee overwhelmingly backed a bill pressing Beijing on human rights and economic competition, while other lawmakers introduced a measure seeking billions for technology research.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed the “Strategic Competition Act of 2021” by 21-1, sending the bill for consideration by the 100-member Senate, even as committee members voiced a need to do even more to counteract Beijing.

The committee added dozens of amendments to the bill. One would force a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics by U.S. officials, not athletes, which was also recommended by the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom.

Separately, a group of Senate and House of Representatives lawmakers introduced the “Endless Frontier Act,” calling for $100 billion over five years for basic and advanced technology research and $10 billion to create new “technology hubs” across the country.

Both bills have strong support from both political parties and are expected to become law. The desire for a hard line in dealings with China is one of the few truly bipartisan sentiments in the deeply divided U.S. Congress, which is narrowly controlled by President Joe Biden’s fellow Democrats.

The Biden administration supports the measures.

“With this overwhelming bipartisan vote, the Strategic Competition Act becomes the first of what we hope will be a cascade of legislative activity for our nation to finally meet the China challenge across every dimension of power, political, diplomatic, economic, innovation, military and even cultural,” said Senator Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate panel.

He and Senator Jim Risch, the panel’s top Republican, wrote the “Strategic Competition” measure together, with Risch saying it was “truly bipartisan.”

The legislation was greeted with anger in Beijing.

“It distorts facts and confuses right and wrong,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman at the Chinese foreign ministry.

“It hypes up the China threat theory and talks about full strategic competition with China. It grossly interferes with China’s affairs and reeks of Cold War and zero sum mentalities.”

HUMAN RIGHTS AND MILITARY SPENDING

The 280-page Senate bill addresses competition with China through efforts such as increasing international development funding and working with allied countries and international organizations. It pushes humanitarian and democratic values, like imposing sanctions over the treatment of the minority Muslim Uighurs and supporting democracy in Hong Kong. [L1N2M113C]

The bill stresses the need to “prioritize the military investments necessary to achieve United States political objectives in the Indo-Pacific.” It backs steep increases in security-related funding for the region and closer ties with Taiwan.

It would expand the scope of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which scrutinizes financial transactions for potential national security risks. U.S. universities are concerned about a provision of the bill requiring CFIUS to review some Chinese grants and contracts.

The Strategic Competition and Endless Frontier acts are part of a fast-track effort announced in February by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to pass a wide range of legislation to counter China. Schumer is a lead sponsor of the Endless Frontier bill.

Foreign Relations committee members said they want to do more.

“I don’t believe anyone would think that this legislation is going to change China’s march toward a global hegemony of autocracy and repression,” Republican Senator Mitt Romney said. “…I would suggest we have a lot more work to do.”

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Howard Goller, Sonya Hepinstall and Kim Coghill)