Since the beginning of societal contact between the Chinese and the American continent, technology has played a significant role. With every wooden ship that set off across the Pacific from both the United States and China, technology engendered sentiments of achievement and hope on one hand, and loss and fear on the other.
Into the second decade of the 21st century, voices of competition drown out virtually all other informed views. For example, the spirit of U.S.-Soviet collaboration during the Cold War to develop vaccines against smallpox and polio worldwide is nowhere to be found in the health diplomacy between the United States and China today against COVID-19.
What can be done to handle the prevailing tensions over technology between the two political systems and societies? Two episodes of history merit brief mention at the outset.
The first is the Beijing-Zhangjiakou railway, designed and built domestically in China from 1905-09. American input into China’s technological development and deployment benefited the country greatly. Leading the railway’s construction was Zhan Tianyou (1861-1919), who had majored in civil and railway engineering at Yale University while on an educational mission under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Back then, and for more than a century since, the overall American reaction to such developments in China, by and large, have been enabling and viewed as conducive to human, economic and social development in the universal, bilateral and national realms.
The other episode worth mentioning is an American project to connect the two continents via radiotelegraphy. From 1916 to 1941, the Federal Telegraph Company and Radio Corporation of America made sustained efforts but eventually achieved only limited success in China. The project, in today’s terminology, was a public-private partnership between American technology and trading companies and the U.S. State and Defense departments. The project embodied a universal vision of spreading American science and culture (including Christianity), geopolitical ambitious for an “open door” competition in China with imperial Japan and Russia and making inroads for American goods in the Chinese market.
Each of those episodes testify of a China that was going through a far more tumultuous process of nation building than it is today. Yet there has persisted an almost canine loyalty to notions of control and indigenous mastery when it comes to what a new technology could mean for societal progress and individual well-being. Many of the actions and reactions in China — from government agencies, businesses and individuals — continue to be viewed as rabid in American eyes. But mastering technology to overcome its own society’s backwardness has always been valued in the Chinese approach.
Export control is a standard part of U.S. policy toward China since the wartime defeat of Japan in 1945. In 1952, the China Committee, or CHINCOM —the U.S.-sponsored body that supervised measures under which Western trade with China was embargoed — represented a targeted devotion to keeping certain technologies beyond Chinese reach. For the ensuing decades, mechanisms behind CHINCOM were preserved through the creation of the Wassenaar arrangement in 1996, replacing the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM), which was meant to deny dual-use technologies to the Soviet Union and its allies. The Trump administration reportedly used the Dutch government to deny exports of semiconductor manufacturing machines to China by citing the latter’s obligations under the Wassenaar arrangement.
Science and technology have long been among the few positive areas of interaction between the two countries. Hundreds of thousands of collaborative educational, research and commercial projects have been launched, with the political blessing of both governments, and have brought immeasurable benefits to the quality of life in both societies.
China has its own system and mechanisms for controlling technology exports. On one hand, since it is not part of multilateral arrangements like Wassenaar, it has little recourse in addressing issues arising from harmonization of international rules and norms on managing access to technologies of foreign origin. On the other hand, when China in early September (for the first time in twelve years) updated its list of technologies of domestic-origin that require governmental approval for export, international reaction over the ByteDance-Tik Tok case clearly indicated that there exists convergence on the utility of rules for managing technological competition.
First, between China and the United States, the conceptual framing over international politics or technology being the more deterministic factor of friction and conflict has been in many ways a settled one: politics before technology. Does this have to be a fait accompli? If so, the only choice left is a calculation of cost imposing and cost bearing.
I would surmise that mainstream academic international relations as a body of social science literature has done poor service. In standard international relations, the start and end-goals of a country are the same: pursuit of power, prestige and influence, thus justifying doing whatever is necessary as a celebration of efforts of control and dominance.
But technological advances in China, the United States or any other society bring a whole lot more than such aggregated thinking. Pathways of de-aggregation will have to come from self-reflection, something that’s in abundant supply in both societies.
Second, competition in technological development, including efforts exerted through export controls, both on a bilateral scale between China and the United States and globally, ought to address a number of issues, as competition often suffers from simplistic political branding in complex domestic contexts.
Such prefixes to the word technology as “sensitive,” “foundational,” “emerging” and “frontier,” to name just a few, are by nature unilateral. When put into practice in the implementation stage, they do risk leaving space wide open for justifying restrictions on technology flows that deny humanity-based necessity for advances in societies around the world.
For example, in what category does a market-competitive pharmaceutical technology fall into? Should pharmaceutical exports be subject to the same kind of controls due to broadly stretched considerations of competition between nation-states in the international system?
Third, economic globalization based on the logic of “the more the better” for investment capital is undergoing sturdier adjustment toward support for more locally focused supply chains. But neither the diffusion of technology (by way of controllable patent rights) nor spillover effects in the movement of product and human know-how between different sovereign jurisdictions is going to slow down. If anything, such movements are going to get more complicated.
Against such a background, coalition-building in the technology sector may become a tempting approach, bringing more societies into political and policy entanglements associated with practices of technology sanctions by both China and the United States. As such, a challenge for both China and the United States is how to avoid becoming a de-facto burden on the rest of the world in their respective implementations of technology and broader economic sanction regimes.
Last but not least, returning to the topic of managing the bilateral technology competition between China and the U.S., the impact of the Trump administration’s escalation, which envisions leaving no stone unturned in restricting and denying Chinese access to technology and the United States — yes, only over a limited number of cases — remains to be seen.
The trajectory of the recent past is such that it risks the destruction of what’s left of the goodwill each society holds for the other. Looking into the future, there is quite likely (as has been true of the past two centuries) little chance of a meeting of minds if the current trend of aggregating technology leads to unfettered imagination in the geostrategic rivalry between the two countries.
But the two political establishments do have an opportunity to demonstrate to their respective peoples that there can be edges of the water by treating COVID-19 vaccines as they are: products of science that can and should be effectively deployed as widely as possible around the globe. That is in our respective interests. It will be the right thing for both countries.