Apr 22, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: Sen. Coons sees new era of bipartisanship on China

Sen. Chris Coons is seen looking out a window in the Capitol.

Sen. Chris Coons. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Jan. 6 insurrection was a "shock to the system," propelling members of Congress toward the goal of shoring up America's ability to compete with China, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told Axios during an interview Thursday.

Why it matters: Competition between China's authoritarian model and the West's liberal democratic one is likely to define the 21st century. A bipartisan response would help the U.S. present a united front.

Driving the news: Three major bipartisan bills targeting China's influence and strengthening America's response are now working their way through Congress and expected to pass.

  • The Strategic Competition Act would allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to a raft of new initiatives aimed at helping the U.S. succeed in long-term ideological, military, economic and technological competition with China. It was passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday and now heads to the Senate floor.
  • The Endless Frontier Act calls for $100 billion in funding for technology research to boost U.S. innovation, as China aims to become the world leader in emerging technologies.
  • Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have reintroduced a bill to study the United States’ "overreliance on foreign countries and the impact of foreign direct investment on the U.S. pharmaceutical industry and DNA analysis industries" — with a special eye on China.

What they're saying: “The harrowing experience of Jan. 6, the sharp divisions we saw in our election last year, and the rise of a more aggressive and assertive China and Russia, has really helped focus our country in the urgency in coming together and working to make a difference," Coons said.

  • The Capitol siege on Jan. 6 was a "shock to the system that both hurt our reputation around the world as a functional democracy and made many of us here in Congress reflect on ways that we demonstrate we can legislate in ways that can solve people's problems."
  • The Strategic Competition Act passed committee with a final vote of 21-1, which Coons said was "as robust and bipartisan an endorsement of a bill as I’ve ever seen here."

Background: While in office, President Trump made countering China a big part of his agenda. And while there was bipartisan agreement Beijing was a growing problem, that didn't result in major legislation because there was so much tension between the two parties.

  • "President Trump took bold and aggressive steps to confront China’s economic and intellectual theft of our innovation ... but he did so in ways that genuinely divided us from our allies," Coons said.
  • He said President Biden's approach focuses instead on bipartisanship and working with allies.

The bottom line: "The first order of business for us is to invest in our own country and in strengthening our own democracy," Coons said.

What to watch: The Strategic Competition Act codifies a bipartisan U.S. position on a range of China-related issues and telegraphs to U.S. allies the federal government is unified.

  • Lawmakers agree that the two bills are only a start and that more action will be needed.
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