It’s now abundantly clear that Joe Biden is carrying on the United States’ technology war against China where Donald Trump left it, signalling further continuity with his predecessor’s confrontational policy against Beijing.
Yesterday, the US Department of Commerce announced that it had added seven Chinese supercomputer companies to the dreaded ‘entity list’, effectively prohibiting them from acquiring US technology without a licence while citing that they are helping China’s military modernization.
The list was a preferred weapon of Trump; he added many Chinese technology companies to it, including, famously, Huawei. While the Biden administration has claimed it is reviewing the policy, it appears little in practice has changed.
And not only that, but in the US Senate, Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Todd Young are laying the ground for a bumper bill to confront China on technology too, aiming to funnel up to $110 billion into US research and technology.
Why such a deep bipartisan consistency on this matter? Because it has become a common belief that the US risks being overtaken by China on science and technology, which strategically is seen as undermining America’s long-standing military dominance. The solution is to buffer up US capabilities while also trying to forcefully suppress China’s rise, which is why the entity list option has been so frequently invoked.
Technology is a wonderful thing. In many ways, it is to the benefit of all humanity. The creation of television, computers, the internet, smartphones, satellites, cars and so on has revolutionized our world and brought convenience into our daily lives. But on a geopolitical level, the outlook is very different. There is more focus on who owns the tech, who controls it and how it will alter the distribution of power between countries.
On an individual level, technology improves our lives, but at state level it is looked at in terms of capabilities, threats and its potential in war. And nowhere is this more true than in the US, which sees its global primacy through the lens of having a scientific lead on every other country that it has sought to sustain since World War II.
And so, while America is very keen for the world, including China, to buy its consumer tech – such as Apple – what it does not want is for a competitor country to acquire components or knowhow which it considers ‘strategic’ and that could subsequently undermine its position.
And herein lies the crux of the US-China dispute. There is a widespread belief in Washington that China poses a technological threat to the US; that through Beijing’s growing scientific achievements, it may surpass American military capabilities altogether.
As a result, a policy consensus has formed in the US that in order to better compete with China, Beijing must ultimately be deprived of access to these ‘strategic technologies’– and that’s where the entity list is so important. What is an export control mechanism was effectively turned into a vehicle of geopolitical containment by Trump, and Biden is doing the same, vowing to keep Beijing from “controlling the technologies of the future”.
China of course has had plenty of warning, and has responded by initiating a path of self-reliance and localization in terms of components, investing heavily, for example, in semiconductors. So, this latest announcement will not be a surprise to Beijing, and it is now well aware it simply cannot depend on the US.
Yet, Schumer’s bill adds an additional dynamic to the game: the acknowledgement that defeating China simply cannot be solely about containing Beijing. It recognizes extra investment is required for America’s own research and development to stay ahead.
This sets the stage for a titanic race for the world’s technological future between two superpowers which might be compared to that of the previous Cold War with the Soviet Union. Beijing, of course, is arguably a more formidable competitor, having already registered more annual patents than any other country on Earth and published more scientific papers. These disprove the American narrative that Beijing simply ‘steals’ US technology.
Irrespective of the outcome, which is by no means guaranteed, there is little doubt that a new technological cold war – which will see the pair competing with and prohibiting each other’s technologies – will be as revolutionary as the first one in the changes it will bring to people’s lives.
While the entity list will remain a tempting option to Biden, it will ultimately only take America so far as China puts the entire machinery of the state and a well-educated, learning-centric population to the task of catching up and forging ahead.
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