Why America must boldly win the technological race against China
We are in the midst of a heated global competition. The race to take leadership in advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and 5G networks will determine the future balance of geopolitical power. Where the United States and its partners once enjoyed a clear edge, that advantage can no longer be assumed. China is racing ahead at full speed and trying to steal a march on a distracted United States in order to claim unrivaled technology leadership during the 21st century. We cannot afford to lose this critical competition.
The Chinese model for achieving technological superiority is a clear and present danger. Through a sheltered domestic market, forced technology transfers by Western companies, outright industrial espionage, and intellectual property theft, China is forging technology champions designed to compete with and surpass their international competitors. Through legal mandates that force corporate cooperation with security and intelligence organs, Chinese technology companies serve as the eyes and ears of Beijing in a digital global economy. This model appeals to despots around the world, while cheap prices appeal to everyone else. Make no mistake of the existential stakes as to whether open societies or authoritarian regimes will set the course of the technological future.
For the past 18 months, we led an assessment of this competition, one that marries geopolitics and technology into geotechnology, and developed blueprints for how our policymakers and private sector leaders can tackle this challenge. Rising tensions between the United States and China have certainly accelerated this competition, however, this is not the first time that the United States has found itself in such a position to gain technological superiority. The United States rose to such challenges in the past, becoming the first country in the world to split the atom, win the space race, and emerge victorious from the Cold War.
Technological competition today takes place, however, in a much more global marketplace. In this competitive sphere, the answer is not to try and “out China” Beijing but rather to leverage our American strengths and competitive advantages. Just as our leaders did in the past, a bold strategic vision must be matched with a willingness to take action.
In this technological competition we are too often held back by policies and regulatory regimes that reflect an outdated industrial economy rather than the digital economy of the future. For example, while antitrust regulations are designed to promote healthy competition, American companies also find themselves in heated global competition with Chinese corporate behemoths supported by the government. In that environment, both national security and international competitiveness concerns must also be weighed in regulatory decisions.
The example of the Federal Trade Commission versus Qualcomm is a case study in the tension between traditional competition policies and urgent national security concerns. While the agency pursued its case against Qualcomm, the Defense Department, State Department, and Commerce Department weighed in with the courts, asking that consideration be given to the role that Qualcomm plays in the development of strategic technologies for telecommunications and 5G networks, and the importance of those technologies in our defense supply chain.
Policymakers must also consider the importance of the “first mover” advantage in technological development. As a first mover in the development of 4G networks, the United States set the standard and reaped great advantages from that leadership position. Today, while other nations race to deploy 5G networks, experts warn that outdated American policies are ceding technological leadership to other countries.
Finally, we must be driven by innovation in both our political culture and policymaking. Just as the space race inspired governmental reforms and new investments, the technological competition today requires reforms ranging from more innovation friendly acquisition and procurement policies to greater support for basic research. Collaborations between our national laboratories and the private sector is also imperative, as is cooperation with our closest economic and security partners.
Rather than looking wistfully at our past, we must study the hard lessons of history that enabled the United States and its allies to overcome previous challenges by authoritarian regimes bent on dominion. Each time, a bold vision for the future was matched with the determination, resources, and energy to realize it. We remain confident that free societies and free peoples are the true drivers of innovation. Now that we have recognized this looming challenge, let us move boldly to meet it.
Mike Rogers served in Congress as a Republican representative from Michigan and is a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He is now the David Abshire chair with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Glenn Nye served in Congress as a Democratic representative from Virginia. He is now the chief executive officer and president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
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