What the Midterms Mean for U.S.-China Tech Competition
A divided Congress could stunt milestones in the United States’ technological competition with China just when it needs them most.
Technological competition with China was not an issue on most voters’ minds during the 2022 midterm elections. The resilience of American democratic institutions, however, was frequently linked to these elections. This connection has implications for long-term technological competition between the United States and China.
The Big Picture
The Republican Party is currently estimated by NBC to capture a slim majority of 221 seats in the House of Representatives, with seven races undecided. The Senate race in Georgia is heading to a runoff, which may decide control of the chamber as it did in early 2021. These results are unexpected against the backdrop of a “red wave.” But, with a GOP-led House likely, a divided Congress effectively means that President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda has ended, at least for his current term, barring unforeseen breakthroughs in partisan dynamics.
Prior to the midterms, however, the Biden administration and Congress had been on a technology policymaking hot streak.
The AUKUS security partnership, formed between the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, received outsized attention for its commitment to deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. However, its more ambitious component was a “deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains.” Autonomous underwater systems, quantum technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), and advanced cyber were among these technologies. Few doubt that the goal of AUKUS is to counter China’s military build-up.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), composed of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia, has also expanded technological cooperation. While overlap with AUKUS exists, the United States and Japan agreed in January 2022 to move ahead with collaboration on emerging technologies. Defense technology sharing is growing between all members, though the United States is moving faster with Japan and Australia than with India due to the latter’s military ties with Russia.
Following at least two years of debate, the CHIPS and Science Act was signed into law in August 2022. The law provides a whopping $280 billion over ten years for scientific research and semiconductor manufacturing, with $200 billion going towards the former.
Perhaps the most shocking move came in October—with remarkably little media attention—when the Biden administration released an expansive set of export controls designed to cut off Chinese access to AI and other computing-related semiconductor technologies whose production involves American companies or workers.
Center for Strategic and International Studies fellow Gregory C. Allen described this use of executive power as the Biden administration’s way of declaring “enough is enough” for Beijing’s integration of AI for malign political and military ends. Jon Bateman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace believes the move is an indication that the “restrictionists” have won out in the Biden administration, and technological decoupling is accelerating, a position echoed as a new form of “containment” strategy by the Middle East Institute’s Mohammed Soliman.
The Trajectory of U.S. Tech Policy
These technological moves have occurred against the backdrop of not only intense and accelerating competition with China but also solidifying partisan legislative dynamics in Washington and the rapid degradation of deliberative bodies like the Senate. Add to this the time- and attention-consuming Russo-Ukrainian War, and it is impressive that the Biden administration and Congress have managed to pull off these technology-related milestones. However, even in these successes lie the seeds of future peril.
The CHIPS Act only passed because of an informal agreement between Senate Democrats and Republicans that the former would not pursue a party-line reconciliation bill. An agreement between Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) on just such a bill—the Inflation Reduction Act—was kept secret among Democrats to keep Republicans committed to the CHIPS Act (which passed the Senate on a bipartisan 64-33 vote).
Many technology-related steps taken vis-à-vis China have not required legislative approval but new spending appropriations, such as the CHIPS Act, do. If the Biden administration sought domestic investment in emerging technologies outside of annual defense or currently authorized spending, a GOP-led House may simply block the proposal from the outset or tie its success to the GOP’s political ends, which Democrats would not approve.
As the legislative process itself has become yet another tool in the partisan dynamic, executive decisions that do not require legislative approval may nonetheless be held hostage to unrelated demands (there was no formal connection between the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act, and brinksmanship over the debt ceiling looms once again). Still, given the enormous investments made by the CHIPS Act and current inflationary trends, it is unlikely that Biden has plans for an analogous investment in the second half of his term.
Some disagree that a GOP-led House will have the effects I describe. National security reporter Amy Mackinnon speculates that “we’ll broadly see a continuation” in China policy. Michael J. Green, head of the Australia-based United States Studies Centre, sees the CHIPS Act itself, in addition to AUKUS, as evidence that a divided Congress will sharpen, not harm, U.S. strategy toward China. But this is too optimistic since it neglects the fact that laws like the CHIPS Act could just have easily not passed in a more rancorous and distrustful Congress.
Yet, one area of potential bipartisan cooperation is action concerning social media platforms like Tiktok. As Democrats and Republicans trip over themselves in their mutual bid to be the toughest on China, legitimate security concerns regarding Tiktok’s operations in the United States may lead to a ban or increased scrutiny and will unlikely draw significant Congressional ire.
Furthermore, Congress is unlikely to counter the Biden administration’s effort to sign a deal with American allies expanding the aforementioned export controls, given the irrelevance the first moves had on domestic politics.
Institutional Resiliency and Technological Competition
A major theme of the midterm elections concerned the trajectory of American democracy and the resiliency of its political institutions, especially with nearly 200 election-denying Republican candidates on the ballot nationwide. With Republicans’ disappointing night, Democrats have started framing the results as a victory for democratic resiliency. The United States, still, however, finds itself with remarkable political divisions that go beyond policy disagreements and threaten the long-term stability of robust, consistent policymaking. This should not be lost on the Biden administration as it proceeds with technology policy vis-a-vis China.
The Biden administration recognizes the strategic importance of emerging technologies and is also aware that the incoming Congress is keen to look as tough on China as it possibly can. In addition, the White House has frequently touted its ability to negotiate bipartisan legislation through seemingly impossible gridlock.
The Biden administration should connect these dots by trying to work with the new Congress on technology policy vis-à-vis China. This serves two ends.
First, it keeps the United States in the technology game. Great power competition does not take two years off and neither should Congress. The worst thing the Biden administration could do now is rest on its laurels. America cannot be satisfied with sporadic bursts of legislative gridlock if it wishes to retain its technological and geopolitical edge.
Second, engaging in low-expectation but good-faith deal-making with Congressional Republicans is consistent with President Biden’s post-midterm election remarks signaling his desire to work with them within reason. If Congressional Republicans do not play ball, it would allow the White House to define Republican leadership as out of step with the results of the midterm elections. And if they do, even if there is no shift in voter sentiment, the U.S. government will have shown its ability to deliver even as China perceives America’s terminal decline.
One potential area for bipartisan activity concerns Tiktok and other social media platforms. The likely speaker of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), released a “Commitment to America” in September that included—with the usual grievances against Big Tech—an emphasis on “greater privacy and data security protections” online. It is conceivable this could be used as a springboard by Congress and the White House to construct a national digital strategy that can also be used to coordinate related efforts with allies in the Indo-Pacific (as one Center for a New American Security report suggested in a general context). Such efforts should explicitly be linked to both parties’ disdain for the Chinese government’s abuses of digital privacy.
As of right now, the Republican Party’s anticipated electoral sweep at both the state and national levels has not materialized. Republicans are still favored to flip the House—and possibly the Senate—but with a significantly smaller majority than expected. An immediate implication is the difficulty the Republican speaker will have in keeping the demands of the far-right wing of the party—exemplified by Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)—at bay. These representatives will not negotiate policy in good faith with Democrats.
Should the results of the midterm elections continue to defy expectations, the White House and congressional Democratic leadership should seek to use its narrow options for bipartisan cooperation outlined above to help McCarthy shape legislative priorities. Policymaking vis-a-vis technological competition with China does not need to be defined by the worst elements in either party, and Biden should try to thread this needle.