Stop obsessing about China — we need to start focusing on our own best assets
The recent high-level Sino-American talks in Anchorage appeared to reinforce the prospect of rapidly intensifying technology competition between the U.S. and China. 5G wireless has been, and doubtless will continue to be, a central feature of that competition.
For the U.S. to excel, we need a national strategy not only to develop the architecture to be the world leader in next-generation 5G technologies but also to strengthen our ability to move into 6G later in this decade. China even now appears to be drawing up plans for future breakthroughs in that area.
We need three guiding principles:
- Develop and reinforce a strategy on key U.S. internal strengths in a way that augments our country’s innumerable competitive advantages.
- Acknowledge that we face a formidable, vigorous competitor with a long-term coherent national vision and strategic multi-decade goals; develop our own long-term, multi-decade strategic plan.
- Use our advanced technology capabilities to strengthen our infrastructure — and make 5G a part of that. 5G wireless technology can be a powerful vehicle to advance America’s competitive edge in a way that enables us not only to compete more effectively with China but also boosts the number and quality of domestic jobs and gives more American access to the benefits of advanced technology.
To many observers, it seems odd that while many Americans in recent years have appeared to be preoccupied with China as a technological competitor, there has until recently been so little emphasis in the U.S. press and political narrative on what America could do internally to significantly enhance its own capabilities in advanced 21st century technologies. The impressive political support that sustained the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation and NASA in past decades has not seemed much in evidence. Where is the high value that used to be placed by the federal government on support for early-stage research and development? And where is the public support of earlier years for advanced science?
China is the strongest competitor by far, in the broadest range of advanced technologies, that the U.S. has faced since World War II. It is, or aims to become, the leader in many of the world’s 21st century technologies, and it certainly has the brain power and drive to do this.
But the U.S. has formidable assets and should not accept the narrative that it cannot at least match, or in many areas exceed, China’s competitive strengths — or that it can only prevail by trying to suppress China’s rise, which it probably cannot do in any case. Moreover, preoccupation with that objective can divert us from focusing considerably more effort on boosting our own competitive capabilities. It is our internal domestic talents, drive and innovative strengths that will largely determine the outcome of future competition.
The U.S. needs far more robust policies in numerous areas of technology in order to succeed. One specific and critical area of potential future technological leadership is 5G.
A successful technology strategy includes welcoming and utilizing the best and the brightest from our country and the rest of the world. Another requires providing far greater government support to advanced, cutting-edge research and development, as it has in key sectors in decades past. This needs to be done as part of a sustained multi-decade strategy through a long-term investment-based approach in both people and technology.
5G technology has become a litmus test for those who argue that America has fallen behind China. The American narrative has become preoccupied with Huawei and the initial generation of network equipment it now dominates. In response, we have supported the few remaining global competitors to Huawei, and even explored the possibility of more closely integrating two leading European companies with large U.S. technology companies. The benefits of these so far have been limited by the significant investments Chinese companies have made in highly integrated solutions and their government’s support of several of these companies, allowing them to price their offerings to gain market share.
Certainly Huawei is a formidable company, but its approach is not the only possible one. We now have a unique, immediate opportunity to change the game in favor of U.S. companies that have longstanding leadership in areas that will be critical as wireless networks evolve to what is likely to be a completely new architecture. Innovative technologies are on the rise in the U.S., including the transition to Software Defined Networks (SDN) and architecture based on Open Radio Access Networks (ORAN). American companies are already designing technologies based on the cloud, software and silicon that could make first-generation 5G network equipment much less dominant in the future.
These new cloud-based networks are likely to be more open, running on general-purpose computing platforms and able to evolve more quickly and be more agile. President Biden’s focus on building up American production and jobs would be given a huge boost by supporting, through helpful regulations and substantial funding, these kinds of technologies, and thereby generate more robust competition with China —and with other technology-vigorous countries as well.
America’s friends and allies will find it easier to align with our interests if our strategy moves from merely attempting to block Huawei to one based on innovation that allows U.S. and other Western companies to lead with the most effective products in areas such as 5G at the lowest cost. Rather than seeking the support of friends and allies for trade battles with China based on tariffs and similar measures, we can work together on several more positive initiatives where we have common interests relating to competition with China or even finding common ground with Beijing where interests converge. The goal is to present other countries with 21st century options that serve as sound alternatives to China in some areas of advanced technologies. Such a strategy must recognize that, like it or not, China is an enormously powerful economy and will remain a formidable technology powerhouse and trading partner for most of the world’s nations for a very long time.
Our challenge is to mobilize our own strengths to rise to the competitive challenges we face abroad — and to give our economy a technological boost that benefits larger numbers of Americans — with the level of national commitment that has served us so well in the past.
Robert Hormats is managing director of Tiedemann Advisors, a New York-headquartered financial firm. He was undersecretary of State for economic growth, energy and the environment, 2009-13; a senior official of Goldman Sachs from 1982-2009; assistant secretary of State, 1981-82, and a former ambassador and deputy U.S. trade representative, 1979-81. As senior economics adviser to three White House national security advisers, from 1969 to 1977, he helped to oversee the U.S. opening to China. Follow him on Twitter @BobHormats.
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