Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy

Cooling Off China-US Technological Competition: A Blueprint in Shared Purpose

Shared leadership on technological matters is crucial and cooler heads must prevail.

Cooling Off China-US Technological Competition: A Blueprint in Shared Purpose
Credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung

Perhaps to the surprise of few, U.S President Joe Biden has maintained a robust, multidimensional counter posture against many of China’s policy priorities. Of the gamut of domains the countries contend in, the battle for technological hegemony appears front and center. However, if history is any teacher, the status quo of ratcheting up competitive rhetoric, disengaged policymaking, and tit-for-tat exchanges is a recipe for disaster. The larger state of diplomatic relations notwithstanding, the U.S. and China must broach the onerous conversation of how to cooperate over technological self-sufficiencies, including discussions of technological norms that can remain foolproof for decades. A China-U.S. led framework on the R&D and use of frontier technologies such as AI, robotics, and Internet of Things (IoT) can serve as the foundation for multilateral initiatives vested in disseminating socioeconomic prosperity worldwide. 

In his book “The Great Decoupling,” former British intelligence operations director Nigel Inkster describes the practical difficulties of a technological divorce between the U.S. and China, despite status quo tensions. Inkster’s writing is rooted in decades of intelligence and diplomatic experience with China. He presciently touches on an issue often absent in orthodox China-U.S. international relations thinking: the notion that Beijing’s technological ambitions are grounded in perennial reminders of the Century of Humiliation. China’s neo-ethos — the cultural and narrative importance of Beijing’s technological ambitions — symbolizes its leadership’s desire to establish the country as a hallmark of technological and a priori economic success.

Even overlooking empirical data at the local level, a surfeit of evidence corroborates this. The Chinese government’s most recent spate of policies outline an ambition to become a self-sufficient country without dependency on foreign exports and intellectual property (IP). Elizabeth Perry pinpoints the correlation between this culturally driven mission and the people’s socioeconomic prosperity as performance legitimacy. Indeed, these principles continue to be reflected in contemporary national discourse. President Xi Jinping, at the plenary meeting of the 14th Five-Year Plan, accentuated the importance of scientific and technological innovation to vitalize the population’s economic prosperity. His plans include multi-decade research trajectories in quantum computing, biotechnology, and deep space. “Made in China 2025” is a preceding outcrop of this thesis, focusing on developing semiconductor self-sufficiency with a commensurate level of government investment. In recognition of looming challenges of consumer demand, the policy was an implicit recognition that China could soon face a state of sink or swim.

But how should the aforementioned shape U.S. approaches to China, and its own technology policies? While the Biden administration is maintaining some of the Trump administration’s policies toward China, it has also highlighted an openness to work together on issues of mutual benefit that provide salient advantages. Climate change is one such issue area, and technology is another, according to Huawei. U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken’s most recent call with Chinese Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi signals that the U.S. offer to cooperate on common challenges is still on the table. Just as elaborate foreign policy problems like North Korea, Iran, or Myanmar would be difficult to resolve without the vested cooperation of both the U.S. and China, the inevitability of innovation in AI, robotics, and cyberwarfare should spark discussion of prescient, prophylactic solutions aiming to stave off a technological cold war.

Foremost, this requires staid acknowledgement by both countries that grand strategies defined by tit-for-tat exchanges in the tech sector are counterproductive. Hot war spells disaster for both U.S. and China due to their inextricable economic linkages, but also harmful would be perennial competition colored by dividing and conquering supply chains and containing the other’s R&D and IP development. Although Biden revoked his predecessor’s ban on domestic downloads of TikTok and WeChat, he has maintained a security-based review of exports and IP, while Xi has begun implementation of the like-minded Export Control Law. While it is difficult to imagine either country revoking these policies, both must come to the table with bilateral and multilateral commitments with the understanding that, like with climate change, mutual cooperation would procure absolute advantages globally.

There are two overarching, but linked initiatives both countries can consider. Foremost, the U.S. and China should organize a bilateral commission composed of government officials, military personnel, academics, and representatives from NGOs and the private sector. The commission would commit leadership, personnel, and resources toward regular discussion in three main pillars: frontier technology, cybersecurity, and disinformation. The working groups would work in a Track 1.5 format to determine a mutual desideratum establishing ethical norms and best practices.

In the frontier technology pillar, the U.S. and China should ascertain overlapping interests in the development of human-centered AI, pledging the ethical use and R&D of intelligent technology. Actors in both countries should commit to transparency and accountability in conducting research and construct a united framework based on shared values in the Beijing AI Principles and the Asilomar Principles. In the cybersecurity pillar, the U.S. and China can revitalize the rhetoric of Presidents Obama and Xi during the 2015 state visit, where they agreed to establish a high-level joint dialogue on cybercrime. Representatives should agree to ban cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, apropos of the outcomes of the Biden-Putin summit, while the military engages in regular cyber wargames to craft a framework of best practices in concert with the private sector. Lastly, the working commission must broach that as a principle, both will abrogate state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. The commission can provide opportunities to update “narratives” and cooperate on research concerning the harmful, accelerating pace of rogue disinformation via AI.

Second, the creation of a robust, bilateral initiative facilitates both the invitation and reception of multilateral partners. A U.S. and China-led initiative in the aforementioned three pillars would signal a recognition of the preeminent importance of new norms and ethical standards as a worldwide policy priority. The Biden administration can repair the whiplash stemming from the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership by committing to multilateral engagements integrating new technology standards. As the two largest economies, both with colossal stakes involved in the trajectory of how the frontier technology space evolves in the coming decades, the U.S. and China must undergird their leadership by inviting countries to commit to a binding multilateral commitment to the humane development and usage of frontier technologies. To this end, they must spearhead the creation of an international architecture that establishes shared, ethical norms in frontier tech, cybersecurity, and disinformation. Robust fidelity from both would give much needed momentum to the operationalization of the U.N. Secretary-General’s Digital Cooperation Roadmap or the OECD-backed Global Partnership on AI (GPAI). 

Policymakers in both the U.S. and China are cognizant of the ubiquitous, pervasive nature of unchecked intelligent technology. Leadership in both countries must dissolve their obstinacies and holistically reconfigure their approaches to technological competition by rendering fruitful the common ground they share. Systematic discourse can catalyze horizontal awareness in cementing a consensus for multilateral cooperation. Granted, technological competition is but one component of ongoing U.S.-China tensions, and these overtures are not likely to drastically change state behaviors. Nevertheless, these areas forecast the trajectory of not only U.S.-China relations, but global prosperity in the coming decades. Shared leadership is crucial and cooler heads must prevail, lest both fail to put the genie back in the bottle.