The Strategic Competition Act has no future
Hannan Hussain

Editor's note: Hannan Hussain is a foreign affairs commentator and author. He is a Fulbright recipient at the University of Maryland in the U.S., and a former assistant researcher at Islamabad Policy Research Institute. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

On April 8, leaders of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced a sweeping 280-page bill called the "Strategic Competition Act of 2021," a hardline legislative blueprint that frames Beijing's "political, diplomatic, economic, military and ideological power" as a strategic competitor to U.S., its partners, and the international order at large. 

Though the legislation encourages Washington to adopt a policy of "strategic competition" on paper, its methods of execution are unmistakably combative: ramped-up military financing in the so-called Indo-Pacific, advancement of China-focused sanctions, containment incentives in Asia's leading multilateral forums, scrutiny of Chinese enterprises, and multi-million dollar funds for countering Beijing's infrastructure connectivity initiatives.

On the military financing front, Washington appears to commit over $110 million in annual appropriations to tacitly undermine regional maritime peace in Southeast Asia. The bill confirms this trade-off by routing all operational, intelligence, training and maritime assistance under the "Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative," a holdover from earlier years that singled-out China's military capabilities as unacceptable to the United States. 

Tired platitudes, such as improving maritime domain awareness among Southeast Asian allies, are marketed as U.S. "national security objectives." The latter presumes firm territorial grounds for U.S. initiative in the region, when the bill provides no basis for such broad-based legitimacy.

Recent developments in the region suggest minimum appetite for foreign interference. China and ASEAN continue to sustain their optimism for fast-tracking a code of conduct in the South China Sea, with Manila becoming the latest party to promote consultations on maritime security in the region. This noninterference momentum runs contrary to the aspirations of the bill.

On business and multilateral trade, lawmakers show no signs of cultivating a free-market standard for both countries, let alone ushering an era of healthy competition. The bill advises the U.S. government to counter China's alleged "anticompetitive" industrial policies, while lobbying against China's fulfillment of World Trade Organization commitments. 

Above all, the bill positions the multi-million dollar "Infrastructure Transaction and Assistance Network" as an inlet for debt-consultancy and infrastructure-building in the Pacific. More crucially, this initiative pales in comparison to a more coercive reality: that scores of countries must be prepared to disclose their loan negotiation commitments with Beijing.

Rain clouds loom over the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan as it is anchored off Manila Bay, the Philippines, August 7, 2019. /AP

Rain clouds loom over the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan as it is anchored off Manila Bay, the Philippines, August 7, 2019. /AP

Lending under the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as sovereign transactions by the China Development Bank, the Export-Import Bank of China, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, are among the real costs of attaining debt-relief eligibility under U.S.-backed financial institutions. Put simply, Washington's infrastructure and debt-relief exhibit is a broad hijack of developing economies' autonomous statecraft.

The 280-page bill also contradicts its own "findings" regarding China's alleged market distortions. The U.S. Secretary of State is required to produce reporting that shows Beijing's policies "discriminate in favor" of its enterprises, sidestep foreign market competitors, or consolidate material benefits – all of the speculation billed previously as facts.

On international organizations, the U.S. Congress requires the intelligence apparatus to establish "Chinese influence" through more frivolous means: tracking sovereign countries' voting patterns and cultivating skepticism of Chinese technological equipment supplies.

Note that from Europe to Asia, several U.S. allies have signaled their resistance to camp politics on the world stage, effectively limiting the appeal of anti-China hostilities within their own value systems. This is an important fracture to observe during the life of the draft legislation, because Washington claims its position on Beijing is representative of "the values of other nations."

Injecting unilateral sanctions into a strategic competition framework won't pay off either. Section 210 of last Thursday's bill boasts a range of Congress-mandated measures which lawmakers deem central to addressing so-called "malign behavior ... by individuals and entities in the People's Republic of China." But as experts and officials made clear recently, a continuation of U.S. penalties against Chinese enterprises does little to interrupt China's economic self-sufficiency pivot.

As for U.S. economic interests back home, it is unlikely that the same futile sanctions will score domestic dividends, even if it means decorating Trump-style tactics as a "statutory and constitutional" imperative.

Ultimately, the Strategic Competition Act offers the ideal toolkit to run the international rules-based order into the ground. The Act's heavy emphasis on locking horns with Beijing also confirms limited obstacles in moving through Capitol Hill.

But if the underlying expectation is to court international approval by challenging Beijing on the world-stage, that same legislation is dead on arrival.

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