As Washington and Beijing go head-to-head in yet another round of escalating tariffs, the rift between the two countries grows with leaders on both sides of the world arguing that on national security grounds, technology and industrial capabilities must be domestically controlled. That political approach, combined with growing aggression and Chinese expansion, sets the stage for an increasingly volatile relationship between China and the United States. That should be avoided.
Today, the economic talk is on the trade war — and there’s plenty to talk about. But Americans should also acknowledge the not unrelated reality of a technology driven arms race. Even as Americans fret over the rising cost of goods and materials coming from China as the result of Trump’s tariffs and tit-for-tat retaliation, Beijing is looking to the future where it hopes to edge past the United States, and its damaging tariffs, in technology development.
To be fair, the U.S. is also working on developing its own technology with programs such as the military’s Futures Command, and Silicon Valley remains the dominant force driving global tech development.
But China has much larger ambitions. Although often known to Americans through the ubiquitous “made in China” label, China doesn’t want to be the world’s factory for just making clothes and cheap plastic. Instead, through initiatives such as Made in China 2025, Beijing hopes to make China the center of advanced biotech, artificial intelligence, and robotics, among other industries.
[Also read: China hits Trump where it hurts with retaliatory tariffs on US natural gas]
This is a main concern of the Trump administration which, correctly, believes that Chinese tech development would not be limited to civilian purposes.
The solution, however, should not be to block China’s tech development, which will develop sooner or later, but instead to focus on better developing our own capacities.
To avoid an arms race of military applications for this technology, far from belligerent tariffs, the Trump administration should be working to secure an agreement with Beijing that would put limits on how both countries could use, for example, artificial intelligence, for military proposes.
Unfortunately, this seems unlikely, as Trump with so much of his rhetoric seems set on trying to "make America great again" based on a version of the past. For China, there is no going back to before the period of reform and opening up, and Trump’s plan for America cannot exist in a vacuum. For their part, lawmakers do seem to recognize the threat posed by China’s ambitious technology projects, but don’t quite grasp the technology (although, to their credit, they did a much better job questioning social media executives in the latest hearing than they had when speaking to Mark Zuckerberg.) Knowing that social media pays for its services with ads, however, isn’t going to cut it when it comes to regulating military uses of technology.
Increasingly there is talk that this divide may well result in an economic cold war with untempered technology development stoking fears of military buildups. Although we aren’t there yet, a stand-off between the U.S. and China, as opposed to greater cooperation, would do even more damage not only for the economies of the two countries, but also for global stability. Instead of fighting, the governments of the two countries must find ways to work with each other to head off this brewing conflict.