(Re)Framing the Tech War – A Strategy for the US

Blowbacks of a tech war between the US and China is dire for both parties. The upcoming US Presidential election is an opportune time for the US to reframe its strategy. Credit: TODAY/Raymond Limantara

Special Commentary – US Presidential Election 2020


The tech-trade war against China has been a defining aspect of the current US administration, and one of the dominant frames employed to justify it has been national security. The US has claimed that Chinese technology was intentionally compromised making it a security liability and has accused China of unfairly eroding US tech dominance through theft such as industrial espionage and discriminatory business practices like forced technology transfers.

To secure its technological dominance in the world and against China’s rapidly growing technological capabilities, the US has enforced many headline-grabbing policies such as investment controls, restrictions on Chinese technologies and equipment, and sanctions that, collectively, are referred to as its “tech-war” with China. Thus far, the policies seem to have generated some level of success, such as curtailing the capabilities and ambitions of leading Chinese firms and limiting their market access and even turning other nations away from Chinese technology.

China’s Response

China, in its response, has been resolute. Alongside dismissing the accusations, one of China’s key response has been to pursue technological “self-sufficiency”. The potency of America’s tech war policies is predicated on its capabilities in advanced technology and monopoly of related expertise that Chinese firms are reliant on for their industries. By developing its endogenous capabilities and knowhows, China’s self-sufficiency goal seeks to stop this dependency that would, consequently, end the leverage the US has on it. In service of this objective, China has not only increased its investments and state support for its industries but has also introduced ambitious industrial policies that aim to transform its domestic capabilities and even the global technology landscape.

The US holds a significant lead in advanced technologies that provides it with a substantial advantage in the race for technological supremacy. This advantage, however, faces a stiff challenge by one of China’s key assets: its ability to summon and sustain impressive resources for its national objectives. Not only has this commitment capacity has allowed China to make impressive achievements in the past, such as in its manufacturing sector, but has also started generating dividends in advanced technologies that have been largely dominated by the west. For example, in the emerging field of quantum technology, China’s investments have resulted in considerable achievements in quantum communication and have, possibly, even resulted in the attainment of quantum supremacy, nipping at the heels of US achievements in the sector.

While resource commitment alone may be insufficient in bridging the technological gap, the evolution of technology itself advantage China. For instance, in the field of semiconductors, while some argue that parity with the US would always remain a moving target due to the latter’s first-mover’s advantage and monopoly of expertise in the field, the evolution of artificial intelligence and the slowing down of Moore’s Law in the sector suggest that China may still be able to catch up with the US rapidly through the strategic application of its industrial policies in the sector.

Another boon for China may arise from its current efforts to secure a global market for its technologies. In response to the US’ accusations of compromised 5G technology and the resulting bans, Chinese tech firms have been aggressively attempting to secure the global market for their products by convincing clients of their technology’s safety and through competitive pricing. If China is successful in capturing a significant global market share for its 5G equipment, in the short term, it would keep its firms and industries viable while, in the longer term, through the promise of future clientele, inspire additional investment and nurture its industries even further to develop and supply future technologies.

The Blowbacks

Should China succeed in gaining technological parity with the US or even significantly reduce the capability gap between them, the US’s tech-war would be rendered ineffective as Chinese industries would no longer be reliant on US technology. One of the extreme results of this scenario would be the much-feared technological and economic “decoupling” that would have an unprecedented impact on the global technological landscape.

A possible manifestation of the “decoupling” would be “digital iron curtain” where the world would be forced to choose between two mutually exclusive technology spheres. With lock-in challenges associated with technology adoption, markets that invest in or use a particular technology sphere would remain in it due to reasons such as scale economies. Moreover, the rupture in the technology landscape would both result in and be reinforced by differing standards and incompatibilities that arise as the two technology spheres mature ensuring an uphill battle to unify the landscape in the future.

Economically, this would translate to a massive reduction in market share for US firms given that, currently, they enjoy access to most of the global market with a few exceptions.

Equally significant is the impact on the US’ global influence. Given the role of technology on economy and security, the US would have limited avenues for influencing or applying leverage on countries that do not use its technology – like it is doing with China currently. Even for countries within its sphere of influence (i.e. those that use its technology), the existence of a viable alternative would diminish its ability to project and/or exert its influence as such states have the option of switching over should they feel uncomfortable with the US.

