Anyone who has visited China in the past decade knows why President Joe Biden is pushing so hard to overhaul U.S. infrastructure.
“If we don’t get moving, they are going to eat our lunch,” Biden rightly recently warned a bipartisan group of U.S. senators — while pitching his $2 trillion proposal to upgrade transport, grids, water systems, broadband internet coverage and basic research.
The Chinese leadership has been massively investing for decades in roads, high-speed rail, airports, internet connectivity, and basic research in critical technologies, while the United States rested on its laurels. The comparison isn’t pretty.
It demonstrates to Beijing what Chinese leaders are already convinced of — that China’s authoritarian regime is destined to surpass a declining America economically and technologically.
So Biden’s massive infrastructure plan is as critical for U.S. foreign policy as it is for the home front. Which is another reason why the knee-jerk trashing of Biden’s plan by GOP legislators — without offering a serious alternative — is inexcusably blind.
I have watched the results of a Chinese leadership determined to build up the country’s infrastructure since my first trip to the country in 1986, and the results are stunning. Shanghai that year was a city of bicycles and hardly any cars. Pudong was then an empty marsh. Now, it is the economic heart of the city, with a forest of skyscrapers that look like New York and Chicago combined.
Visitors can now arrive to Shanghai on a maglev train from a gleaming new Pudong airport. (Nearly every minor Chinese city has a new airport, with the Chinese government planning 162 new civilian airports, and Beijing having opened a new $11 billion international airport last year.) Or travelers can take the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai which takes 4 hours and 18 minutes to cover approximately 748 miles, part of China’s 23,550 mile network of high speed rail. (Compare this with almost 7 hours on the Acela to travel the 439 miles from Boston to Washington, DC.)
Of course, Beijing’s authoritarian system runs on central government five-year plans, which risk overbuilding, waste, and rights violations. But the point is that the central government plans strategically, and achieved an infrastructure backbone that propelled the country’s stunning growth.
The United States, on the other hand, where much infrastructure depends on complex agreements between local, state and federal officials, has built one new airport — Denver — since the 1990s. America welcomes international visitors to NYC at the disgraceful mess of John F. Kennedy Airport and travelers then have no easy, direct rail transport to the city.
No wonder the American Society of Civil Engineers, in a 2017 report, ranked the nation’s infrastructure an average D+, meaning that conditions were “mostly below standard” and “with a strong risk of failure.“ Think of that electrical grid in Texas that collapsed in cold weather in February.
That is before you even get to the comparison between China and the U.S. on broadband internet technology, where China has nearly the whole country covered, while more than one-third of Americans in rural areas still lack high-speed access. This is something Biden’s plan will also address.
And the most dangerous area of all is the U.S. lag in basic research and development. This is the research that explores the new 21st technologies, which can give countries the economic and military lead in the future. For example, both the Trump and Biden administrations have banned the Chinese company Huawei from exporting hardware that enables 5G, the next high-speed generation of internet. But the United States has no equivalent company to Huawei.
From 1995 through 2018, Chinese research and development from public and private sources increased by over 15% a year on average, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Meantime, U.S. federal funding steadily fell. As Biden said, when promoting his plan, “We’re one of only a few major economies in the world whose public investment in research and development as a share of GDP has declined constantly over the last 25 years.”
The result: In 2018, Chinese research and development reached $463 billion, only $89 billion behind the United States, and the gap is closing. Biden’s plan wants to keep and expand the U.S. lead. How can the GOP oppose this idea?
Plenty of the details of Biden’s huge plan can be debated. But the bottom line is that the U.S.’s crumbling infrastructure — ranked 13 in the world — undermines America’s future economic prospects. And it convinces China and Russia that U.S. power is on the wane.
This is a critical historical moment, when the world is asking whether democracies can still deliver for their people, or whether their governments can function as well as autocracies. This is a moment when a national infrastructure strategy, and full funding, are needed to keep America strong.
Rubin writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer: firstname.lastname@example.org.