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Column: Biden picks up the gauntlet to face China’s challenge

For the Valley News
Published: 4/3/2021 10:20:15 PM
Modified: 4/3/2021 10:20:14 PM

With Joe Biden in the White House, the narrative of America’s decline has suddenly come to an end.

Americans have begun to sprint — to embrace full-blooded life — as the virus retreats. Referring to the Fourth of July, President Biden said, “After a long, hard year, that will make this Independence Day truly special — where we not only mark our independence as a nation but we begin to mark our independence from this virus.”

Not only the virus. He is ready to meet any threat on the horizon. For John F. Kennedy, it was the Soviet Union, the Cuban missile crisis and the race to the moon. For Biden, it is China, which, unlike the Soviet Union, is much stronger and has opened multiple new aggressive fronts, including cyberattacks, technological poaching, intellectual property theft and unfair trade practices.

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, as Mao Zedong admonished his countrymen; however, today it grows on the new frontiers of technology. America can out-gun China, but can it out-compete it in the ever-expanding field of technology? America has no choice.

A broad bipartisan consensus has developed that the United States must remain politically and technologically supreme, must out-compete any nation, most of all China. This is a major departure from the policies of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who bent over backward to accommodate China. They allowed China to use the World Trade Organization for self-aggrandizement rather than play by the international rules of trade. Writing in Foreign Affairs, China scholar Yeling Tan observes, “China seems to pay lip service to international norms and still play by its own rules, taking advantage of loopholes and naïve policymakers abroad.”

The naïve policymakers in America tolerated this kind of behavior, hoping that a prosperous China would gradually become democratic, as Taiwan and South Korea had done. Instead, China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats in a recent Alaska meeting hectored and belittled Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his team, asserting that China is a better democratic model than the United States.

Increasing techno-economic power has emboldened China to bully its neighbors, turn Muslim Xinjiang into a hell worse than the Soviet gulag and Hong Kong into an “Island of Unfreedom.” If America retreated, democratic Taiwan (a global electronic and semiconductor powerhouse) would become a lunch bite for China. Hence the geopolitical importance of the Indo-Pacific and “the Quad” — the U.S., India, Japan and Australia — which must be strengthened.

So what does President Biden plan to do?

The best way for a nation to assess its strength vis-a-vis its competitors is to comprehend its own vulnerabilities. In his Feb. 24 executive order, Biden directed federal departments and agencies “to identify ways to secure U.S. supply chains against a wide range of risks and vulnerabilities. Building resilient supply chains will protect the United States from facing shortages of critical products. It will also facilitate needed investments to maintain America’s competitive edge, and strengthen U.S. national security.”

The executive order identified active pharmaceutical ingredients, critical minerals, semiconductors and large-capacity batteries for electric vehicles for an immediate100-day review, followed by a more in-depth one-year scrutiny of a broader set of U.S. supply chains including six key sectors such as defense, information technology, energy and others.

One of the biggest concerns in America’s critical supply chain vulnerabilities is the semiconductor, the tiny chip that runs the digital economy.

Microchips are indispensable for storing data and performing calculations, as well as for 5G technologies, artificial intelligence, robotics and biomedical research. The strength of a nation can be measured by the power of its microchips; the United States cannot manufacture enough and has to depend upon other nations. Highlighting this weak spot in the economy and national security, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “Our auto industry is facing significant chip shortages. This is a technology the United States created; we ought to be leading the world in it.”

Fixing high-tech vulnerabilities is part of Biden’s much more ambitious and transformative plan to rebalance and reshape American society. To spread prosperity, reduce inequality and fight climate change, he plans to invest $2.25 trillion — on the top of the already approved $1.9 trillion for the COVID-19 relief program — for building infrastructure including roads, bridges, buildings, railways, electrical vehicle charging stations, rural broadband networks and more. Apart from the infrastructure and cleaner energy, the plan would include investment in universal pre-kindergarten, free community college and paid family leave.

Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt has any president ever attempted to carry out such a bold plan to rejuvenate America. This is the portrait of a nation on the rise, not on decline. China would come to know it soon.

The political construct of the “post-America world” was a figment of academic imagination, unrelated to realities on the ground. It posited that, as other nations such as China rise, America would stand still, which now looks rather jejune.

Despite what happened on Jan. 6, it’s obvious now that Trumpism and the pandemic actually aroused America’s slumbering creative spirits. The COVID-19 crises has strengthened democratic impulses. It is a collective catharsis — a born-again experience for America, ready to resume its global responsibilities.

Narain Batra, of Hartford, is a professor of communications and diplomacy at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., and a contributing columnist for The Times of India.

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