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Analysis of the US-China Tech Competition from a Theoretical Perspective

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In an era, when the world is increasingly getting digitalized and every aspect of state and non-state entities are embedded with technology – it is without a doubt that technology has become a crucial element of national power. Technical innovation has the potency to significantly alter the economic and military landscape. Thus, China and the US are competing over the next breed of technology. According to scholars, today, the US and China are locked in a ‘tech-war’ .The driving force behind this competition is the ‘quest for technological superiority’ .  Among others, major factors that led the Trump administration to imposing trade tariffs against China is considered to be the American perception that China is involved in the ‘forceful transfer of technology’ as well as ‘theft of intellectual property’ ownership of American companies in China. Likewise, the US government also alleges that the Chinese state-entities are actively involved in act of ‘Cyber Espionage’ that involves breach of Cyber-Security of American firms and gaining unauthorized access to ‘sensitive data’ such as ‘trade secrets’ and other vital information .The main theme of this essay is to elucidate basic background of the US-China technology competition and provide an analysis from theoretical perspective.

As with any great power competition, the technological battle between the United States and China is not just limited to these great powers. It is increasingly brining other actors into play; forcing both other state entities (US allies) as well as non-state actors (primarily tech companies) to select sides in the tussle for technological supremacy. We can already see how direct and indirect US pressure on its allies are already forcing them to distance from Chinese technologies and companies. One of the biggest casualties of this confrontation has been the 5G communications network and pioneers of this technology Huawei. The US has accused Huawei of aiding Chinese Government in act of spying by allowing them to have unauthorized access to user data and have imposed sanctions against the company. In the last month, ‘Huawei along with another Chinese tech company ZTE were officially labelled threat to the US national security’ . As a result of US sanctions, ‘Huawei is running short on Chips for its smartphones’ . Just recently, following on the footsteps of the US, United Kingdom have also banned Huawei from their 5G network infrastructure and more similar decisions are anticipated from other European allies. While threat to US national security is unfounded, sanctions against Huawei can be seen as a way to halt China’s march towards becoming a global leader in 5G technology. It can be considered that the Trump Administration is increasingly weaponizing the notion of ‘threat to national security’ to pursue its end of hurting Chinese companies and in-turn the Chinese economy which is evident from the launch of Trump’s Trade War on China [[i]]. 

At a time when the US is increasingly acting hostile against Chinese technology and Chinese firms, China is ramping up investment on future emerging technologies. The ‘Made in China 2025’ a state-led approach which aims to reduce China’s dependency on imported technology by becoming a global leader in the development, manufacturing and production of high-end technology  has seen great amount of resources fueled into areas such as AI, Robotics, Next-Generation Wireless Communications to name a few. Moving ahead with the Made in China 2025, China wants to be self-sufficient with these technologies and compete on the global market with the US. It has sparked a fear in the Trump administration who now consider China as a ‘revisionist power’ and a ‘strategic competitor’ (Trump’s National Security Strategy). By notion of ‘Security Dilemma’ the US fear can be justified in the sense that the supremacy for these high-tech sectors cannot merely be considered a Chinese policy of becoming self-reliant and advancing its domestic tech industry. By furthering research and development in these domains of technology, it cannot outright be dismissed that China can apply these technologies for techno-military applications [[ii]]. In this regard, it is no wonder that the Trump administration has exacerbated technology competition with China because the US considers China’s quest for technological dominance having national security implications.

On viewing the world from a realist lens, the international system is anarchic and states are the rational unitary actors. From the perspective of classical realism, the behavior of states resembles the human characteristics – the drive to dominate, power and competition are all human characteristics inherent in state behavior. This same behavior can be seen from America’s action. As a global hegemon, the US will do everything in its power to not let China come out on top. America wants to dominate the global tech leadership which it has been dominating for the past several decades. In this regard, US action of sanction against Chinese tech companies is a prime example of rational behavior in containing China’s rise in the fields of emerging technologies and perpetuating its dominance in the sphere of technology. On the one hand, the pressurizing of American allies into abandoning Chinese technology for critical infrastructure is an example of just how hellbent the US is on perpetuating its status as the global driving force on the development and innovation of emerging technologies. On the other hand, China is committed towards the race for technical superiority. As Morgenthau puts it, “International Politics like all politics is a constant struggle for power”. Similarly, from a constructivist approach, the norms and values of democratic western states can be viewed as antithetical to communist China. It can be argued that owing to differences in political ideology and differences in norms and values, the West is extremely sceptic of China’s political system. Among others, the reluctance on part of western countries to allow Chinese tech firms to build vital network infrastructure including and not limited to 5G technology from Huawei can be explained in terms of lack of trust on Chinese government. Likewise, the liberal school of IR promotes cooperation between different state and non-state entities in international arena. When observed from the liberal perspective, cooperation instead of competition will be mutually beneficial for both the US and China. Technological cooperation and collaboration should be seen as a positive sum game only then research and development in this domain can be realized for the advancement towards science and technology. Growing US China technological competition will only deepen mistrust and hamper their overall relationship and along with it also push back US China cooperation on technology front. Owing to their significant political influence the repercussions will have a huge impact on global research and development of technological innovations. Therefore, by liberal perspective, it is in the best interest of both the countries that they work together, enhance cooperation and explore new ways to address underlying differences and challenges, and collaborate and cooperate towards development and governance of emerging technologies because intense technological rivalry will only further escalate an already ongoing trade war and hurt both their economies. In turn, the ripple effect arising as a result of this will have a straining effect on global political economy.



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