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U.S. Tech War: Those Who Cannot Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It

Dec 02, 2022

To me, an eternal optimist, the United States and China appear more and more likely to be on a collision course for war. Recent US regulatory actions amount to nothing less than an economic and technological declaration of war against China and its 1.4 billion people. 

Negating almost a half-century of friendly relations, the US, beginning with Donald Trump and continuing with Joe Biden, are doing everything possible to bring about an end-of-times war, when they should be cooperating on existential threats in whose national interests it is for both nations to solve. These include climate change, public health, global food security, and weapons control. At the same time, the US is denying itself state-of-the-art 5G, and related Chinese technologies that could help enhance its economy and facilitate further global trade and commerce to aid in a global recovery from the shocks of Covid-19, Russia’s “special military operation” and hyper-inflation. 

The great philosopher George Santayana once observed that ​“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To me, that’s exactly what the US is doing as it seems like US provocations are going from bad to worse. 

On October 6th, the US announced Draconian new restrictions on China’s access to advanced computer chips and the equipment used to make them. The restrictions require the issuance of an impossibly-difficult to get license for the sale of the smallest, fastest nano-chips to customers inside China, essentially knee-capping China of the computing power it needs for AI, advanced manufacturing and its most advanced economic output. The rules also extend restrictions on chip-making tools even further to industries that support the chip supply chain, cutting off both American human resources and the components that make the tools making these advanced chips. 

These restrictions are the most substantial move yet by the US to roadblock Chinese technological capabilities. Dan Wang of Gavekal Dragonomics called the US action “a new China containment strategy.”  ‘Gregory Allen, Senior Fellow at Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, called the controls “a new U.S. policy of actively strangling large segments of the Chinese technology industry—strangling with an intent to kill.” 

Surprisingly, China, usually quick to respond to such provocations had not yet retaliated, and Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met on November 14 in Bali, Indonesia, in what appeared to be a productive meeting and a step back from the abyss. 

On November 25, however, Biden’s Federal Communications Commission provocatively poked China in the eye again by issuing an order, based not on any proven fact, but on hearsay and innuendo reminiscent of the US Red Scare era of Senator Joseph McCarthy, banning several Chinese telecom firms, including Huawei and ZTE, from importing new equipment into the US on the grounds of national defense. 

If you have to know one fact about China’s long history, it is that China has always feared being encircled, attacked and strangled by outsiders. The Great Wall is the physical embodiment of this strategic encirclement phobia. 

There are also other examples of where the US has overplayed its hand with tragic results. Take Japan prior to its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Few Americans can tell you the cause but it was because the US put the resource-poor island industrial nation in an economic stranglehold and withheld oil and other essential resources from it. Harvard Professor William Overholt called recent US actions against China a declaration of economic war. He said that “this is going 30, 40% of the way toward what we did with Japan, cutting off their oil before Pearl Harbor”. Indeed, semiconductors, more so than oil in the last century, are the building blocks to the modern 21st century tech world and beyond. US action is not proportionate to any of the problems the US has with China. It’s nothing more than a not-too-cleverly disguised attempt to stifle competition and disable China’s growth.

And American actions are reckless on another level too. They not only invite Chinese retaliation, such as cutting off US rare-earths supplies. But even more so, they have set off alarm bells in Beijing and although it might take China a decade or more to undo the damage caused, China has already begun innovating its way out of this challenge to technological self-sufficiency.

More than four years ago I wrote an op-ed entitled “Trump is walking into Thucydides’ Trap”. In studying civilizations from ancient Greece to the present, Harvard Professor Graham Allison has found that, more often than not, when an established power, in this case the United States, feels increasingly threatened by a rising power, in this case, China, the established power resorts to war. Even after the meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, in Bali, appeared to partially offset recent frictions, when coupled with other recent provocations, one can only conclude, that the US is indeed, running, not merely walking, into Thucydides Trap, knowing full well where this reckless provocation can lead, and at the same time potentially denying the US of much needed high technology that could help it advance its challenged economy.

One of the obvious places that the US economy is literally missing the boat is in shipping and port management. This could be especially seen at the height of the Covid crisis. American ports, backward and hobbled by dated technology, were largely incapacitated and unable to cope. Container ships queued for up to two weeks to be off-loaded. Shipping costs went through the stratosphere. Hardware was outdated, and software, if it exists at all, seem to have been mostly designed in the early days of computing. All this was compounded by archaic union rules, featherbedding and exorbitant salaries for workers, many of whom were paid beyond even what the port state’s governor earned.

Contrast any US port with the port of Tianjin, nearby Beijing, the 8th largest in the world and operating 24/7/365. The difference is like night and day. Tianjin port is one of the world's most technologically advanced ports and a key hub for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Section C, the port’s smart terminal, was built by Tianjin Port Group together with Huawei and other partners, with the specific goal of achieving a smart and green port. 

One of the key innovative applications is Huawei’s AI-based intelligent horizontal transportation system, which has achieved a series of "world firsts": large-scale commercial use of ultra-L4 driverless vehicles, the world's first "5G+BeiDou" integration of ubiquitous intelligence, the world's first self-sufficiency in green electricity and zero carbon emissions. This achievement actually serves to provide a blueprint for others to build intelligent and low-carbon ports. 

It’s a crying shame that the US and China can’t address existential issues shared by both. And that each side can’t benefit from the technological leadership from the other’s respective tech champions. Worse yet, the US seems to have declared a tech war on China, going well beyond a cold peace. If ever there were a time for cooperation, rather than confrontation, this is it!

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