History has shown us how technological advancements benefit mankind. We are reminded of why the world must cooperate - rather than decouple. Politicizing technological development deals a fatal blow to prosperity, and when the most important bilateral relationship in the world is at odds, innovation is further thwarted. Though it is natural for two nations such as China and the United States to compete, recognizing and respecting strategic competition without ignoring collaboration remains imperative to progress. China and the U.S. have a responsibility to work together toward a common goal: fighting global challenges to help create a secure, sustainable, more flourishing future. With technology leading the way, these very challenges become achievements.
Over the past few months, the world has seen increased restrictions from the U.S. on Chinese technology. Companies like Huawei, ZTE, and TikTok have been the victims of such measures, as the State Department cited possible national security risks to 5G infrastructure. Huawei was put on a U.S. blacklist known as the Entity List last year, which restricted, and in some cases cut off, its access to U.S. technology like Google’s Android mobile operating system, a software that Huawei’s smartphones relied on. Experts recently told CNBC that President Biden is unlikely to reverse President Donald Trump’s challenge to China’s technology industry and companies. However, some predict that the newly-elected president will take a more targeted, diplomatic approach.
“I think the admin will still see tech as a major source of competition and continue some of the Trump approaches to cutting off flow of critical tech to China,” said Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). “The difference is the process will be more collaborative, with both private sector and allies, and more focused on a narrower set of technologies,” he told CNBC in an email.
Despite this, calls for the U.S. and China to cooperate on the basis of defeating common global challenges echo among commentators. Where common ground can be found is where the conversation begins. When it comes to global challenges, both China and the United States have a responsibility to pool together resources and expertise to combat such obstacles. This is where strategic competition and cooperation meet in an estuary of mutual understanding. Recognizing and respecting competition often fosters partnerships.
China has already increased its Research and Development (R&D) spending over the past decade and is now pursuing national goals including a cascade of clean energy technology that former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu proposed during his tenure starting in 2009. “The U.S. should respond by increasing investment in science, technology and STEM education, not by erecting walls to international collaboration,” Chu said in favor of this competition while acknowledging the benefits of global science initiatives.
One area that is undoubtedly emphasized by both countries is combating climate change. With President Joe Biden re-signing the Paris Climate Agreement as one of his first actions in office and President Xi Jingping announcing China’s goal to reduce its carbon intensity by over 65% by 2030, it would only make sense for the two to unite toward a common cause. Using technology to mitigate the effects of global warming should remain a top priority if collaboration is on the table. “We need to think of how to prevent manufacturing and extraction industries from constantly migrating to the lowest-cost, most polluting producer. China is working hard to reduce the carbon intensity of its industries and is likely to put a price on carbon. I believe China and the U.S. can be leaders in starting this dialogue,” Chu highlights.
Global challenges that stress everything from climate change to research & development make it clear that a rules-based technological exchange devoid of politicization is recommended. What we are seeing right now is disproportionate competition and cooperation, reflecting an environment of distrust where the costs of complete disengagement would be too high for both China and the U.S. Yet, solutions are imminent and necessary. “If there is a basis for forging a more constructive relationship, it will likely come from China’s dependency on a rules-based multilateral system to become a more prosperous and innovative great power. By recognizing China’s needs, the United States can forge a new strategy of engagement that would benefit both nations,” notes Carnegie Endowment for International Peace senior fellow Yukon Huang.
Encouraging positive results certainly won’t happen overnight, but the conversation can start here and now. It’s when the United States and China work together to share information, resources, and intelligence that development is allowed to thrive. Trust must be rebuilt where technology is concerned; only then can the partnership be reinforced to conquer these global challenges.