China is the Topic of the Day on Capitol Hill

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Jul 22 2020 |
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Two Senate committees met on Wednesday to study ways to counter China’s regime.

As the diplomatic relationship between the United States and China’s regime continues to deteriorate, two separate Senate committees held hearings on Wednesday examining the future of U.S.-China relations.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot happening on this front right now.

On Tuesday, the United States ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, citing the need to protect intellectual property and personal information of American citizens. U.S. officials also just accused China of stealing coronavirus vaccine data, and a new Senate Foreign Affairs Committee report unveiled on Tuesday argues that China’s regime is looking to develop “digital authoritarianism” to conduct surveillance, control the Internet, and even censor information around the world.

Momentum continues to build on Capitol Hill to address China, with Members introducing multiple pieces of legislation to counter the rise of the Chinese regime while also making critical investments to strengthen America’s own capabilities, including by bringing critical manufacturing back from China.

The Senate Foreign Affairs Committee held one of the two hearings examining these issues on Wednesday afternoon, featuring testimony from Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who warned that “reconsideration of U.S. policy toward China is urgent and overdue.”

Biegun added that concerns “about Beijing’s policies are fueled by a growing number of disputes,” from intellectual property theft and commercial espionage to unequal treatment of U.S. diplomats, businesses, non-governmental organizations and media to significant human rights concerns, including the treatment of the Uighurs, which some now classify as a genocide.

“Current trends in U.S.-China relations do not seem promising,” Biegun admitted, although he added that “engagement between the United States and China remains of central importance in managing tensions and exploring areas of mutual interest where efforts might align or cooperation might flourish.”

Meanwhile, a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a digital hearing aptly titled, “US-China: Winning the Economic Competition.”

The background of the witnesses ranged widely, and the two Members who chaired the hearing – Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) – don’t tend to see eye-to-eye on many issues. But there was general agreement that China’s authoritarian regime represents an economic threat to the United States, which one witness even referred to as the “wheel of death.”

“China is attempting to displace the United States as a leader in high-tech sectors, but China does not play by the same rules of the road – it subsidizes state-owned enterprises, restricts market access, and steals U.S. intellectual property,” Cortez Masto said. “More, by seeking to become a global leader in these technologies, China is also seeking to shape how they are used around the world by setting the standards. However, unlike the United States, which ensures international standards are consistent with democratic values, China has used new technologies such as [artificial intelligence] to surveil and repress their own people, from the Uyghurs to Hong Kong protesters.”

Cotton noted in his opening remarks that one of the challenges the United States is facing is the fact that the United States is “entangled” economically with China, the dangers of which became apparent during the early days of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, when the United States didn’t have enough personal protective equipment (PPE).

“We rely on China for the manufacture of many important goods, from the medicines in our cupboards to the electronics in our cellphones,” Cotton noted. “This reflects not only the decline of our industrial capacity and the failure of decades of naive ‘engagement,’ but also the [Chinese Communist Party]’s grand ambitions.”

The United States must make good decisions in order to compete with China, witnesses testified, including by investing in technological innovation, workforce training and long overdue infrastructure investment.

Witnesses agreed that China’s leaders have been clear about their intentions to dominate the globe, both geopolitically and economically – something that also is echoed in recent research by organizations like Horizon Advisory. Meanwhile, human rights concerns about China’s regime continue to grow, as does China’s use of technology for nefarious purposes.

“Tempted perhaps by the allure of the power that new surveillance technologies make possible, China’s leadership seems ready to sacrifice the cultural and economic development of the Chinese people and of China’s neighbors to entrench its own power and privilege,” testified Walter Russell Mead, a Wall Street Journal columnist and fellow at the Hudson Institute.

It's now up to the United States to figure out a plan to counter China.

“Much of China’s success lies in its ability to formulate a comprehensive, long-term government strategy to gain dominance in key strategic technologies,” testified Martijn Rasser, senior fellow in the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “In contrast, in the United States such policymaking is generally reactive and piecemeal: The United States needs a strategic, national level approach to effectively compete with China.”

You can read testimony and watch the Senate Banking subcommittee hearing here, and check out the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee discussion here.