31 December 2021

U.S.-China technology competition

The scale and speed of China’s technological advancements in recent years have raised concerns in Washington and elsewhere over the implications for the United States’ overall economic competitiveness and its national security, as well as the impact on liberal values and good governance globally. There also has been growing concern about the fragmentation of the global technology sector, including the rise of divergent standards and norms, as the Chinese technology market increasingly decouples from those of the United States and the West more broadly.

To evaluate the merits of these concerns and identify potential policy remedies to them, Ryan Hass, Patricia M. Kim, and Emilie Kimball, the co-leads of the Brookings Foreign Policy project “Global China: Assessing China’s Growing Role in the World,” convened 10 additional Brookings scholars – Jessica Brandt, David Dollar, Cameron F. Kerry, Aaron Klein, Joshua P. Meltzer, Chris Meserole, Amy J. Nelson, Pavneet Singh, Melanie W. Sisson, and Thomas Wright – for a written exchange on the role of technology in U.S.-China competition. These experts, drawn from a range of disciplines, were asked to offer their best judgments on the implications of China’s growing technological capabilities and steps the United States could take to strengthen its own technological competitiveness and protect its values. The following are a few key takeaways from their exchange:

While the policy prescriptions varied by expert and subject matter, one consistent thread was that doing more of the same would not suffice for the United States to protect its interests and values. Sustaining the status quo is neither tenable nor attractive as a policy objective, and sweeping measures are necessary to ensure better outcomes in all aspects of U.S.-China competition in technology.

An open and competitive economic system maximizes global innovation. There is an important and unresolved challenge in delineating where to draw boundaries around key technologies that must be protected for national security reasons. This is not a unidirectional exercise. Both the United States and China are taking measures to guard against leakage of sensitive technologies.

One of America’s asymmetric advantages in technological competition is its ability to develop coalitional approaches for accelerating innovation.

China’s technological investments are guided by strategic clarity on objectives, including strengthening social control, expanding international influence, and enhancing military capabilities. The United States does not currently maintain the same level of clarity on its own technological priorities. It should work with like-minded partners to examine how technology can be employed to uphold shared values and international rules and norms.

The United States is living through a paradigm shift in how technology is financed and developed. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) no longer drives innovation priorities through focused research and development funding. Now, many of the breakthroughs are driven by the private sector and shaped by consumer preferences. The U.S. government needs to build partnerships with the private sector, academia, and non-governmental organizations to improve its ability to deliver technological solutions to key challenges. It should also work with international partners to coordinate on export control, standard-setting, and directing investments toward common strategic objectives.

China is surging forward in its development and export of technologies that enable surveillance and repression. Unless the United States and its partners develop alternatives by aiding developing countries in building their digital infrastructure; participate more actively in standards-setting bodies; and lead by example to advance transparency and privacy norms, they could inherit a future where technology and norms around the world are oriented toward China’s preferences and practices.

Open digital environments offer both strategic advantages and create vulnerabilities for the United States and its democratic partners, such as susceptibility to disinformation. In order to mitigate security risks without undermining their values, democratic governments should resist the temptation to respond to autocracies in kind, engage in careful risk assessments and balanced mitigation efforts, and support the free flow of information.

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