It seems the one thing Democratic and Republican senators can agree on is that we need to do more to keep up with China. Nothing is assured, but it looks like the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 will overcome a filibuster this week and get an actual vote in the Senate. If so, it will pass and go to the House. We’re talking about a fully optional yet significant bill that is actually going to become a law. This no longer happens in this country unless some trick like “budget reconciliation” is used by the majority to overcome the objections of Mitch McConnell.
So, first off, bravo for Congress actually proving that it is still capable of doing its job, which is passing legislation. The bill itself has a lot of valuable pieces, especially if you want to face reality and admit that a military conflict with China is possible in the near future. Just as the Japanese quickly took control of the Pacific supply chain in the 1940’s, China could do so in the 2020’s, disrupting our ability to use computing. The bill builds microprocessor manufacturing capability here at home, and addresses potential materials shortages that could arise if China cut off or disrupted Pacific trade.
The legislation is also mindful that we need to maintain a technological edge, as that’s how most wars are decided, or prevented. It establishes a Directorate for Technology and Innovation within the National Science Foundation and seeds it with $81 billion.
The directorate would ensure NSF funding is funneled to the development of critical technologies, including artificial intelligence, high-performance computing, robotics and semiconductors.
“This legislation will set our country on the path to out-innovate, out-produce and out-compete the world in the industries of the future,” Schumer said from the Senate floor Monday.
It may not be a coincidence that talk about COVID-19 emerging from a Chinese science lab has ramped up as this legislation is being considered in the Senate. It certainly greases the gears for this bill. But heated rhetoric aside, there’s every reason in the world to be prepared for a potential confrontation with China, most likely over Taiwan. National security isn’t just about tanks and planes, either, but also maintaining an advantage in scientific know-how and a strong economy. Investments that have dual military and commercial applications are definitely preferable to just making more bombs. Securing the military supply chain has the benefit of securing the commercial pipeline for critical materials.
So, this is a useful and proactive bill that doesn’t put the country’s head in the sand about near-term threats and also has the potential to advance science and commerce. You definitely do not need to be an alarmist about China to see the benefits, but it probably couldn’t become a law without a degree of domestic hysteria about China. So it goes.
The law is Chuck Schumer’s baby, but it’s consistent with the Biden administrations’ Pacific focus on national security. I wish we could find consensus on many other pressing issues, but at least this is something.