Top minds appeal to Joe Biden to reboot US tech policy on China

Wendy Wu
·4-min read

A high-powered US working group has advised the incoming United States administration to reboot American tech policy to better counter the challenge from China.

The report comes amid discussions about how to fix flawed policies forged during four years of antagonism against China by President Donald Trump.

According to the report released on Monday, the US should invest more to stay ahead in fundamental research and dual-use technologies but it should also drop the “total exclusion” strategy towards Chinese technology firms, including Huawei Technologies, which have been blacklisted by the Trump administration.

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The report – “Meeting the China Challenge: A New American Strategy for Technology Competition” – was released by the Working Group on Science and Technology in US-China Relations at the University of California San Diego’s school of global policy and strategy.

It said that by adopting a layered approach to risk control, the US could maximise security and manage any risk of spying and sabotage in 5G technology applications, including that by Huawei.

“As an alternative to radical decoupling, we propose a highly targeted approach to risk management modelled on our experience with cybersecurity,” it said.

The working group comprises 28 specialists on China, foreign policy, economics, science and technology from universities and think tanks as well as the world of business.

It includes Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state from 1997 to 2000; Wendy Cutler, acting deputy US trade representative in the Obama administration; and Evan Medeiros, a former top adviser to Barack Obama on Asia-Pacific affairs.

“The intent of the working group was to create a guide for the transition team for the next president” to offer policy suggestions for the US to compete with China in fundamental research, 5G, artificial intelligence and biotechnology, the report said.

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Before the US election, China drew up a plan for the next five years and laid out a road map for the next 15 years to cement economic resilience, modernise the military, realise technological self-reliance and tech supremacy, and break the US technology boycott.

In the US, with a Biden presidency imminent, a major policy adjustment is widely expected to alter the course set by the Trump administration.

Biden’s priorities are expected to focus on containing the coronavirus and shoring up the economy. On the diplomacy front, Biden is expected to repair with allies. His China policy largely remains unclear, although he has labelled China a competitor instead of a threat.

The report advises the incoming administration to do two things: “make needed investments in and policy adjustments for our scientific and technology base at home; and craft a new approach to global cooperation that minimises the security risks China poses without unduly sacrificing the benefits of openness”.

“The task is urgent,” it said.

On Huawei, which stands at the centre of the ongoing China-US tech war, the report’s authors said the risks associated with the Chinese telecoms firm could justify a ban on some products, but “the total global exclusion of Huawei is not feasible – nor is Huawei the only risk”.

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“The US should not attempt to win a race between Huawei and a new American national champion. Instead, the US should adopt a forward-looking strategy to enable a variety of new entrants to enter the 5G innovation space successfully,” it said.

“Such diversification of supplies will make it easier to manage both immediate security risks, and complex future threats to the 5G ecosystem as it shifts from a single-vendor model to a more competitive and diverse interoperative system.”

It was also “in the US interest to deflect Beijing’s attempt to dominate [the 5G] standard-setting process”, it said. The US should play a leading role while working with allies to counter market-distorting subsidies by the Chinese government.

The authors said the US, which was “strongly competitive” in 5G technology, had overreacted to the challenge from China whose advantage in artificial intelligence was overrated and which only led the world in the arena of facial recognition.

The report advised revising American immigration policies to ensure it attracted tech talent for AI development.

Regarding human rights abuses in China, the report’s authors said targeted measures against organisations aiding abuse were more effective than restricting access to US artificial intelligence technology.

It also said the two countries could collaborate on research relating to Covid-19 and biotechnology to address global health problems.

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