Congress Has a Role Against China, Too
Lawmakers’ bipartisan momentum against the CCP is a good start. Here are three ideas for the way forward.
Recent work by Congress to advance a series of bills intended to strengthen U.S. competitiveness and capabilities at home and abroad may seem like a signal of Capitol Hill’s “awakening” on China policy. But this campaign is hardly the only significant endeavor Congress has undertaken on the issue lately, nor should it be the last.
Congress’s momentum on China policy since 2020, as well as its hiccups, hold three key lessons for the way forward, whatever the outcome of the current legislative blitz.
First, Congress should use its legislative power to support America’s friends and populations abroad facing the abuse and coercion of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP.
That is what members of Congress did when they shepherded several bills into law that strengthen a free Taiwan (TAIPEI Act and Taiwan Assurance Act), expose the CCP’s genocidal campaign in Xinjiang and authorize related sanctions (Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020), address CCP human rights abuses in Tibet (Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020), and hold actors accountable for violating Hong Kong’s autonomy and enabling oppression (Hong Kong Autonomy Act).
These laws should rebuke any perception that American politicians are incapable of overcoming partisanship to confront the CCP’s aggression and repression.
Second, lawmakers should leverage existing—and often neglected—oversight tools.
In 2020, the Defense Department began to keep track of Chinese military-linked companies operating in the United States, to comply with a 1999 law it had left unfulfilled. The military-industrial ecosystem in which these companies operate enables the CCP to amass power, influence, and coercive leverage, as our colleagues Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic detailed in a Foundation for Defense of Democracies report. These listings lay the groundwork for a ban on the flow of some U.S. investments into many of these entities. Before this prohibition, Americans were helping finance these companies, sometimes inadvertently, through capital markets.
This progress was propelled by the prodding of a 2019 congressional oversight effort initiated by Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Chuck Schumer, D-New York, along with Reps. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., and Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz. Their call for implementing the 1999 law, coupled with updated legislative guidance to the Defense Department, has compelled the Trump and Biden administrations to act.
Members of Congress have continued to press for restrictions on these companies’ reach into the U.S., and they should exercise oversight with vigilance.
Third, lawmakers and relevant committees should ensure the executive branch implements policies consistent with their intent. Two recent cases are instructive.
Democrats and Republicans on the armed services committees worked together last year to establish the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, or PDI, in the Pentagon’s 2021 defense authorization law. PDI was meant to bolster the U.S. defense posture in the Indo-Pacific region and ensure the military command closest to the threat got what it needed. As a former Senate Armed Services Committee staff member who helped develop the PDI concept has explained, lawmakers had specifics in mind for how PDI investments would be allocated, given DOD’s prior shortcomings.
Yet President Joe Biden’s defense budget request for next year, submitted in May, failed to meet Congress’s aim for the PDI. Lawmakers panned the Pentagon’s request at a SASC hearing. Key committee leaders have rightly vowed to use the defense authorization and appropriations processes to correct course.
In the case of the Senate-passed United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (USICA), the jury is still out on whether Congress can address weaknesses in the bill’s domestic policy proposals to outcompete China.
USICA’s centerpiece would boost funding for science and technology development infrastructure through academic institutions and the commercial sector. But this infrastructure and resulting innovation will be vulnerable to CCP theft. There is no credible vetting and research security mechanism for funding recipients, as underscored by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence members’ warnings and (unsuccessful) attempt to amend the bill, and the research-focused institutions being asked to own the program are ill-equipped to manage what is fundamentally a national security undertaking. If these funding programs pass, will Congress demand, as it should, rigorous executive branch oversight over disbursement and more safeguards to protect innovation from CCP exploitation?
Earlier this year, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., spoke alongside Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, at a virtual policy dialogue and offered the following observation about America’s foremost policy challenge: “Nothing will upset and surprise Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party more than having bipartisan groups put down the tools of partisan politics and pick up the hard work of crafting a consensus long-term strategy with regards to China.”
He is exactly right.
The United States is still in the early stages of shaping a long-term strategy to defend its interests and values against the CCP’s global ambitions. Congress is just scratching the surface of its potential role in that mission. Bipartisanship is critical to the way forward.
Maseh Zarif is director of congressional relations at FDD Action, which is related to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former professional staff member on the House Homeland Security Committee. Jane Tilles, an undergraduate student at American University majoring in international studies and political science, recently interned at FDD Action.