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Foreign Policy

China-U.S. Rivalry Through a Tech Lens

Feb 29, 2024
  • Zhao Minghao

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, and China Forum Expert.


Geopolitics is a classic proposition in international relations studies. In step with post-Cold War globalization, in-depth interaction between economies and geopolitics has turned geo-economics into an important framework of analysis. With “anti-globalization” emerging in the U.S. and other Western nations, against the backdrop of major-power competition, the impacts of such factors as weaponization of economic interdependencies, checks and balances between international economic and trade mechanisms, friend-shoring and supply chain reshuffles in major-power geopolitical games have grown ever more obvious.

As Robert Atkinson, president of the U.S. Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and others have observed, the United States and Soviet Union engaged in the Cold War mainly with military strength. But the core of the new geopolitical competition between China and the U.S. is a competition of economic strength based on technological leadership.

The geotechnology perspective, however, focuses on the interactive relationship between technological factors and geopolitics and major-power competition, which offers a fresh angle for understanding international relations — especially the China-U.S. rivalry. The Biden administration in the United States has stated on multiple occasions that technological competition is the core of U.S.-China strategic competition. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said that China creates increasing challenges for U.S. national security with its technological capacity, and so the U.S. must make sure it stands at the forefront of global innovation at a time of unprecedented technological transformation and competition.

Geotechnology generally includes three dimensions. First, the technological level is a key variable affecting countries’ comparative strengths, and technological factors are assuming increasing importance in countries’ national security strategies. Technological level has a decisive influence on a country’s economic and military strengths and reflects its soft power development model and innovation ecosystem. From the long perspective of world history, technological progress has provided strong impetus for the rise of major powers, as well as changes in military and war models, thus profoundly promoting the evolution of the international political order. Meanwhile, major-power competition has often been a catalyst driving major technological transformations.

Global technological innovation is currently intensive and active at present in an unprecedented way. A new technological revolution and industrial changes are redrawing the global landscape of innovation and reshaping global economic structure. Against such a background, countries are focusing more on the impacts of technological factors on national security strategy. Competition between major countries surrounding “innovation power” is growing ever more fierce. Based on major-power competition considerations, many countries are trying to reduce their technological dependency on competitors.

In order to enhance U.S. control over technological factors in national security, the Biden administration has added a position of deputy national security adviser in charge of cyberspace and emerging technologies to the White House National Security Council, and it established the Office of the Special Envoy for Critical and Emerging Technology at the State Department, in response to the increasing importance of technological factors in major-power competition.

Second, as such factors as high-tech firms’ influence on major-power games increases, in-depth integration of government and non-government forces becomes even more conspicuous in technological competition between major countries. In the era of digital economy, many outstanding transnational companies in high-tech industries have “superpowers” that profoundly affect the global political and economic order. Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer believes that tech firms are “core players” in 21st century world geopolitics. Compared with the unipolar, bipolar or multipolar regimes of traditional international politics, the technopolar regime is showing growing significance. Tech firms may determine how countries project economic and military strength, formulate future employment and redefine social contracts, structuring the global environment for major-power games.

For the making and implementing of U.S. diplomatic and national security policies, such high-tech firms as Google, Intel and Tesla, along with related sci-tech industry associations, colleges and research institutions, are indispensable forces. By way of such mechanisms as the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology and the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence in Congress, technological experts and high-tech company executives offer policy advice and actual support for improving U.S. national security strategies. During the Ukraine crisis, for example, StarLink services provided by SpaceX and satellite image intelligence from Planet Labs were critical factors affecting the course of combat. These high-tech firms are driving the world’s military sector into a new phase of intelligent warfare.

To ensure long-standing and strong technological advantages, such Western countries as the U.S. are implementing a “modern industry strategy” that involves increased government input in research and development, restructuring of high-tech product supply chains, enhancing collaboration of governmental and non-governmental actors and striving to build a position of strength against competitors.

Third, the building of alliances, or camps, that are highly correlated to high-tech has become a focus of major-power games, and technological competition is closely connected with competition in such realms as economy, security and ideology. To enhance technological advantages against competitors, the United States and other Western countries attach great significance to forming multilayered, modularized technological alliances to strengthen intelligence sharing and increase policy coordination in industrial policy, export control, investment oversight, scientific and technological exchanges and people-to-people exchanges in a bid to build so-called small yards with high walls. Such technological alliances also play a role in facilitating joint fund-raising, research and development, with the goal of providing “alternative options” for high-tech products and reducing competitors’ market share and influence in global high-tech industries.  

Moreover, the technological allies pay considerable attention to major power competition surrounding such concerns as international tech standards, emerging tech governance and scientific and technological research ethics — such as consolidating Western countries’ control over such international organizations as the IEC — to make sure the rules of AI governance conform to so-called democratic values.

Pushed by U.S.-led Western countries, technological competition is increasingly showing characteristics of “cross-domain competition” in which factors such as supply chains, military security and ideology are bound deeply to technological competition. An example is the Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative, which the Biden administration put forward under the framework of the Summit of Democracies.

It is worth noting that such geopolitical mechanisms as the Quad and AUKUS are increasingly embedded with functions of technological competition. The U.S. is attempting to use technological factors — especially emerging technologies with potential military applications — for cohesion as it builds geopolitical camps and responds to “digital authoritarianism,” “economic coercion” and “AI governance risks” in the formation of a “technology alliance of democracies.”

In recent years, the U.S. has clearly taken China as its most serious geopolitical challenge. It has forcefully implemented a competitive China strategy and claimed that its rivalry with China has entered a “decisive decade.” U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken said that ensuring U.S. technological leadership is one of the Biden administration’s diplomatic priorities. Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Susan Shirk, now a professor at UC San Diego, and some other strategists believe technological issues — which encompass security, economic competition and human rights challenges — have become the focus of America’s strategic competition against China. 

The U.S. is feeling an ever stronger sense of urgency in deepening technological competition with China. As President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, it won’t be enough for the U.S. to simply retain technological leadership. Rather, it needs to widen the technology gap with competitors as much as possible. This reflects a significant change in U.S. strategic thinking about technological competition with China and indicates that the U.S. will create more barricades for Chinese research and development — or even to push back some of the technological advancements China has made. No doubt China needs to prepare for greater pressure from the U.S. as it attempts to strangle Chinese tech progress. China must do its best to guarantee the sustainability of its own development.

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