To outpace China on technology, the US needs a 'full-stack' strategy

To outpace China on technology, the US needs a 'full-stack' strategy
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From the COVID-19 pandemic and a deeply struggling economy to the critical need for racial justice and immediate action on climate change, President BidenJoe BidenUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Biden to tap law professor who wants to 'end banking as we know it' as OCC chief: reports MORE now confronts one of the most daunting inheritances of any U.S. president in at least a century. His administration also faces a looming strategic challenge: whether the United States and its allies and partners will be able to find common cause in accelerating the development of next-generation technologies. 

If the United States and its democratic partners develop and deploy next wave technologies first, they will generate significant strategic advantages and strengthen their position in rule-setting forums. In turn, this will enable them to help craft norms and regulations for emerging technologies that are reflective of democratic values.

Simply put, technological competition sits at the core of great power competition and ideological rivalry for the 21st century and beyond. And with the U.S. and its democratic allies seeking to outpace authoritarian regimes such as those in Beijing and Moscow, tech innovation will be a critical determinant of the continued strength and resilience of the liberal international order.

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The Trump administration deserves credit for recognizing the importance of technology competition with China in particular, and for raising awareness of the stakes of this competition. The Biden administration will need to move quickly to begin crafting solutions to the challenge that the Trump team identified. Put another way, to succeed in outpacing China in the race for technological leadership, the United States will need to find its friends. By building technology coalitions and alliances, the Biden White House can reinvigorate liberal rules, norms and institutions for a new era of ideological competition in which technology serves as a central fault line of global politics.

Fortunately, the Biden administration can build on many of the technology coalitions that the Trump White House either joined or cultivated — such as the Global Partnership on AI and the Clean Network Initiative. By building on these and other coalitions targeted to specific technologies, the Biden administration can make significant progress in key issues of technology policy. The profound difference in the approaches of the two administrations will be in the commitment to multilateralism and the sense of partnership.

That said, Biden also should develop a high-level strategy for coordinating these ad hoc coalitions. Although a variety of approaches have been proposed — from the United Kingdom’s suggestion of a Democracy 10 to the recent suggestion of a Technology 10 or Technology 12 — the specific form is less relevant than the purpose. Absent high-level coordination, alliances tailored toward specific technologies or sectors risk undercutting one another or working at cross-purposes. The key to any coalition will be pursuing a technology strategy that is coherent across every level of the modern “technology stack,” or the full set of interdependent technologies.

The lowest layer of this stack is manufacturing. China dominates the manufacturing supply chain for electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops, but its dominance is sustained by importing more than $300 billion in semiconductors each year. The scale of those imports reflects that, for all its manufacturing prowess, China still cannot design state-of-the-art chips or specialized equipment required to manufacture them on its own. The most cutting-edge factories in China rely on advanced semiconductor manufacturing equipment produced outside its borders. Any democratic strategy to counter China should leverage this advantage.

Next, at the infrastructure layer, democratic countries historically have held a clear advantage. Dating to the telegram, global telecommunications infrastructure was dominated first by the British and then by the United States. Both leveraged their control of global telecommunications to maintain the consistent flow of vital information in accord with democratic values — and to deny geopolitical rivals’ access to sensitive information. The Chinese clearly took note: They denied many democratic countries access to their internal market and aggressively cultivated infrastructure providers such as Huawei, nurturing them with subsidies so that they could gain global market share. In the coming decade, countries building out the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure will need to work together to ensure that Chinese hardware does not become the default infrastructure layer. This is a national and international security matter.

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A similar argument can be made at the application layer. American firms dominate this layer, with Facebook and Instagram alone boasting billions of users worldwide. Yet the viral success of TikTok — owned by Chinese investors, with Chinese technology — has demonstrated that the United States and its allies cannot take that dominance for granted. The coming decade will be one in which Chinese-owned social media and file-sharing apps compete for user attention globally. U.S.-based platforms will need to adhere to robust and attractive governance models that win on trust. 

Trust is also a critical component of why the U.S. needs to lead at the standards layer, too. China has quietly sought to gain influence over the next generation of both technical standards for technologies such as 5G and normative standards for how technologies such as facial recognition should be developed and deployed. The same country that has developed “Muslim” and “Uyghur” facial recognition classifiers is now helping global standards bodies decide what norms and best practices should govern facial recognition technology globally. Democracies around the world must seek to counter China’s standards push by advocating for standards that protect individual liberties and democratic interests.

The Biden administration will be tempted to craft policies targeted at each layer of the technology stack individually, without taking into account the broader context. However, leveraging chokepoints at the manufacturing layer without anticipating consequences for the infrastructure layer, and vice versa, risks doing more harm than good. The Biden team and democracies writ large need to take a holistic approach to technology that ensures countries grounded in shared values and a commitment to the public good can retain their advantages at every layer of the tech stack.

The Biden administration should also double down on public-private partnerships. Multinational corporations, particularly within the tech sector, are more powerful than ever across the geopolitical landscape. There is a pressing need for them to have a meaningful seat at the table, especially in the context of U.S.-China tech competition.

The U.S.-China relationship will remain tense for the foreseeable future, defined by persistent competition. Both countries will pursue their interests; each will measure progress in relation to the other. Both will seek to outcompete each other in the race for technology leadership. Unlike China, however, the United States has the capability to enlist its friends and partners in this definitional competition for global leadership.  

Above all, the Biden administration has a unique opportunity to renew American leadership via an observable commitment to human rights, multilateralism and more, as well as a coherent China policy that rallies the global community of democracies into a “competitive collective” to outpace China in the defining competition of the 21st century: emerging technologies. Leading for the common good includes the stimulation of research and development efforts. These initiatives will be essential to our rebuilding of democratic infrastructure and institutions — something so desperately needed today.

John R. Allen is president of the Brookings Institution. He is a retired U.S. Marine Corps four-star general and former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.