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Keeping the Technology Challenge Under Control

Mar 25, 2024
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, the United States has taken China as its main strategic competitor. The Biden administration even views China as its sole strategic rival. Within this context, America’s China policy emphasizes competitiveness and even confrontation. To win the game, the Biden administration has been actively constructing a tech competition system with China under the notion of “small yard, high fence.”  

On one hand, it promotes America’s capacity for scientific research and development, as well as competitiveness in related industries through the CHIPS and Science Act. On the other, it is laying down many barriers — in blocking Chinese companies from acquiring high-performance chips and advanced computers; in people, including those who provide support for semiconductor-related activities in China; in equipment, such as limiting China’s access to advanced semiconductors and the tools to make them; and in investment and financing. It has even used its hegemony to pressure the Netherlands, South Korea and Japan to form a global front line to contain tech exports to China. Moreover, it is creating an international science, technology and innovation ecosystem that excludes China.

Historically, tech competition has generally fallen into the low politics category. Compared with military rivalries, which belong to high politics, the contest for technological primacy used to be of lower sensitivity and intensity, so it didn’t demand much attention from the strategic community. Nonetheless, as science and technology have gradually become key engines driving the military, economy and other hard-power indicators — emerging as a revolutionary force in human society — they have gained increasing emphasis, particularly for major powers. Tech competition is also seen as a core area in a country’s overall strength and position on the international stage.

As stated in U.S. President Joe Biden’s National Security Strategy issued in October 2022, “technology is central to today’s geopolitical competition and to the future of our national security, economy and democracy. The U.S. and allied leadership in technology and innovation has long underpinned our economic prosperity and military strength. In the next decade, critical and emerging technologies are poised to retool economies, transform militaries, and reshape the world.”

Of course, China has also realized the significance of technological innovation, with the new round of technological revolution and industrial transformation constituting a crucial driving force for great global changes unseen in a century and a key factor in shaping the future international architecture. China stresses that whoever makes the first move in innovation will gain the power to lead in development.

Apparently, America’s competitive stance on technology has raised concerns for Beijing. It has become yet another sensitive topic in bilateral relations. When meeting with Biden in San Francisco in November, Chinese President Xi Jinping noted that U.S. actions against China — export controls, investment screening and unilateral sanctions — seriously hurt China’s legitimate interests. 

“The development of China is driven by innovation,” Xi said. “Stifling China’s technological progress is nothing but a move to contain China’s high-quality development and deprive the Chinese people of their right to development.”

In 2011, Beijing issued a white paper entitled China’s Peaceful Development, which defined six core national interests. One is ensuring economic and social sustainable development. China’s National Security Law, passed in 2015, includes the guarantee of people’s well-being and pointed to sustainable economic and social development as one of the keys to national security. Hence ensuring that is one of China’s core interests.

In terms of severity and sensitivity, the U.S. containment effort in tech has escalated: It is of the same nature as issues involving Taiwan and the South China Sea — a major challenge, and even a threat. In July 2023, The New York Times published “An Act of War: Inside America’s Silicon Blockade Against China” — a commentary that provided a subtle observation of the severity, sensitivity and huge risks involved in the U.S. crackdown on China’s tech development. At minimum, it has deepened Beijing’s distrust of Washington.

The Biden administration emphasizes that it does not seek to contain China’s development, nor does it intend to decouple. Meanwhile, however, it has been assaulting China’s tech industry by many means. Such misalignment of words and deeds shows that the U.S. is bogged down in a sort of hysterical Sinophobia and suffers a deficit of confidence, causing China to question its commitment to improved relations.

As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a news conference during the annual two sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, “If the U.S. always says one thing and does another, where is its credibility as a major power? If the U.S. gets nervous and anxious when it hears the word ‘China,’ where is its confidence as a major power?”

Thus it can be seen that America’s suppression of China’s tech sector has a direct impact on the stability and development of bilateral relations and will even create hidden risks that could lead to a future confrontation. The U.S. government should attach importance to the message China has sent out and set boundaries for tech competition to prevent normal tech communication and cooperation from plunging into the traps of politics and security.

It should be noted that Beijing and Washington have established communication and dialogue channels in politics, economy, trade, military, human rights and other traditionally sensitive issues. But they have yet to build up a thorough communication mechanism to deal with competition in technology — a new area of sensitivity. It is not just important but urgent for the two nations to create such a mechanism now. 

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