One of the more peculiar – and dangerous – varieties of wildlife found in American politics and policy is the China Chicken Hawk. This is an office-holder or other member of the national ruling and chattering classes who warns loudly about the growing national security threat posed by China to the United States, but enthusiastically supports the U.S. trade and investment policies that have fed the beast.
On the Democratic side, there’s no better example than President Obama, who has portrayed his Pacific Rim trade deal (the TPP or Trans-Pacific Partnership) as a must for offsetting China’s growing power in economically dynamic East Asia. On the Republican side, practically every member of the party’s leadership qualifies. Just check out this recent TV ad put together by an advocacy group linked to House Speaker John Boehner.
Ironically, though, as these leaders have been concocting fantasies about the TPP’s potential to contain China, news came out making clear how powerfully the political establishment’s favored China trade policies have enabled Beijing to make startling progress in technologies with major military implications. According to Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent for the authoritative technology publication EETimes, domestically made chips now make up some 20 percent of China’s market for semiconductors.
These devices are of course the prime building blocks of every advanced electronic device produced in recent decades, and have become vital to building advanced weaponry. China’s ambitions for semiconductor self-sufficiency have long been well known, and Beijing has recently upped its game by deciding to invest $20 billion during the three-year period between 2014 and 2017 to reduce its dependency on foreign supplies. On top of traditional national security concerns, the Chinese are also determined to reduce the threat they perceive from spying systems that the United States and other countries could insert in their products and services.
Yoshida’s market share was so much higher than other figures I’d seen charting the Chinese semiconductor industry’s rise (here’s an example, where the number is less than half of Yoshida’s) that I wrote her to make sure exactly what she was describing. And she confirmed that the 20 percent figure in her article represented the output of Chinese-owned semiconductor firms, not mainly that of foreign firms assembling in China.
America’s technology lead over China seems wide for now, but if these new semiconductor findings are accurate, this margin has narrowed in qualitative, not just quantitative, terms. For they’re signs that China is gaining not only technological prowess, but technology independence. I recall that as they were pushing to ramp up U.S.-China trade and investment in the 1990s, tech executives would often claim that supporting technology development in China would enable them to exercise some control over the process. Yoshida’s findings are just the latest evidence that this strategy continues to backfire, and that these shortsighted corporate transfers of critical knowhow keep enabling China’s capabilities to reach critical mass sooner rather than later.
Congress’ debate over fast track trade negotiating authority for the president and by extension the TPP has just been extended through late July. But don’t expect these alarming and concrete developments to have any more influence on the anti-China bombast of supporters than they’ve had to date.