Tech War, Faux War: Exaggerated Claims to U.S.-China Technological Competition

Johanna M. Costigan
December 07, 2019

Levelheaded China-watchers are aware of the risks associated with militarizing the U.S.-China rivalry. A group of them drew public attention to this issue in June when they published the now well-discussed open letter​ advocating for a more good-faith and constructive approach towards China.

Still, both international and Chinese coverage can’t resist employing antagonistic rhetoric. While the South China Morning Post can hardly be categorized as a typical Chinese news organization, the Hong Kong-based (and Alibaba-owned) outlet has an entire section dedicated to the so-called “U.S.-China tech war.”

On the American policy side, the rhetoric is even more extreme. Last October, during U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s speech on the Trump administration’s China policy, he claimed, “Chinese security agencies have masterminded the wholesale theft of American technology… and using that stolen technology, the Chinese Communist Party is turning plowshares into swords on a massive scale.” In his reprise speech, he further fueled tensions by equating what he deems successful American leadership with Chinese failure: “China wants a different American president, which is the ultimate proof that President Trump’s leadership is working.”

The Pence speeches invoke real anger towards China, while displaying a limited understanding of the country and the issues at hand, propagating the narrative that China’s growth exists merely as a countermeasure to American prominence, despite empty assurances that the U.S. does not seek to “contain China’s development.”

Perhaps of greater concern than Pence’s misguided and incomplete characterization of China is that in the 13 months since he gave his first China speech, much of the American media has fallen in line with his suspicion and moral judgement towards China. This adherence is particularly evident in the field of technological advancement.

Take, for example, a Bloomberg piece which lays out each area of competitive edge in emerging tech fields and designates a winner for each category. Of the eight rounds evaluated on the basis of factors like levels of startup investment, chip development, and a so-called “talent war,” China and the U.S. each won four. Of the four rounds that the U.S. won however, two – “chip competition” and “talent war” – are explicitly evaluating the respective country’s ability to develop intellectual property and train future innovators. The other two are about money.

After informing readers that U.S. consumers have seven times the spending power as their Chinese counterparts, the article hypothesizes that it “gives U.S. tech companies a target-rich environment for generating revenue, whether for use in developing the next big product or simply booking profits.” This seems like a stretch, especially given the fact that (according to this article) China has more than 1.5 billion mobile internet users compared to America’s fewer than 500 million. Having more phones in more hands beats some hypothetical “spending firepower” that Americans are supposedly going to throw into developing the AI sector. The bigger issue, though, is that, the article implies all the “wins” China gets are inherent to its staggering population rather than its ability to innovate.

A more interesting piece on the subject might dig into China’s (dare I say innovative) ability to facilitate an environment of technological development and creativity within the confines of an increasingly heavy-handed party-state. As it stands, the article, and many others like it, feed into a typical narrative regarding China’s continued technological relevance. The U.S. has a long history of insisting that any luck China has had in the tech field can be attributed either to its theft from U.S. companies or its conveniently gigantic population.

The language of a “tech war” draws convenient lines in the sand. Any American success is a Chinese failure and vice versa. But only those who are not tasked with the responsibility of achieving high-performing digital economies would focus so much on the element of competition and so little on the production of tangible market results. Though it might not make for the most attention-grabbing headlines, in reality, the U.S. and China are primarily invested in boosting their own economies.

More detailed arguments attempt this kind of due diligence. Semi-ironically placed under the SCMP’s “U.S.-China teach war” subhead, an opinion article advocates explicitly for peace in tech competition between the two nations: “the U.S. president should focus on maintaining America’s peaceful economic leverage against China. Instead of allowing technological rivalry to disrupt the free market, it should let the world have more than one technological leader.”

A June 2019 Foreign Affairs piece examines the roots and applications of Chinese “indigenous innovation,” contextualizing the state’s official slogan in past ventures into solo development. The article lays out China’s history of self-reliance when it comes to innovation – relevant context for anyone who wants to actually understand the background of Chinese innovation before rushing to diagnosing its evil intentions in 2019. The article also manages to acknowledge America’s advantages without characterizing the U.S. as China’s morally and intellectually superior big brother.

Commentators covering China’s technology sector should be willing to spend the time necessary to find nuanced angles that cover the complicated domestic situation in China. The goal of journalists working in the U.S. – where they have the freedom (and therefore responsibility) to produce original research and arguments rather than repeating the rallying calls of their government – should be to add a level of specificity on China that comments made by the current U.S. administration is lacking.

In the Cold War, First World economies could shun Second World economies without experiencing any significant cost. In this case, however, the two economies on either end of the Wall are both large enough that their rivalry could have immediate and severe global consequences. Well-intended observers should be rooting for technological development across the U.S. and China, not encouraging bellicose rhetoric and poisoning an indispensable bilateral relationship that is already too fragile.

Johanna M. Costigan is a writer from New York. She is currently pursuing an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. She previously served as a Writing and Speaking Fellow at NYU Shanghai.