Members of the US Senate on Monday overwhelmingly backed a motion to proceed with debate over the Endless Frontier Act (EFA), a draft legislation that would designate over $100 billion in federal funds for investment in domestic technology. The bill is widely regarded as an attempt to counter China’s evolving strength in the industry.
A core proposal in the Senate bill involves the establishment of 10 to 15 “technology hubs” across the country in the next five years, which would each receive hefty funding to pursue innovation, research and training programs in a set of defined key areas including AI. The legislation has been touted by its supporters as the most substantial and wide-ranging support for US innovation in a generation.
Other components of the bill include reforming the influential National Science Foundation – as well as adding the word “Technology” into its name – and establishing an annual procedure to closer integrate technological innovation with the country’s broader national security strategy.
The EFA, which passed the most recent procedural hurdle with a rare bipartisan vote of 86 to 11, claims in the opening findings section that unless significant action is taken, “it is only a matter of time before the global competitors of the United States overtake [it] in terms of technological primacy,” adding that “the country that wins the race in key technologies… will be the superpower of the future.”
Although the draft legislation does not single out any global competitor in particular, leading advocates of the EFA have publicly stated that one of the primary motives is to shore up the US position in response to China’s burgeoning technology sector.
As recent years have witnessed a ratcheting up of tensions between the two countries with regards to technology, officials in Washington and Beijing have increasingly sought to frame issues such as 5G, AI and semiconductor supply in terms of national security.
In a speech at the Capitol preceding the Monday vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer claimed that holding China accountable for “years of rapacious economic policies and theft of American ingenuity will help create a level playing field that American workers have lacked for decades.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki echoed this sentiment on Tuesday, writing on Twitter that President Joe Biden “was encouraged to see the Senate move forward on the [EFA] on a bipartisan basis last night.” Psaki continued, “if we’re going to maintain our competitive advantage against China, we need to invest in our sources of strength at home.”
In an era marked by heavy polarization in Washington, adopting an aggressive line in the formulation of China policy represents one of the few consistently bipartisan stances, with the EFA expected to receive final approval before the end of this month.
Earlier this year, top legislators in Washington initiated discussions regarding the development of a more comprehensive approach towards countering China economically. A draft proposal for achieving this goal, entitled the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, is currently slated for review by the House of Representatives.