What Can Be Done to Slow Down China’s Technological Advancement?

Robert D. Atkinson December 9, 2021
December 9, 2021

In the Greek myth about swift-footed Atalanta, the daughter of the king who must marry anyone who beats her in a race, her challenger, Hippomenes, dropped three golden apples during the race because he knew that Atalanta would have to stop to pick them up, and it was only in this way that he could win the race. 

As Rob Atkinson writes in The Korea Times, we need to think similarly about China. For if U.S.-allied technology leaders do not find ways to slow China down (while at the same time speeding ourselves up), Beijing will almost surely win the race for global innovation advantage. Just look at how much progress China has made. In a 2019 report, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation looked at where China was vis-a-vis the United States on a host of key technology indicators in 2017 compared to in 2007. On all of them, Beijing was catching up with, if not surpassing, America. On government R&D as a share of GDP, China went from 80 percent of U.S. levels to 120 percent. On membership in the top 2,500 companies for global R&D expenditures, it went from 2 percent of the number of U.S. companies to 57 percent. On computer science and engineering degrees, it went from 63 percent of U.S. figures to 144 percent. On robots per worker, China went from 10 percent of U.S. numbers to 50 percent.

Slowing China down is critical in part because it will give leading technology companies in U.S.-allied nations time to adjust and invest in the next generation of technology to maintain their lead over China. Many nations will be tempted to free-ride off nations like the United States, who have shown their willingness to "throw golden apples," to slow China down, but that will be a mistake. China knows how to play nations off against each other, and only joint action will suffice.

None of this is to say that allied nations should also not take stronger steps to enable our ability to "run faster," through more effective and generous domestic technology strategies, ideally coordinated with allies. But winning the race will require both slowing China down and speeding allies up.