The dire warning implicit in President Joe Biden’s more than $2trillion American Jobs Plan — which promises to rebuild American infrastructure, create union jobs, and jump-start manufacturing — is that if it fails to become law, China will outcompete the United States for decades to come.
Mentioning China so often when talking about a domestic infrastructure plan might seem odd. But it makes sense if you realize that Biden’s signature domestic economic policy plan is also a critical element of a broader foreign policy strategy to thwart China’s growing power and global influence.
The idea is that making America more economically competitive by improving domestic infrastructure and investing in new and emerging technologies, especially clean energy technology, is the best way the US can challenge China for supremacy on the world stage — even more so than through military might or by trying to win the “war of ideas” against China’s authoritarianism.
Competing with China is fundamental to Biden’s presidency and goes hand in hand with his promise to bring middle-class jobs back to the United States. Biden envisions those jobs in manufacturing electric vehicles in Detroit, and long-duration energy storage that can store the clean energy generated from wind and solar, among other jobs in the clean energy economy.
Still, hammering home the critical importance of competing against China without painting the country as a threat could be a tricky line for him to walk.
Biden’s $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan will amount to about 1 percent of America’s GDP per year over about eight years, according to a Biden administration official. But even with that factored in, US spending pales in comparison to China’s.
In comparison, she said, “we need to rebuild the original infrastructure, which is old and outdated, we need to climate-proof that infrastructure, and we need to be competing with China internationally for those global markets.”
Biden’s plan is a lot more than the $621 billion in spending dedicated to rebuilding what is traditionally considered “infrastructure”: the nation’s roads, bridges, ports, and rail systems. It also contains $300 billion to bolster manufacturing, $213 billion for affordable housing, and a collective $380 billion for research and development, modernizing America’s electricity grid, and installing high-speed broadband around the country. The plan also includes $400 billion for home- and community-based health and elder care.
“Part of the economic logic of this plan is that this is not just about infrastructure, but it’s about creating more jobs and more industrial strength in the United States,” a Biden administration official told reporters. “When you make these infrastructure investments and couple it with the president’s commitment to buy American, you’re pulling forward and creating demand that will help accelerate new industries in the US.”
For Biden, neither the Obama nor the Trump approach was quite right, and both failed in important ways. Obama’s international play fell flat but barely addressed economic needs at home. Trump aimed to revamp the domestic economy but did little to rally the world to counter Beijing comprehensively.
The new president’s approach, then, picks up where the last two strategies failed. “What the Biden administration is doing by broadening the way we discuss infrastructure is painting a picture of the future in which some of the constraints on our current infrastructure go away and new possibilities are realized,” said Anthony Foxx, the secretary of transportation from 2013 to 2017.
Biden’s is essentially a two-pronged approach. The first is the domestic piece, which experts explain is about essentially beating China in a domestic race for new technologies. “It’s all about running faster,” said Costello, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington.
The second part is the global one plucked from the Obama playbook. But instead of an economic super-deal, Biden wants nations to work together to counter China’s aggressive behavior. That means banning Beijing’s telecommunications companies from their critical infrastructure, speaking out against China’s human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims or Hong Kong, and pushing Xi to agree to bold climate change standards.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will soon formally introduce a bipartisan bill called the Strategic Competition Act, which focuses on countering China’s human rights abuses, prioritizing security assistance for the Indo-Pacific region, and combating intellectual property theft. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has called on committees to work on the bipartisan Endless Frontiers Act, which focuses especially on strengthening the US semiconductor industry.