The digital iron curtain would also have severe implications on the global technology infrastructure, such as the internet infrastructure that currently connects most of the world. Besides being a critical tool in American diplomacy and (soft) power projection, it has been vital in shaping culture, politics and transmitting democratic ideals such as free speech and human rights globally. A rupture in the technological infrastructure that has largely been shaped by US institutions till now may result in a rise of parallel system that may favour alternative ideals and values and, consequently, have the potential of altering international relations and geopolitics as we know it.

What should the US do?

The possibility of an extended tech war leading to China gaining technological independence from the US necessitates the need for the US to arbitrate its concerns with China and its technologies as soon as possible – whether through compromises, agreements and/or collaborations.

Unfortunately, this far into the tech war, debating the benefits of implementing different policies that facilitate for negotiations to occur may be unrealistic. Instead, a more practical approach would be to address the framing of the tech-war and its policies. The national security frame currently employed to justify the tech-war privileges a zero-sum game where each country gains only at the expense of the other. It naturally prevents both sides from approaching the negotiating table as it can be perceived as a weakness (i.e. being unable to resist the pressures) or capitulating to the other; and this would only exacerbate tensions, as we are seeing.

Instead, the US should favour a more economic narrative that frames the same issues – security, intellectual property, and privacy – as hurdles for economic cooperation and development. This allows for and encourages both sides to initiate and engage in negotiations to resolve this issue on the grounds that mutual economic gains can be achieved. For instance, the intellectual and privacy concerns can be reframed as an obstacle to economic cooperation and technology sharing that the US seeks to resolve through more robust standards, greater transparency and stronger laws that would facilitate for better trust and partnerships between both countries. Being perceived as being amendable to negotiating and collaborating would also add to the perception of being a responsible global player keen on increasing global economic integration and activity which significantly aid the geopolitical status of the US that seems to have taken a beating of recent.

For the reframing exercise to succeed, the discourse around the tech-war policies also needs to evolve concurrently. At this point, the conversation relating to the policies does not seem to clearly address the US’ desire to seek a resolution or even provide a practical avenue for such efforts to occur. The obscurity of a clear and practical resolution strategy along with the national security framing discourages efforts that advocate for a solution from succeeding or even being undertaken. It may also be deterring other nation-states from proactively participating in the resolution of the tensions as their involvement may be misconstrued as taking a particular side (especially under the security frame) which may exacerbate tensions and unnecessarily embroil them in the conflict.

The value of an idea or proposal, besides its potential benefits, is rooted in the likelihood of its adoption. Unfortunately, the prospect of the current administration altering the tech war’s current frame seems unlikely given its confrontational stance on the issue(s) that it has consistently maintained. Moreover, given that its belligerent stance on China is an important policy platform, it is unlikely the current administration would change the framing of the issues, even if it were to win the upcoming election which would only promote the development of unintended consequences such as those discussed above. However, should the resolution of the tech-war top the policy agenda in the future, the reframing strategy may allow for the current administration to negotiate with China without being perceived as capitulating on its political platform.

It may also be naive to assume that a Democratic President arising from the upcoming the election would naturally result in a less aggressive approach. The trade war not only enjoys rare bipartisan support but the current Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has also adopted a hawkish stance with regards to China. However, given the importance of the tech-war as an electoral issue, Biden’s hawkish position may be an election strategy and that a less-aggressive approach may prevail once in office, as he did when he was Vice-President. If so, the proposed change in framing strategy would allow Biden to exploit the leverage accorded by the current tech-war policies to facilitate negotiations in service of US objectives without being seen to recant on his campaign promises of being tough on China.

The tech-war may be a conflict over technological supremacy between two countries, but their impact reverberates beyond their borders threatening to (re)shape the economies and industries of nations throughout the world. Its geopolitical implications necessitate a resolution to the tech war that would recalibrate global technology and its evolution towards a more peaceful and integrated path. The reframing strategy may provide an opportunity for such an outcome although its execution may be contingent on political will – something the upcoming Presidential election and related debates may provide insights into.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Gunalan Palanivelu holds master’s degrees in Strategic Studies and Public Policy. His research interest is focused on the nexus between technology and society, and how they drive the evolution of each other.

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