US Senate Democrats announce $350 billion plan to confront China

27 Jacob Fromer -Senator Bob Menendez described the Democrats’ legislation as a plan to “invest” in American competitiveness, alliances and values. REUTERS-Yonhap

US Senate Democrats announced a US$350 billion plan on Thursday to confront China, a glaring signal from Washington that no matter who wins the upcoming presidential election in November, there likely will be immense bipartisan pressure from Congress to maintain a tough stance against Beijing.

The bill, called the America LEADS Act, comes as US-China relations spiral to their lowest point in years, with both parties in rare agreement that China under leader Xi Jinping has become a threat to global stability and US interests around the world.

Senate Republicans released their own sprawling legislation to confront China in July.

In a summary released on Thursday, the Democrats said their bill intends to strengthen the US medical supply chain, support new technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence, and counter China’s “predatory economic behaviour” including intellectual property theft, dumping, and currency manipulation.

The bill also includes transparency requirements to target China’s “education and influence campaigns” in the US, the Democrats said.

They said it would also direct the president to fully enforce sanctions laws targeting “malign behaviour” by the Chinese government, also allow certain residents of Hong Kong and Xinjiang to apply for admission to the US, and reaffirm the US commitment to its allies in the Pacific.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday morning focused on “countering China”, chairman James Risch, a Republican from Idaho, said he hoped the Democrats’ new bill could be combined with his party’s legislation introduced in July.

“I’m hoping we can bring them all together into one bill that we can all get behind,” he said.

New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee, made a similar comment in his own remarks.

“I’m glad to hear there has been this bill introduced by the minority,” said Risch. “This is an American issue. It is not a partisan issue.”

The bill, first reported by The New York Times, was sponsored by New York Senator Charles Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate.

Menendez described the Democrats’ legislation as a plan to “invest” in American competitiveness, alliances and values. “This moment demands a strong, strategic response”, he said, “to out-compete China in the generation ahead”.

The two parties do not agree on everything, however.

Even as they seem broadly aligned on their assessment of China in the Xi era ― that it is not to be trusted ― Democrats say President Donald Trump has undermined the US position against China by attacking American allies, walking away from international organisations like the World Health Organisation, and praising Xi Jinping in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.

“When we fail to show up, as under President Trump we have, we should not be surprised that China’s influence expands at our expense,” said Menendez.

At the hearing, David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told senators that Beijing’s actions around the world had “shattered those illusions” that closer engagement with China would lead the country to liberalise in any way.

“It is now clear to us, and to more and more countries around the world, that [People’s Republic of China] foreign and security policy seeks to reshape the international environment around the narrow interests and authoritarian values of a single beneficiary,” he said. “That is the Chinese Communist Party.”

Senators also expressed concern at what they say are Beijing’s predatory investments across Latin America and coercive efforts to poach Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies in the Caribbean.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was travelling in the region on Thursday.

Julie Chung, principal deputy assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs, told senators the State Department would be adding three new officers focused on China’s presence in the region to embassies in Panama, Uruguay and Barbados.


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