Pacific Dialogue
Competition vs. conflict
Figuring out the Sino-American relationship
By Liang Xiao  ·  2022-12-05  ·   Source: NO.49 DECEMBER 8, 2022
A talking robot attracts the attention of visitors at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the United States, on January 7 (VCG)

'Competition" is an unavoidable topic when discussing the Sino-American status quo. As the world's two largest economies, they are still figuring out ways to get along.

But there's always the risk of vicious competition resulting in a lose-lose situation. Take the example of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who apparently wants the U.S. administration to implement his blueprint to fight what he perceives as "an existential threat posed by China's artificial intelligence (AI) plans," Protocol, a website focusing on the people, power, and politics of tech, reported on October 31. And so far, he's managed to convince several influential insiders to assist in disseminating his ideas.

But Schmidt may be exaggerating China's AI advantage and its ability to influence U.S. policy in the field. The Protocol report mentioned that Schmidt looked back to the Cold War for inspiration. He and his think tank, directly modeled on the Rockefeller Special Studies Project launched in 1956 to define the major problems and opportunities facing the U.S., apparently persuaded Washington decision-makers to move faster by amplifying fears of the U.S. losing a tech war with China—holding implications for national security.

The risk here is that introducing Cold War-era confrontational thinking into future science and technology is akin to retrogression. But some people are seeking to profit from that type of narrative. Since 2017, Schmidt has invested over $2 billion in AI-focused companies competing for U.S. government contracts, either personally or through funding rounds joined by his venture capitalist firm.

What's more, voices in the American hi-tech community about the "China threat" are getting louder and louder. In the field of semiconductors, an essential component of electronic devices that enable advances in communications, computing, healthcare, military systems, transportation, clean energy, and countless other applications, the U.S. in August already passed legislation to create an "iron curtain" to contain China's development. AI may very well be next in line.

It is worth noting that hi-tech development has a higher demand for international cooperation. The deep entanglement of the U.S. administration and the Cold War mentality in the current tech competition will probably lead to losses for American companies in China—the second largest consumer market in the world—and affect normal technological exchanges and cooperation. This is a positive signal neither for American nor for Chinese enterprises and consumers.

The Chinese have never been afraid of competition and have always believed that healthy competition benefits all participants. For contemporary China, cooperation with the U.S. on economic recovery, climate change, and regional peace is essential—as is widespread competition.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said on multiple occasions that the nature of the Sino-American relationship is competition, but the U.S. does not seek conflict, does not seek a cold war, and does not ask any nation to choose between the U.S. or any other partner. On November 14, in the lead-up to the Group of 20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with President Biden. Xi made it clear that though the world will always see competition, this competition should be about learning from each other to better oneself and achieve progress together, not about taking others down in a zero-sum game. What China opposes is the politicizing and weaponizing of economic and trade ties as well as obstructing exchanges in science and technology. "Starting a trade war or a technology war... serves no one's interests," Xi said.

For both sides, competition must not spill over into conflict, nor should it be used as an excuse to influence domestic affairs; healthy competition requires both wisdom and courage. 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

Comments to liangxiao@cicgamericas.com

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