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Washington’s Tech War Will Likely Backfire

Jan 08, 2024
  • Zhou Xiaoming

    Former Deputy Permanent Representative of China’s Mission to the UN Office in Geneva

I was taken aback the other day when I came across a news story in the South China Morning Post about NASA seeking approval from the U.S. Congress to ask China for access to its Chang’e 5 moon samples.

Back in 2011, as I remember, Congress passed the so-called Wolf Amendment, which bans NASA from working with China on NASA-funded projects unless authorized by lawmakers. It was an attempt to stunt the development of China’s space sector.

Since then, all bilateral activities between the two countries have been suspended, but China’s space program has made huge progress. The Chang’e 5 mission marks the first time in human history that a probe has landed and collected samples on the backside of the moon.

NASA’s move, which highlights Washington’s failure to stall China’s scientific and technological progress, is not an isolated case. During the 1950s and 1960s, China successfully developed a nuclear bomb and sent a rocket into space despite a U.S.-led technological blockade.  

In August, Huawei released a new mobile phone, sending shock waves through Washington, which for more than three years had left no stone unturned in an effort to destroy the Chinese tech company. As it unrelentingly fastened its rope around Huawei’s neck, the company’s survival was called into question.

But Huawei reemerged as strong as ever — if not stronger. The release of the Master 60 Pro with advanced chips, made without U.S. technology, was widely believed to be a break in Washington’s tech embargo. Further, the company has announced plans to drop all imported chips in 2024. While its Harmony operating system is expected to replace iOS and Android in China in the near future, its openEuler, with a market share of 36.8 percent, leads the operating systems of servers in the country. Meanwhile, Huawei is producing more patents in 5G and 6G than any other company in the world.

Washington’s tech war against China continues unabated. The Biden administration has blacklisted more than 1,000 Chinese companies, most of which are leaders in their fields. It placed a total export ban on China for advanced semiconductor chips and placed stringent restrictions on U.S. investment in China’s high tech sector. It is going out of its way to recruit its Western allies in the tech embargo.

The United States has justified all this on national security grounds, in most cases, to prevent China from taking advantage of U.S. advanced technology to enhance its military capability. However, Washington’s move is, in fact, aimed at impeding China’s scientific and technological development as part of its containment strategy.

The three areas the Biden administration has identified as no-go areas for China — semiconductors, artificial intelligence and quantum computing — are all critical to China’s future growth. As the crown jewels of the current global technological revolution, these areas are expected to experience phenomenal growth. More important, these technologies are expected to power China’s sustainable development, transforming the economy into one driven by innovation.

For this reason, for hundreds of millions of Chinese, Washington’s tech war is a constant reminder of the West’s blockade in the mid-20th century that aimed to throttle the newborn Communist country. As President Xi Jinping told his American counterpart in November, suppression of China’s science and technology amounts to sabotage of its high-quality development. It deprives the Chinese people of their right to development.

By seeking to erect a tech wall against China, Washington appears again to have underestimated China’s resilience and resourcefulness. Apart from having one of the world’s largest talent pools, China benefits from two factors that are uniquely Chinese in facing Washington’s challenge.

First is the whole-nation approach to R&D. The system is characterized by the pooling of resources nationwide, both financial and human, and coordination at the national level of efforts by various organizations in the country to tackle key technological problems. This often makes it possible to have more than one team work simultaneously on a particular project, so that the success rate of R&D is maximized.

In COVID-19 vaccine research and development, for example, China laid out five technical routes, including inactivated vaccines, recombinant protein vaccines, adenovirus vector vaccines and nucleic acid vaccines, which contributed enormously to the successful development of vaccines in a short period of time.

Second, China has the world’s most comprehensive and sophisticated industrial system. This enables it to turn ideas into products quickly. Its unrivaled manufacturing capability and surpassingly massive market combine to keep production costs low. As a result, China was the world’s leading producer in 2020 in seven of 10 strategic industries, according to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.

Apparently, these features have served China well, and there are good reasons to believe they will continue to do so.

Washington also seems to have forgotten Newton’s third law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The more pressure Washington exerts on China, the greater will be China’s resolve to achieve self-reliance in critical technology and develop its own indigenous industries.

Washington’s tech embargo only fires up the zeal of Chinese scientists and engineers to find solutions to seemingly intractable technological problems. Washington’s chip export ban, for example, is regarded by many in China as an opportunity to replace imports with domestic products. Peter Wennink, former CEO of ASML, warned that Washington’s chip ban would expedite the development of China’s semiconductor sector. He said that within three years, China would develop its own chip-making equipment.

Washington’s efforts to choke off China’s high-tech sector appears to be fool’s errand. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo admitted recently: “It’s not realistic to think we can stop it.” At the same time, however, she vowed to double down on the path to slow it down.

But doing that is akin to walking over a narrow single-plank bridge. One will block his own path when he tries to block another. While hurting China’s R&D efforts, Washington’s tech war will harm its own technological advances.

For one thing, it will stunt American companies’ ability to innovate because of R&D funding shortfalls resulting from the loss of the lucrative Chinese market — a grave concern for numerous U.S. high-tech companies.

For another, Washington’s move will deprive the U.S. of a valuable source of innovation. China is quickly becoming the promised land of ideas and knowledge.

In AI, while the U.S. has an edge in algorithms, China is strong in data and application scenarios. Nowadays, multinationals increasingly turn to China for innovation and inspiration. Volkswagen, for example, has bought a stake in Xpeng Motors for EV chassis technology, while Ford is partnering with CATL to produce EV batteries in Michigan through technology transfers.

 Washington’s tech war is also consequential for the world. By obstructing scientific and technological exchanges and cooperation, it will hamper global innovation and slow the technological progress that will drive growth and development worldwide, particularly in the Global South.

Equally important (as many fear), Washington’s tech embargo will breed a variety of different — and likely incompatible — technological systems and standards throughout the global tech sector, a nightmarish scenario for most of us.

Unfortunately, all this does not seem to concern a Washington obsessed with curbing China’s scientific and technological progress. 

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