The Real Contest With China
As Beijing has become Washington’s overriding challenge of the 21st century, the Chinese leadership has made clear that it aims to displace the United States as the world’s technological and economic superpower. As Michael Brown and Rob Atkinson write in Foreign Affairs, this form of competition has no historic precedent. China has a much larger and more technologically advanced economy than did the Soviet Union at its peak, and in contrast to its Soviet predecessor it is deeply integrated into the global economy. The rivalry between the two powers has significant diplomatic, military, and ideological aspects, but its most important dimensions are technological and economic.
China views dominance of advanced industries as a key to national security. It aims to increase its power by establishing global preeminence in a broad array of developing technologies. Many of these, such as biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and aerospace, are current U.S. strengths. As a result, it is likely that China will continue employing “innovation mercantilist” trade and economic policies—including outright intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer, along with massive subsidies of domestic industries—to achieve this goal. These tactics have already been successfully demonstrated in steel, shipbuilding, solar panels, high-speed rail, LCD displays, batteries, and advanced telecommunications.
Washington has yet to grapple with the full range of this threat. U.S. policies thus far have been focused on limiting intellectual property theft, countering unfair trade practices, constraining China’s semiconductor industry through export controls, and strengthening the U.S. military. The CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, passed by Congress last year, promise to support domestic semiconductor and clean technology production, but they fall short of offering a comprehensive approach to winning the technology race. Similarly, the Biden administration’s policy to “invest, align, and compete,” outlined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in May 2022, does not support the funding, private-sector coordination, or competitive advantages at the scale that is required to retain the country’s supremacy in advanced technologies.
Instead, Washington must prepare for an all-out effort to win the competition with China. This means a multigenerational campaign that will involve large investments in science, technology development, and domestic manufacturing; an engaged private sector to build national capabilities; and sustained actions to make Chinese tactics unprofitable. To carry this out, the United States will need to identify the critical and emerging technologies of the coming century and develop coherent and detailed plans to nurture them.