Sino-American Relations on the Eve of a New Cold War

America, China, and the Battle for Techno-Hegemony


Rising trade tensions between the United States and China are just one facet of a high-stakes geopolitical fight for techno-hegemony, writes political scientist Tsuchiya Motohiro.

The 55th Munich Security Conference, held in February 2019, bore witness to the rise of a bitter US-China rivalry as the defining force in twenty-first century geopolitics.

The MSC, described by the Japanese Ministry of Defense as “one of the most prestigious privately sponsored international security conferences in the West,” began in 1963, during the Cold War years, as a low-key dialogue between the United States and what was then West Germany. Since then, it has grown into the largest gathering of its kind, drawing heads of state and other officials from around the world, together with representatives of academia, civil society, private industry, and the media. (Among the attendees last February were 52 members of the US Congress.)

With its origins as a Cold War security forum, the MSC long focused on tensions between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the NATO-Russia standoff continued to dominate the conversation. (Indeed, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were among the featured speakers this year.) But this past February, the emphasis began to shift.

Dire Warnings, Hollow Assurances

It was US Vice President Mike Pence who trained the geopolitical spotlight on US-China tensions, spending a good portion of his speech attacking China. Going beyond the usual complaints about unfair trade practices, Pence took sharp aim at the rapidly expanding Chinese telecom industry, warning his listeners that Chinese law requires companies to share data with the nation's security apparatus. “We must protect our critical telecom infrastructure,” Pence declared, “and America is calling on all our security partners to be vigilant and to reject any enterprise that would compromise the integrity of our communications technology or our national security systems.”

The US government is particularly concerned about Chinese telecom giant Huawei, given the close ties between its founder, Ren Zhenfei, and the People’s Liberation Army. As Washington sees it, the company would have no choice but to comply with demands from the Chinese government, the Communist Party of China, or the PLA. Such suspicion surely played a part in the arrest of Ren Zhenfei’s daughter, Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, the previous December. Detained in Canada at Washington’s request, Meng has been charged with financial fraud in connection with transactions violating US sanctions on Iran, but the decision to arrest a high-ranking Chinese corporate officer gives evidence of more fundamental differences.

Upon concluding his remarks, Pence immediately left the conference room without taking questions. No sooner had he exited than former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China took the stage. As a member of the CPC Politburo (though not of the Standing Committee) and chief of the General Office of the party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission, Yang outranks current Foreign Minister Wang Yi and is widely regarded as China’s top foreign policy maker.

A former ambassador to the United States, Yang is an expert in US affairs and by no means an anti-American hardliner, but he could scarcely let Pence’s accusations go unanswered. After reading from prepared remarks, Yang spoke in English to address a question from the floor regarding US-China relations. Casting doubt on American motives in “lecturing” the Europeans, he insisted that “Huawei . . . is cooperating very closely with European countries. In the fourth industrial revolution, we should all work together, and Chinese law doesn’t require companies to install backdoors or collect intelligence.”

Yang’s assurances were greeted with considerable skepticism, especially in the United States. The feeling there is that, even if Chinese companies have not been implicated in such collusion to this point, that is no guarantee it will not happen in the future. It is generally agreed that Chinese laws, including the National Defense Law, National Mobilization Law, and Cyber Security Law, empower the CPC, the government, and the PLA to gather personal data and other information from businesses for security purposes. A former senior US official I spoke to said that the Chinese government and the PLA were known to have pressured Chinese nationals in the United States to pass on sensitive information by threatening action against them or their families in China. One should assume that telecom companies are equally vulnerable to pressure from on high.

Such suspicions have intensified under the administration of US President Donald Trump. Since the start of the Xi Jinping regime, China has shifted from a policy of “biding its time” to one of openly challenging US global leadership, and the current US administration is hitting back.

Vice President Pence has delivered Washington’s cautionary message on more than one occasion. In remarks to the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, on October 4, 2018, he enumerated a long list of Chinese government policies “inconsistent with free and fair trade, including . . .  intellectual property theft and industrial subsidies doled out like candy.” He complained that “Beijing now requires many American businesses to hand over their trade secrets as the cost of doing business in China” and “sponsors the acquisition of American firms to gain ownership of their creations.” Worst of all, he said, “Chinese security agencies have masterminded the wholesale theft of American technology—including cutting-edge military blueprints.” He promised that Washington would continue to take tough action until such practices come to an end.

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested two months later.

Old and New Currents in Geopolitics

The English term “geopolitics”came into use around the time of World War II and later gained currency in the context of the fierce global rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. More recently, scholars have introduced such terms as “geo-economics” and “geo-technology”  to emphasize the role of economics and technology in global power politics. The emphasis is particularly apt in the context of US-China relations.

The current antagonism between the United States and China is of a different sort from that which persists between Washington and Moscow. During the Cold War, when the United States restricted technological exports to the Soviet Union via the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls and other mechanisms, the two countries stayed at arm's length economically, and even now US-Russia trade remains sluggish—all the more so since the Department of State slapped economic sanctions against Russia for its intervention in the Ukraine. While Russia would certainly like to see the sanctions lifted, it places greater emphasis on trade relations with the European Union.

With China, things are different. The United States has contributed greatly to China’s economic development over the past few decades, notwithstanding the two countries’ ideological differences. One reason for this engagement was the existence in America of a substantial pro-China faction that believed China would eventually mature into a democratic state. Another reason was doubtless Beijing’s antagonism toward Moscow. (Such was the rationale behind US President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 initiative to restore relations with mainland China.) But notwithstanding its breathtaking economic development, China has made almost no progress in the direction of democracy and human rights. Instead, it has embarked on a massive arms buildup and is now openly challenging America’s global leadership.

Jockeying for Technological Supremacy

This is also why Washington’s antagonism toward Beijing differs from the Japan-US trade friction of the 1980s and 1990s. It is true that “Japan bashing” reached a fever pitch at points. But while Japan was resented as an economic upstart, it remained a staunch security ally of the United States, with no military ambitions of its own. China, on the other hand, is challenging the United States militarily as well as economically. Furthermore, it is using underhanded and illicit means to appropriate American technology. That, at any rate, is how the Trump administration sees things.

The intensifying technological friction between the United States and China calls to mind political scientist Yakushiji Taizō’s concept of techno-hegemony. According to Yakushiji’s theory, technology propels a state’s rise to hegemonic power. Upstart powers begin by emulating the technology of the hegemon but then add their own improvements and enhancements, eventually outstripping the established power. 

From the perspective of techno-hegemony, the United States and China are at a critical juncture. China is anxious to amass as much capacity as it can before demographic aging takes its inevitable toll on the nation’s economic resources and vitality. This is why China feels the need to establish its dominance over the United States in key growth areas, such as 5G and artificial intelligence. The United States, for its part, is doing everything in its power to blunt China’s technological momentum and maintain its own techno-hegemony by keeping cutting-edge technology out of Chinese hands. 

Of course, technological capacity is inextricably tied to economic and military might. Although technology has taken front and center stage in recent months, all of these factors, inextricably intertwined, are driving and heightening the US-China rivalry that increasingly defines geopolitics in the twenty-first century.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 25, 2019. Banner photo: The Huawei logo at an electronics shop in Beijing, China. The Chinese foreign ministry building is reflected in the window. Photograph taken on January 29, 2019. © AP/Aflo)

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