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Political Logic and U.S. Biosecurity

Jun 07, 2024
  • Yin Haocheng

    Graduate Student, Shanghai International Studies University


On March 6, the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed a revised version of S.3558, a bill that would prohibit contracts with certain biotechnology providers. On May 15, the House Oversight and Accountability Committee overwhelmingly passed a modified version of H.R.7085 — the BIOSECURE Act). Both House and Senate versions of the bill have reached a stage of concurrent progress. Both bills prioritize national security, demonstrate potential for a “security generalization” orientation and aim to support American manufacturing from an economic perspective.

Biosafety and related governance issues received further attention after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two bills can be seen as specific legislative measures Congress took to address biosafety. The restrictions imposed on Chinese enterprises in the two bills aim to move the corresponding biological industry chain to the United States, reducing the negative impact of offshore outsourcing on society and the U.S. economy.

Second, the bills closely relate to the America’s pan-security strategy in the high-tech and biopharmaceutical industries. The companies mentioned in the bill are leading enterprises in China’s innovative drug development industry, such as BGI Genomics Co., MGI Tech Co. and WuXi AppTec Co. Restrictions on these companies will weaken their profitability. They will hurt the commercial viability of China’s corresponding industrial policies and reduce operational efficiency.

Third, limiting the “offshoring” of biosecurity would contribute significantly to revitalizing the U.S. manufacturing sector. If these bills become law, they will pose significant challenges for American companies seeking economic benefits through the “offshore outsourcing” of operations to China.

If the next U.S. administration issues industrial support or administrative directives, enterprises affected by the Biosafety Act will be more inclined to invest in the United States to build factories or find partners. This trend could potentially expedite the reshoring of manufacturing in the U.S. biotech sector, thereby strengthening domestic production capabilities.

In addition, the Democratic and Republican parties have intensively introduced China-related biosecurity bills on the eve of the election, opening up new space for China-related issues and winning voter recognition through the so-called gathering flag effect.”

In addition, the Democratic and Republican parties have opened up a new space for debate on China-related issues, and they hope to win recognition from voters through the gathering flag effect.

As the United States faces the task of conducting congressional elections in 2024, lawmakers are likely to devote more significant effort toward electoral campaigns, giving limited attention to the specific advancements of congressional proceedings. In addition to these factors, the regular summer recess of the U.S. Congress in July and August further complicates the process. Consequently, the passage of the two bills in 2024 remains a considerable challenge.

However, the procedural delays do not mean the United States will slow down its competition with China in biosecurity. Given the enduring perception of China as a significant competitor, it will be only a matter of time before related biosecurity issues simmer again.

First, biological security has been regarded as an essential component of the U.S. national security strategy. In the 2022 strategy, the Biden administration refers to biological security and biotechnology multiple times and claims that the frontier technology field, including biotechnology, is a new arena for competing with countries such as China.

On the other hand, the earlier Trump administration pursued policies such as “America first” and unilateralism to seek U.S. biological security. This shows that the two consecutive administrations, under different political parties, have regarded biological security as a critical field for national security and excellent power competition during their respective terms in office.

Second, the biosecurity acts are similar to U.S. sanctions on semiconductor equipment. These bills are sponsored by influential senior legislators and proposed under the guise of national security to restrict leading enterprises in China’s biomedical sector. This strategy is similar to the Defending U.S. Government Communications Act of 2018. The bill claims that certain enterprises have “close ties” with the Chinese government and that these “threaten U.S. national security.” This content was eventually incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2019 and began the competition between the two countries in the semiconductor field.

Therefore, from the perspective of identity reproduction or historical experience, biosafety-related bills will likely follow in the footsteps of semiconductor competition and become a new arena of U.S. competition against China.

Finally, passing these bills may only be the first step in the United States’ competition with China in this field. In the foreseeable future, the U.S. may emulate its strategies in the semiconductor industry, introducing restrictions on supply chains, intellectual property rights and market accessibility.

About the ongoing U.S. electoral process, the nominations of President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump have effectively solidified within their respective parties, meaning the next president is likely to be one of these two individuals. Whether Biden continues in office or Trump takes over, the United States will continue to challenge China in biosecurity and biological innovation. While there may be some variations in policy choices and supporting strategies between the two presidents, the result is bound to have profound adverse implications for China’s industrial security and enduring ramifications for China-U.S. relations.

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