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Benign Technology Competition: The Choice for China and the U.S.

Feb 26, 2019
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, CICIR

Since 2018, with the negative changes in the overall atmosphere of China-U.S. relations, the United States has undergone significant changes in its attitude toward China-U.S. scientific and technological cooperation, and has clearly emphasized the "competition" side. The United States has taken a series of high-profile measures in the field of science and technology, trying to limit scientific and technological cooperation between China and the US in personnel exchange, technology exports, and investment. For example, the United States began a comprehensive crackdown on Huawei, law enforcement agencies investigated Chinese technology companies, the US Congress passed several bills prohibiting US military procurement of Huawei and ZTE's communications products, prohibiting US government procurement of Chinese companies' surveillance equipment and restricting Chinese investment in US technology companies. The Meng Wanzhou incident has become a representative event of the US suppression of China's science and technology, and it has not yet been resolved. These sensitive events in the field of science and technology not only have a negative impact on the overall atmosphere of China-US relations, but also make science and technology competition a feature of strategic competition between China and the US.

In fact, these measures by America in the field of science and technology are neither in the interests of China nor the US. This is because no country can deviate from the foundation of global cooperation and rely on its own power to promote its scientific and technological progress. Although the US’ scientific and technological capabilities are strong, it doesn’t have absolute power in these fields. Its technological development is still supported by the global industrial chain, overseas markets and other nations’ research institutions. The development of the US’ advanced F-35 fighter aircraft relies on extensive international cooperation.

At the same time, a global industrial chain has long been formed in the field of science and technology, and countries have strong interdependence and complementarity. Countries rely on their respective technological advantages to form their own role in the global technology industry chain. As a country with rapid development of science and technology, China has formed its own dominant position in some fields and played a critical role in the chain. With artificial intelligence (AI) becoming a new front for technological development, China's huge market and data resources are indispensable. If the US wants to develop AI technology, it needs cooperation from China. Therefore, the US actions to try to "decouple from China "will not only be difficult to achieve, but will greatly hinder its own potential for technological development.

In the field of science and technology, China and the US must pursue "benign competition" and become "responsible competitors." As the United States has repeatedly stressed, the term "competition" needs to be understood from a positive perspective. In the field of science and technology, competition has always been an important way to promote progress. What is important is that this competition should be benign and positive. That is, countries should focus on promoting their scientific and technological progress by upgrading their own technology and through international collaboration, instead of taking a short-sighted perspective. "Malignant competition" by destroying the technological development of other countries and by restricting international collaboration can’t bring about real progress. For China and the US, it is necessary to adopt benign and positive competition and enhance the scientific and technological levels of human beings through cooperation.

“Benign competition” also means that China and the US need to maintain a cooperative posture in key scientific and technological fields. The "technical decoupling" measures currently adopted by the US have already caused suspicions and disagreement from some insightful people in the United States. Two scholars of the well-known think tank Brookings Institute recently published the article "US-China Relations: In The Age of Artificial Intelligence", arguing that fencing off the U.S. technology sector from China would slow new breakthroughs, reduce the competitiveness of American firms, and increase costs for American consumers. They also argued that China and the US are at the forefront of innovations in the field of AI, and purely competitive zero-sum framing does a disservice to both. As the era of AI approaches, China and the US need to take responsibility for leading development, give full play to their respective advantages, and promote the development of global AI technology. Besides, the social and economic problems brought about by AI and the reshaping of norms that follow will require China and the US to jointly solve the problems. In short, both China and the US need to focus on a long-term and global perspective. That will be the best way to go beyond competition.

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