He Yafei: Dealing With High-Tech Global Challenges

Jan 28 , 2021

He Yafei, Distinguished Professor of Yenching Academy and Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, P. R. China.


This is the age of technology revolutions, and mankind is again on the brink of another industrial revolution, marked by giant leaps in AI, network of things, explorations of outer space and deep seabeds, bioscience and information technology. Technology advances are the driving force of the global economy, as well as disruptive factors in human life and societies. And in that sense, they represent great challenges to humankind as it grapples with catching the upside benefits while reducing its downsides. It is more so today as they are intertwined with geopolitical entanglements and ideological conflicts between major powers.

Global challenges need global solutions, and no country can handle it alone. Climate change and nuclear proliferation are two typical examples. It is universally accepted that climate change poses an existential challenge to all mankind; therefore concerted and timely measures are absolutely necessary to mitigate and roll back the damage done to mankind so we can have a future of peace and prosperity. With China persisting on the path mapped by Paris accord and the U.S. returning to the accord a week ago, hope is rising that international society can finally face up to the challenge and may possibly turn the accord into a binding international treaty. 

Nuclear nonproliferation is also a matter of life and death for humankind, with the U.S. and Russia holding warheads that can destroy mankind thousands of times over. Meanwhile, nuclear proliferation is worsening, and a few countries are determined to develop and possess nuclear weapons under deteriorating security environments they believe they face. Better and urgent measures are in order for the international community to reverse such a downslide.

COVID-19 is another case in point. For a whole year now, countries have taken wildly different paths in dealing with the unprecedented global health crisis, with totally different results. What if, from the very beginning, countries had taken coordinated and concerted actions and paths to cope with the crisis? The end result would certainly have been different now. So many lives could have been saved. 

Second, technology cooperation is the way out of the abyss of challenges — not decoupling, as advocated by some major powers. Every country should be equal before the tech revolution, but in reality some are more equal than others. With sweeping changes brought about by globalization, tech advances are daily occurrences. In the past, they almost always took place in developed economies, but nowadays some developing countries, such as China, India and Brazil, are catching up quickly. 

Unfortunately, through geopolitical twists and turns, China has been singled out by the U.S. and a few others as harboring “revisionist intentions,” and its tech progress, they wrongly believe, will be used to challenge the dominant position in science and technology held for many decades by the U.S. and its allies. Given that, the U.S. for many years tried to keep core technologies in its own hands and barred for export to China those that could be used militarily. 

A few years back, things started to get worse, and the U.S. began to decouple itself from China in the high-tech arena, trying (together with its allies, hopefully) to block China from accessing tech products, including chips that are considered of dual use and strangle China in its advance toward proficiency in high technology. It is very doubtful that the Biden administration will reverse course on this key point as it takes on the strategic competition posture left by Trump administration.

Third, the key question is what to do now with existing geopolitical difficulties and huge gaps in high-tech between developing and developed countries. How can we make sure the tech revolution benefits all and not a select few?

1. It is essential to address the fundamental issue of the widening gap between rich and poor that has given rise to increasing inequality both within a country and between countries. With rising tides of identity politics and the radicalization of politics in the U.S., it is clear that the root problem in almost all troubles is the worsening poverty gap. Those votes for Trump in the 2020 election represent people who got shortchanged by the elites running the country, and placed their anger against elites domestically and externally — especially China — which benefitted from globalization.  

2. Technology, in principle, should be shared by the community of nations, as all have a shared future. The global supply chains and value chains represent the commonality shared by upstream and downstream countries in the production of goods and services. All countries with different economic advantages need to contribute to global prosperity. As in the case of climate change, green technology should be shared by all to promote green development —  a concept yet to be accepted by advanced economies.

3. The first test in 2021 is the continued fight against COVID-19. United we stand, divided we fall. And 2020 proved this point, with huge losses of life and property. In 2021 we must not repeat the same mistake. Global efforts and coordinated actions are called for to arrest, as soon as possible, the spread and worsening of the virus with fast and equitable distribution of vaccines.

4. Geopolitics need to be discarded to make room for major power cooperation as benefits from the tech revolution take effect. Nontraditional global challenges such as pandemics and climate change now seemingly go hand-in-hand with traditional security challenges like wars and other geopolitical conflicts. New thinking, new road maps and new architectures are urgently needed to reshape global governance and its functioning systems.