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Foreign Policy

Avoiding Tech Fatalism

Jan 22, 2021
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Research Processor, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Since 2018, China-U.S. competition in science and technology has become the most prominent element of their bilateral relationship. It is manifest in the pursuit of cutting-edge technologies and competitiveness in the tech industry and spills over to the political and security domains.

Citing political issues such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the U.S. has imposed sanctions and restrictions on a number of Chinese tech companies, making it more difficult to manage competition between the two countries.

Since the U.S. presidential election, and as the Joe Biden team prepares to take office, the Chinese and American media and strategic communities have been reassessing ties and points of conflict in all fields, trying to find some positive elements in the world’s most important bilateral relationship. But American media generally believe that the overall posture of competition in high-tech will remain, and with even greater intensity. So it may  be difficult to find an opportunity to address existing contradictions and misunderstandings.

The pessimism is an extension of a fatalistic view of the China-U.S. tech rivalry, which is based on the following argument:

China-U.S. tech competition is a virtual cold war in science and technology based on rival modes of development, with no room for win-win. The winner will dominate the future of global technology. The two countries will then fall into a technological Thucydides trap, and to prevent China from catching up as a rising power, America’s main strategy will be to clamp down on the former’s technological development, rather than boosting its own competitiveness. In the end, competition will lead to decoupling in technology, with other countries potentially forced to choose sides.

Such fatalism comes with a perceived path to escalation and no return in tech competition, thus making a cold war in technology a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This, however, ignores some key factors that may well change the course of development.

First, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party’s views of technology and China are markedly different from those of the Trump administration. In public statements, Biden and his team put more emphasis on improving U.S. competitiveness and argue that America will expand its technological edge by investing more in basic tech research and development. This is a departure from Trump’s position of blaming China for the decline of U.S. competitiveness.

In this connection, the Biden administration will be more mindful of the costs to the American innovation ecosystem that accompany tougher measures against China and thus show more restraint, as opposed to adopting radical measures. The U.S. will also do its best to maintain favorable tech ties with China.

Second, global security threats in science and technology are becoming a major concern for all countries. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages around the world, a “digital epidemic” has also hit us, with significantly increased frequency and destruction by way of large-scale cyberattacks and cybertheft. Recently, many U.S. government agencies and private organizations have been targets of mega attacks through SolarWinds software updates.

The damage still has not been fully assessed. It has rippled through multiple Western countries, highlighting again that cybercrimes are the most significant security threat in the world today. Since China and the U.S. are the main victims of such attacks, they may have incentive to resume their previous cooperation and communication in this area.

Third, in the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the global technological industrial chain has proved highly resilient and not easily broken. The spread of the virus has been the biggest common disaster for human society since the start of the new century. Yet, so far, it has not had a fatal impact on the global sci-tech industrial chain, nor has it slowed the pace of R&D or product iterations by tech companies. Tested in the extreme, the industrial chain has shown a strong capacity to withstand shocks without decoupling or fracturing.

The pandemic may therefore change the tech companies’ views about the future so they can continue to be a positive force for China-U.S. tech cooperation.

With such variables, it is still possible to seek positive changes in China-U.S. tech competition during Biden’s term. Even if the competitive posture remains, the intensity of it may cool and the two sides may have an opportunity to promote their own development and make scientific and technological progress for the benefit of all mankind. To seize the opportunities created with these changes, China and the U.S. need to reach some common ground. 

They need first to prioritize global scientific and technological development and security. Progress and security problems coexist as objective facts. No country wants to be a victim of the misuse of technology, yet none of them can reduce or eliminate the risks on their own. In the new scientific and technological revolution, individual countries and the world community as a whole must attend to technological development and security simultaneously.

China and the U.S., the two major innovation centers in the world today, have a responsibility to make greater joint efforts toward the development of transparent, fair and reasonable common norms for international governance when it comes to security in frontier science and technology.

They then need to eliminate the bundling of technology and politics. Twisting technology into politics has been a major cause of intense, even out-of-control, tech competition over the past few years, and it closes off communication. The incoming U.S. administration must understand that instead of producing the intended effect, politics will only increase the R&D costs of tech companies and lead to more of them questioning the unilateral U.S. approach.

Some Western media reported recently on increased complaints by European companies to the U.S. about its handling of export control exemptions, which favors American companies and undermines fair competition in the Chinese market.

The two countries also need mechanisms for building mutual trust in the security field at higher levels. During the Obama administration, China and the U.S. used high-level dialogue on cybersecurity to effectively manage the issue and eliminate hidden dangers in their relations. Now, they need a broader, higher-level bilateral dialogue to resolve their many problems in the field of science and technology and to develop a more effective means to ensure security and enhance trust.

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