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The Undeclared U.S.-China Technology War

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image Credit: CCP.
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image Credit: CCP.

What If China Wins The Fight For Technological Superiority? – For some years now, an undeclared war has been going on between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Unlike the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, this war is not about territory. Rather, it is about acquiring advantages in a set of key technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), 5G, cloud and quantum computing, cybersecurity, microelectronics, and extended reality.

The Chinese Communist Party has a plan to win this war based on creating and supporting a set of so-called national champions. Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress is pushing anti-trust legislation that would needlessly damage our tech sector, while potentially handing China a permanent technological advantage. If China wins the fight to dominate these key technologies it will undermine the freedoms enjoyed by the American people, weaken this country economically, and threaten our national security.

It is generally recognized that the future of the world will depend on dominance in critical technologies generally associated with the exploitation of information. These technologies are changing almost every aspect of American life. In addition, the companies that have brought us a cornucopia of IT-based advances generate trillions of dollars of economic activity and employ millions of workers in good, high-paying jobs.

These same advanced technologies, but particularly AI, are changing not only the way military forces are organized and operations are conducted, but also the very definition of military power. The Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering published a report, Technology Vision for an Era of Competition, that calls for DoD to “leverage the United States’ incredible technology innovation potential to solve the Department’s tough operational, engineering, and mission-focused challenges.” This document identifies a set of 14 critical technology areas, including AI, ML, integrated networks, advanced computing and software, microelectronics, and cyber, the mastery of which will be vital to maintaining the dominance of the U.S. military.

China is intent on dominating these critical technologies, the pursuit of which is part of what Beijing calls its Military-Civil Fusion Strategy, intended “to fuse its economic, social, and security development strategies to build an integrated national strategic system and capabilities in support of the PRC’s national rejuvenation goals.” A Harvard study of the U.S.-China tech competition warned that “China has become a serious competitor in the foundational technologies of the 21st century: artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, quantum information science (QIS), semiconductors, biotechnology, and green energy.” Beijing’s current 14th Five Year Plan calls for the government and Chinese companies to increase investment in advanced technologies including AI, quantum computing, 5G, and biotech in order to achieve dominant global capabilities.

The U.S. is willing to play by the traditional rules of the liberal economic world order, allowing private companies to compete to advance the state of technology, thereby doing well for themselves, shareholders, and the public. China is not. In the area of high tech, as in so many others, China sees the competition with the U.S. and the rest of the world as zero sum. To that end, Beijing has identified a series of national champions whose efforts to dominate critical advanced technologies are supported by the government. These champions are all beholden to the Chinese military.

What would be the consequences be for the United States and the free world if China were able to dominate these critical technologies? Simply put, such a future would be disastrous for this country with respect to personal freedom, economic prosperity, and national security. National security officials have publicly warned that China cannot be allowed to dominate key technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, quantum computing, semiconductors, and biotechnology.

Chinese domination of 5G could allow the Communist Party and Chinese military to spy on U.S. citizens and the government. The Biden Administration banned Chinese national champions such as Huawei and ZTE from selling networking equipment in this country because of concerns that their technologies could be used for surveillance and espionage against private U.S. citizens. Dominating 5G is key to Beijing’s pursuit of “digital authoritarianism” not only at home but worldwide.

The high-tech sector annually contributes nearly $2 trillion dollars to the U.S. economy and employs some 12 million workers. China’s domination of high tech would thus put the overall U.S. economy and millions of jobs at risk. China also would be able to set the standard in telecoms and computing, thereby achieving a permanent economic advantage.

Perhaps most seriously, a Chinese victory in the fight to dominate high tech could fundamentally undermine U.S. national security. Victory in future wars will be determined by a military’s ability to collect, analyze, move, and exploit information. China’s domination of AI, ML, 5G, and quantum computing could give it a decisive advantage in future conflicts. The military that can more rapidly pass data between sensors and shooters and speed up the decision process could “outgun” its opponent. By controlling 5G, Chinese companies could establish back doors to penetrate U.S. military communications or jam those networks entirely.

Chinese military analysts and many U.S. experts believe that the nation which can lead in AI will gain a decisive military advantage. AI-enabled systems will be critical to controlling U.S. military forces and, in particular, to the creation of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control system which will connect all elements of the U.S. military. AI could create a new world of autonomous weapons and air, sea and land-based drones to operate alongside or even replace traditional military systems. An advantage in AI will be critical to U.S. cybersecurity operations, both offensive and defensive. The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence concluded that “if the United States does not act, it will likely lose its leadership position in AI to China in the next decade and become more vulnerable to a spectrum of AI-enabled threats from a host of nations and non-state actors.”

The competition between the U.S. and China for advantage in critical technologies is accelerating and intensifying. Beijing has made this a national mission, and has been identifying and supporting national champions to spearhead this effort. The U.S., by contrast, is hampering its leading high-tech companies. Congress is pursuing anti-trust legislation that demonstrably harms U.S. companies’ pursuit of high tech and in some cases actually helps their Chinese rivals. If the U.S. does not develop a strategic approach to pursuing high tech it risks serious harm to the liberty of its citizens, the economy, and national security.

Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.

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Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.