US Senate pushes ahead with tough measures to counter China

New bill addresses economic competition with China while also addressing human rights concerns over Xinjiang, Hong Kong.

A new US draft Senate measure, titled the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, mandates diplomatic and strategic initiatives to counteract Beijing [File: Yuri Gripas/Reuters]

Leaders of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee have introduced new legislation to boost the country’s ability to push back against China’s expanding global influence by promoting human rights, providing security aid and investing to combat disinformation.

The draft measure, titled the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, mandates diplomatic and strategic initiatives to counteract Beijing, reflecting hardline sentiment on dealings with China from Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

US President Joe Biden has continued to take a hard line against China after his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, began a trade war to counter what the US sees as unfair practices, long denied by Beijing.

While announcing his $2-trillion-plus infrastructure spending plan on Wednesday, Biden cast it as an investment in the US’s global competitiveness, particularly versus China which is racing ahead, he said.

“Do you think the rest of the world is waiting around? Do you think China is waiting around?” Biden asked rhetorically.

“They are not waiting but they are counting on American democracy to be too slow, too limited and too divided to keep pace,” he warned.

The 280-page bill, first reported by the Reuters news agency on Thursday, addresses economic competition with China but also humanitarian and democratic values, such as imposing sanctions over the treatment of the minority Muslim Uighurs and supporting democracy in Hong Kong.

It stressed the need to “prioritize the military investments necessary to achieve United States political objectives in the Indo-Pacific.” It called for the funds to do so, saying Congress must ensure the federal budget is “properly aligned” with the strategic imperative to compete with China.

The bill recommends a total of $655m in Foreign Military Financing funding for the region for the fiscal year of 2022 through to 2026 and a total of $450m for the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative and related programmes for the same period.

It would expand the scope of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which scrutinises financial transactions for potential national security risks. However, like many provisions of the bill, this clause could be changed as it moves through the committee and full Senate.

‘Indo-Pacific strategy’

The draft legislation calls for an enhanced partnership with Taiwan, calling the island “a vital part of the United States Indo-Pacific strategy” and saying there should be no restrictions on US officials’ interaction with Taiwanese counterparts. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province.

The bill also says Washington must encourage allies to do more about Beijing’s “aggressive and assertive behaviour,” including working together on arms control.

US Senator Bob Menendez (above), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic chairman, and ranking Republican Jim Risch introduced the bill proposing to push back against China’s growing global influence [File: Michael Reynolds/Pool via Reuters]

Introduced by Senators Bob Menendez, the committee’s Democratic chairman, and Jim Risch, its ranking Republican – the most senior member of a congressional or state legislative committee from the minority party – the draft bill was released to committee members overnight to allow a markup, a meeting during which the panel will discuss amendments and vote, on April 14.

“I am confident that this effort has the necessary support to be overwhelmingly approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next week and the full Senate shortly thereafter,” Menendez said in a statement.

Risch said in a statement he was also pleased the bill included a “strong and actionable” plan to counteract China’s influence efforts at US universities.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged US universities in December to scrutinise China’s assistance and students, warning that Beijing was set on stealing innovation.

Pompeo said that the US should welcome Chinese who “genuinely” want to study in the country but pointed to two cases of Chinese students who were charged with spying and other examples of Beijing harassing its students abroad.

China has accused the US of “monitoring, harassing and wilfully detaining” Chinese students and researchers.

The Senate measure is part of a fast-track effort announced in February by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to pass legislation to counter China.

“Congress is extremely focused on the various challenges that China poses to American interests and is trying to develop effective responses that are within its purview,” said Center for Strategic and International Studies Asia expert Bonnie Glaser.

The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on April 14 on its bipartisan measure, the Endless Frontier Act, to bolster the US semiconductor industry.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies