Yesterday’s RealityChek post argued made clear that one of the two recent blueprints for China policy offered to President Biden from the foreign policy and technology establishments suffered from crippling internal contradictions.
The second effort, from the Silicon Valley-dominated “China Strategy Group,” can be read more profitably by the President, because popping up here and there are some insights that are genuinely valuable especially since they come from analysts once strongly supportive of what they themselves call the pre-Trump strategy of “near-unbounded integration.”
Principally, the group, which notably is co-chaired by Google co-founder Eric Schmidt, calls for recognizing that “some degree of [U.S.-China] disentangling is both inevitable and preferable. In fact, trends in both countries—and many of the tools at our disposal—inherently and necessarily push toward some degree of bifurcation.” In other words, it’s endorsed a limited version of what’s now commonly called economic and technological decoupling.
In addition, it argues that both this decoupling, along with tariffs that it acknowledges may be needed to push back against certain Chinese offenses and provocations, should be pursued even though they will entail costs – a refreshing and crucially important departure from the long-time pre- and post-Trump consensus in the mainstream American political, business and policy communities that any increased consumer or producer price, or loss of even a smidgeon of market share in China resulting from retaliation from Beijing, proves conclusively the folly of placin any significant curbs on doing business with the People’s Republic.
Finally, the group points out that efforts to rebuild domestic supply chains to reduce reliance on China for critical goods must involve “more than a focus on the end products. Safeguarding key technologies requires the United States to define and secure the entire ecosystem of production, from fabrication to supply to talent to cutting-edge innovation.” In other words, Washington can’t simply seek to become self-sufficient, or largely so, in face masks or ventilators or semiconductors. It needs to become self-sufficient or largely so in all the materials, parts, and components required to make these products.
Yet many of these important insights (and useful recommendations for restructuring the U.S. government to foster the competition with China more effectively) are kneecapped by equivocation and a resulting failure to understand that sometimes policy scalpels cut too finely, and some policy needles are too small to be threaded – especially considering the “all of society” drive China’s totalitarian system is making to gain global technology leadership, and the dangers to America’s “security, prosperity, and way of life” Chinese success would create.
For example, the group emphasizes that decoupling policy mustn’t invite “escalatory cycles of confrontation, retaliation, or unintended conflict” or overlook those areas “where cooperation, collaboration, and exchange with China is in our interest, as severing ties and closing off the United States to the ideas, people, technologies, and supply chains necessary to compete effectively will undermine U.S. innovation.” At the same time, the authors acknowledge that China will respond to any further U.S. decoupling moves “more aggressively” precisely because “China’s leaders understand U.S. dependency as an important source of leverage.”
So although in principle, this omelet can be made without breaking many eggs, Beijing won’t be cooperating in fact. And the circle can’t be squared with clever phrase-making like “navigating the asymmetric competition” that look satisfactorily reassuring on paper and in speeches to conferences but that need to survive the body blows that will inevitably be delivered by reality.
The group’s approach to Chinese investment in the United States (whether in the form of creating new businesses or taking over or contributing capital to existing firms) illustrates the other big drawback of granular approaches when it comes to China: They ignore how any Chinese entity big enough to play in any foreign market, and especially America’s, is under Beijing’s thumb in every important respect.
As a result, there’s no point in taking the time and expending the resources to follow the group’s recommendations to figure out which Chinese tech platforms (whose importance it emphasizes) are and are not violating American privacy standards or conducting misinformation campaigns dangerous to democracy, or censoring content Chinese authorities don’t like, or helping suppress human rights in China or anywherer else, or stealing valuable data, or helping terrorists and criminals launder money; or whether these activities matter enough to merit official U.S. attention, or whether troublesome practices can be negotiated away through talks with Beijing on technical and other fixes.
In this instance, Washington should stay out of the black holes of setting priorities and especially monitoring and enforcing agreements, and assume that by simply banning these platforms from operating in the United States and in fact prohibiting all Chinese entities from owning U.S. hard assets. The latter step would add the benefit of shielding participants in America’s economy from competition with subsidized, market-distorting outfits from China. At the very least, Chinese entities should be required to prove that they’re not controlled or subsidized in any way by Beijing, or engaged in the above malign activities, before gaining entry.
In addition, despite the group’s understanding that entire manufacturing eco-systems, not just final products, need to be rebuilt and nurtured to ensure supply chain security, it appears to underestimate just how widely these relationships extend. After all, most of the numerous inputs to goods like mechanical ventilators (like its controls, power sources, monitors, and alarm systems) depend on big and complex supply chain and manufacturing eco-systems themselves.
Further, just as before the pandemic, few expected face masks and surgical gloves to become products vitally important to the nation’s well-being, the list of critical goods is likely to change and grow over time as new threats emerge. Therefore, the group is correct in warning that “any product or service could be termed essential to national security in an extreme hypothetical.” But what’s the basis for confidence that many products or services can safely be ruled out, and that such hypotheticals will always remain extreme?
At least as important, like the Biden administration, the group’s determination not to ruffle too many international feathers has also clearly led it to back the notion that the definition of “Made in America” for supply chain purposes should actually mean, “Also Made in Lots of Other Countries” that it considers trusted suppliers. Unfortunately, many of the countries so classified imposed export controls on critical medical goods during the pandemic’s first wave last spring. That is, when cooperation was most needed, they built walls – meaning that their trustworthiness isn’t exactly ironclad.
And as then President-elect Biden learned when the European Union rebuffed his entreaty to consult with Washington before signing an investment agreement with China, the allies remain determined to fence sit in the U.S.-China technology competition. The group acknowledges that the list of anti-China partners “may include all of the [European Union], though in some cases EU position/member states’ positions are too ambiguous today with respect to China for inclusion in all instances, and members may need to be considered on an individual basis.” But simply stating this position and its EU-splitting ambitions is enough to make clear its absurdity – especially since the EU country most reluctant to cooperate against China is economic kingpin Germany.
None of this is to say that all trade with (as opposed to investment in hard assets from) China should be cut off completely, or that international cooperation can be of no use to the United States in its struggle versus the People’s Republic. In particular, (and due largely to recklessly indiscriminate free trade policies), America urgently needs products and knowhow now dominated by foreign producers (notably Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing industry, and Japanese and Dutch suppliers of key microchip production equipment and materials). And if other countries are willing to cooperate with Washington on various China containing initiatives at acceptable prices, more help is indeed better than less. But the United States will never safeguard its interests adequately without realizing that multilateralism can’t be an end in and of itself, and that against monumental threats, axes are usually more effective than scalpels.