“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities. Here you can read about emergent perspectives, policies, risks, and opportunities that will shape the future of US foreign policy.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described the Biden administration’s China policy as “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” By contrast, President Donald Trump was much more bellicose when addressing China, saying “we could cut off the whole relationship” and calling Chinese President Xi Jinping an “enemy.” But President Joe Biden’s policies toward China have often been just as adversarial as Trump’s, especially with respect to technology.
Biden has imposed restrictions on over 100 Chinese tech companies since taking office, ranging from quantum computing firms to genomics research institutes. Just last week, the administration slapped export controls on 31 more Chinese tech companies. Yet, for all the chatter among the foreign policy intelligentsia about whether conflict between the US and China will escalate to a full scale war, there is little recognition of the ongoing economic warfare between both countries in emerging technology.
This war over technology is counterproductive for both countries. Attempts to decouple from China’s technology sector have worsened the ongoing global supply chain crisis driving inflation in the US. Sanctions on Chinese green-tech firms hamper the global fight against the climate crisis. America’s hawkish approach toward China on tech also precludes cooperation on issues where the US and China could partner to become global leaders, such as limiting the use of lethal autonomous weapons and distributing digital public goods.
TRADING BARBS INSTEAD OF CHIPS
Consider the semiconductor shortage — a central driver of rising prices in the US. The Trump administration imposed a 25% tariff on Chinese semiconductors over concerns of intellectual property theft, cutting US imports of these chips in half. Biden has placed additional restrictions on China’s largest semiconductor manufacturer, SMIC, and has blacklisted several other Chinese chip companies that work with the Chinese military. Each of these policies helps to limit the supply of semiconductors and increases the price of cars and consumer electronics for Americans.
America’s hawkish approach toward China on tech precludes cooperation on issues where the US and China could partner to become global leaders, such as limiting the use of lethal autonomous weapons and distributing digital public goods.
While total Chinese control of the semiconductor supply chain would likely pose risks to US national security and justify export controls, that is not the current state of play. In fact, America holds the key choke points in the semiconductor supply chain: US companies control two-thirds of the global market in semiconductor design and produce the majority of semiconductor manufacturing equipment. If the US wants to improve the security of the semiconductor supply chain it should invest in domestic semiconductor fabrication and R&D — as the House and Senate recently did by passing the US Innovation and Competition Act — not exacerbate the global semiconductor shortage to look tough on China.
COOPERATION RISKS LESS THAN CONFLICT
The climate crisis is the one area where US policymakers have pledged to cooperate with China. The US and China have made two joint statements committing to collaborate to “tackle the climate crisis,” though neither country is on track to meet the tepid targets outlined in the Paris Climate Accords. The Biden administration has made it harder for countries to access green technology to fight the climate crisis by sanctioning Chinese suppliers of key materials for solar panels and the lithium-ion batteries that store green energy.
Laudable as US officials’ intentions might be, these sanctions do nothing to advance America’s stated objectives of reducing dependence on China and curbing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The US is still highly dependent on China for inputs to green energy: China produces 60% of the world’s refined lithium, 90% of refined rare earth minerals, and 80% of solar panels. And sanctions against companies have not curtailed violence in Xinjiang as they do not undermine bigotry against Uyghurs or target government officials who enact violent policies.
Instead of ratcheting up tensions with China, Washington should cooperate with Beijing to use technology to address the climate crisis and advance other shared priorities. Preventing the use of lethal autonomous weapons, such as drones that drop bombs when an AI system gives the order, is an obvious candidate for cooperation. An expensive and bloody arms race is unlikely to benefit either country, and China has already come to the table by proposing an international ban on the use of autonomous weapons. The US has a strong incentive to do the same, as China has a significant chance of winning this arms race given its advantages over the US in robotics, facial recognition, and surveillance. Although a total ban on these dangerous weapons is unlikely, even the adoption of a minor agreement would be welcome progress.
Another potential area for US–China cooperation on tech is increasing global access to digital public goods, such as open data and open AI models. The UN has made the dissemination of digital public goods a top priority as greater access to data and the tools to analyze data are likely to help poor countries develop their digital economies, but top tech companies have done little to aid in this effort. American and Chinese firms would benefit immensely from having a greater number of people who use their platforms; all they need is a push from their governments. The US and China could accelerate progress here by jointly financing digital public goods and encouraging firms to share their data when doing so could lead to poverty reduction.
These are just a few of the many areas where the US and China could work together on technology. Fighting China over technology is not working, it is only making it harder for the US to mitigate the climate crisis, control autonomous weapons, and grow its economy. It is time for the US and China to defuse tensions by cooperating on tech — going to war over who gets to build the Terminator is not worth it.
Kevin Klyman researches US–China relations and emerging technology and has written data protection policies adopted by the UN. His work has been published by the South China Morning Post, TechCrunch, Human Rights Watch, and Harvard’s Kennedy School.