At the Communist Party of China’s 20th National Congress last month, the country’s one-man rule under Xi Jinping became fully entrenched. Though communist China has never been a democracy, its post-Mao leaders kept their ears to the ground, and thus were able to reverse failing policies before they became disastrous. Xi’s centralization of power represents a different approach, and it does not bode well for how the country will deal with its mounting problems: its tanking economy, costly zero-covid policies, growing human-rights abuses and political repression.
US President Joe Biden has significantly added to these challenges by launching what Edward Luce of the Financial Times has appropriately called “a full-blown economic war on China.” Just before the Party Congress, the US announced a vast array of new restrictions on the sale of advanced technologies to Chinese firms. As Luce notes, Biden has gone much further than his predecessor, Donald Trump, who had targeted individual companies such as Huawei. The new measures are astounding in their ambition, aiming at nothing less than preventing China’s rise as a high-tech power.
The US already controls some of the most critical nodes of the global semiconductor supply chain, including “chokepoints” such as advanced chip research and design. As Gregory C. Allen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies puts it, the new measures entail “an unprecedented degree of US government intervention to not only preserve chokepoint control but also begin a new US policy of actively strangling large segments of the Chinese technology industry—strangling with an intent to kill.”
As Allen explains, the Biden strategy has four inter-related parts, targeting all levels of the supply chain. The goals are to deny the Chinese artificial-intelligence (AI) industry’s access to high-end chips; prevent China from designing and producing AI chips at home by restricting access to US chip design software and US-built semiconductor manufacturing equipment; and block Chinese production of its own semiconductor manufacturing equipment by barring supplies of US components.
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The approach is motivated by the view that China poses a significant threat to the US. But a threat to what? Here is how Biden expresses it in the preface to his National Security Strategy: “The People’s Republic of China harbors the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order in favor of one that tilts the global playing field to its benefit.”
So, China is a threat not because it undermines any fundamental US security interests, but because it will want to exercise influence over the rules of the global political and economic order. Meanwhile, “the United States remains committed to managing the competition between our countries responsibly,” which really means that the US wants to remain the unchallenged force in shaping global rules in technology, trade and economics.
By responding this way, the Biden administration is doubling down on US primacy instead of accommodating the realities of a post-unipolar world. The US has given up on distinguishing between technologies that directly help the Chinese military and commercial technologies. Such a broad-brush approach raises significant dangers of its own—even if it can be partly justified by the intertwined nature of China’s commercial and military sectors. Correctly viewing the new US restrictions as an aggressive escalation, China will find ways to retaliate, raising tensions and further heightening mutual fears.
Great powers look out for their interests and protect their national security, taking counter-measures against other powers as necessary. But as Stephen M. Walt and I have argued, a secure, prosperous and stable world order requires that these responses be well calibrated. That means they must be clearly linked to the damage inflicted by the other side’s policies and intended solely to mitigate those policies’ negative effects. Responses should not be pursued for the purpose of punishing the other side or weakening it. Biden’s export controls on high-tech do not pass this test.
To be sure, the Chinese government is not an innocent victim. It has become increasingly aggressive in projecting its economic and military power, though its actions have mostly been confined to its own neighbourhood. China has militarized some of the artificial islands it built in the South China Sea. It imposed economic sanctions on Australia when that country called for an investigation into covid’s origins. And its human-rights violations at home certainly do warrant condemnation.
The trouble with hyper-globalization was that we let big banks and international corporations write the rules of the world economy. It is good that we are now moving away from that approach, given how damaging it was to our social fabric. We have the opportunity to shape a better globalization. Unfortunately, the great powers seem to have chosen a different, even worse path. They are now handing the keys to the global economy to their national- security establishments, jeopardizing both global peace and prosperity. ©2022/Project Syndicate
Dani Rodrik is a professor of international political economy at Harvard Kennedy School and the author of ‘Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy’.
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