US tech war against China suggests its own undoing
Although the US has long attempted to undermine China's tech dominance through various means, there are many reasons why this strategy will backfire, and may in fact push Washington allies into a tight spot.
The wheels are falling off Washington’s long-running campaign to establish tech dominance by force and split global supply chains into blocs opposing China. The most visible illustration yet is the tightening of “export controls” vis-à-vis Beijing, a reckless toolkit to resist China’s future chipmaking advancements – at least in theory. But there are many reasons why such containment pressure is bound to backfire on the US, and may easily push its own allies – particularly in Asia – into a tight spot.
First comes the security side of things. The US Department of Commerce has willingly justified its export controls in the name of so-called national security, but little suggests China’s access to advanced computing chips is even remotely under stress. Groundless allegations against Beijing, including so-called human rights abuses, lay bare the politics of the export controls, and strengthen the argument that this is ultimately a U.S. quest for sci-tech hegemony. “It [China] is using these capabilities to monitor, track and surveil their own citizens, and fuel its military modernization,” alleged Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration, Thea Rozman Kendler, some time back. And yet it is the US that is pushing the fiction of human rights and tech abuses to cater to China hawks.
The Cold War mentality underpinning Washington’s export controls couldn’t be clearer either. Part of its rationale to try and limit China’s advanced chipmaking potential is the fallacy of “weapons of mass destruction.” Recall that this preposterous allegation has been used as a national security prerogative to justify blatant interference and military intervention in the past. That takes the credibility away from Commerce’s argument that such reasoning suggests US technological “values” and “innovation.”
The unwarranted targeting of 31 Chinese entities through US export controls also exposes a broader truth about rising innovation barriers at home. For instance, prominent observers of advanced chipmaking have shot down the allure of US manufacturing at home. Moreover, Washington shows no tangible sign of competing with Beijing – or other chipmaking giants in the world – through genuine expertise and healthy market innovation. There isn’t even a desire for environments that are free of coercive practice. Instead, the idea that abusive export controls will constrain China’s chipmaking advances is wishful thinking. It is challenged by the Chinese state’s unwavering support for a world-class chip industry at home, with China stepping up production technologies of major manufacturers in the face of US politics.
Without a change in perspective within the US on what it means to compete effectively, violating the rights of Chinese entities will backfire. It will also set the wrong example for US leadership abroad, including in the eyes of its European allies. Many nations continue to watch in silence as tech coercion plays out in the name of competition. "The US has been abusing export control measures to wantonly block and hobble Chinese enterprises," said the Chinese Foreign Ministry in a sharp rebuke. "Such practice runs counter to the principle of fair competition and international trade rules"
Regional blowbacks are also on their way. The so-called “Chip 4” semiconductor alliance got a cold initial reception, and hasn’t yielded any tangible benefit. In fact, it has further exposed Washington’s technological anxieties towards China’s rise. This makes it clear that export controls and chip production barriers are staring at the same fate in Asia. In fact, the latest restrictions on China risk intensifying growing unease between advanced chipmakers in Asia and the US. After all, the export controls also target equipment that top manufacturers continue to prioritize in their operational and manufacturing dealings in Asia and beyond. Therefore, disrupting those interests by targeting China means commercial repercussions can spread to US shores, where numerous American chip enterprises share partnerships with Asian chipmakers.
According to the Associated Press, the U.S. Commerce Department has apparently consulted with close U.S. allies and partners on its China-focused control measures. And yet, not everyone is swayed by the idea of politicizing tech and trade this way. Recently, South Korea’s trade minister revealed that his country’s semiconductor industry “has a lot of concerns” about US government actions, and acknowledged frictions with the U.S. on restricted transfer of cutting-edge manufacturing capabilities to China.
These underlying reservations are increasingly relevant to existing export measures, because it is the US that pays the price of technological disruptions in the long-term, not China. The chipmaking advances of China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC) and the Yangtze Memory Technologies Corp (YMTC) have easily unnerved US officials. Many of them are keen to export their instinctive opposition to Chinese innovation abroad. But the premature view that targeting China means “appropriately doing everything” in US power to protect its national security interests, is a fallacy to begin with.
And so, underneath abusive US export controls and the national security myth lies a much simpler truth: that Washington will fail to alter the direction of high-end chip supplies, and it stands no chance to hold back the world’s quest for healthy tech advancements.