The USA’s policy of decoupling its technology industries from China lacks a strategy, a theory of success, and an understanding of how to achieve its ill-defined goals, according to a new paper by Jon Bateman from the thinktank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP).
“The United States cannot afford simply to muddle through technological decoupling, one of the most consequential global trends of the early twenty-first century,” wrote Bateman, a former senior intelligence analyst, policy adviser and speechwriter at the US Department of Defense, in the document, titled “US China Technological ‘Decoupling’, a Strategy and Policy Framework.”
Bateman acknowledges there is bipartisan support for measures controlling China’s access to US tech, but contends that the issue of which strategic technologies should be controlled and to what degree, are left undefined.
“Where is the responsible stopping point – the line beyond which technology restrictions aimed at China do more harm than good to America?” asked Bateman, who also asserted that “without a clear strategy, the US government risks doing too little or – more likely – too much to curb technological interdependence with China.”
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow advocated “sharper thinking” and “more informed debates” before criticizing the actions the US often does take, such as using jargon that doesn’t convey much meaning (example “supply chain security”) or silo-ing important decisions and leaving behind overall context.
“A strategy for technological decoupling should consider more than just tech-specific or China-specific concerns,” wrote Bateman. “It should be rooted in a larger US grand strategy that reconciles decoupling with other national priorities, from international trade to domestic political stability to global climate change, that might be impacted directly or indirectly.”
Bateman advocated a centrist strategy, one that “identifies the US-China tech relationship as complex and uncertain, with both zero-sum and non-zero-sum elements and mixed costs and benefits for both countries.”
“A long list of policy aims is not the same as a strategy,” said Bateman.
“The fact is that America has been technologically dominant for so long that some US leaders came to take if for granted,” wrote former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in the paper’s forward.
Schmidt described an enmeshed China and America whose relationship contained both interdependence and conflict that will have to continually renegotiate its relationship.
Google parent Alphabet was hit hard by the US placement of certain Chinese businesses on the US’s entity list of firms with whom American companies could not trade. This cut Google’s Play Store and other Google Mobile Services (GMS) from Huawei phones and tablets. At the time Huawei was the second-largest smartphone manufacturer globally, with every one of its cellphones running on Android. Google was later was denied an exemption from adhering to the embargo, while others, such as Microsoft, were given a pass – giving some credence to the notion that the policy has been uneven.
Bateman argues that developing a proper policy will require consideration of how the US aims to achieve several goals, such as maintaining a military edge over China, limiting espionage, preventing Chinese sabotage in a crisis, or countering IP theft.
Key strategies from Bateman do seem rather simple. For example, they include maintaining a military edge over China by modernizing US forces through measures like incorporating private sector innovations or designing new warfighting concepts for near-peer battle while beefing up cybersecurity in the military. However, he acknowledged that bureaucracy can get in the way of actually achieving these advancements.
“The coming wave of military-technological advances will likely produce a marathon competition that lasts many years or even decades,” warned Bateman. He called technology controls that set back China’s People Liberation Army “worthwhile,” but called restrictions that degrade America’s own technology base while only temporarily disrupting Chinese progress “counterproductive.”
“The paradoxes of the US-China tech relationship are not going away,” said Schmidt, who summed it up just right. ®