With the US presidential election fast approaching, experts are debating whether a victory for Democratic nominee Joe Biden in November will reverse a building tech war that threatens to split the global technology industry in half, from semiconductors to the internet itself.
The short answer: no, not really, if Biden’s rhetoric is anything to go by, although some analysts are holding out for a subtle change in tone, which could prevent matters from proceeding to Defcon 1.
Over the past four years, a clash over policy between the Trump administration and Xi Jinping has taken relations between the world’s two biggest economies to their lowest ebb in over four decades.
The Trump administration has tightened US export controls on Huawei Technologies, cutting its access to US origin technology, accusing the Chinese telecoms giant of intellectual property theft and labelling it a national security threat.
It has restricted some US government investment flows to China, imposed sanctions on leading Chinese AI companies such as Megvii and SenseTime in relation to alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and announced its intention to block China-developed apps, such as TikTok and WeChat, in the US.
All of the accused Chinese companies have denied being a national security threat or being wilfully involved in human rights abuses.
On the political stump, US President Donald Trump has railed against Biden. In a recent interview, Trump said “China will own the United States” and that Americans will “have to learn to speak Chinese” if Biden wins.
In a more subtle interjection, William Evanina, director of the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, said in a statement last month that Beijing would prefer Biden over Trump as president because the Democratic nominee is not as unpredictable.
However, although Republicans have accused Democrats of being soft on China, many analysts see the current conflict as being more long term and structural in nature – certainly when it comes to the tech sector.
“There’s little perspective for meaningful improvement in US-China relations under a Biden administration,” said Agathe Demarais, the British-based global forecasting director at The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). “The two countries will remain locked in a strategic competition for economic and technological dominance. Because [the idea of] the two countries being competitors rather than partners is now firmly held in both Beijing and Washington.”
Technology is the new battlefield, where China and the US are competing in AI, next-generation 5G networks and Internet of Things applications that will help determine who controls the economy of tomorrow.
Nobody knows where the current conflict will end. Some analysts say Biden as president could be even harsher on China, particularly in areas such as human rights and intellectual property protection.
“No president will want to be accused of being soft on China,” said James Andrew Lewis, senior vice-president and director of the technology policy programme at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “Trump’s policies are disorganised, but consistently move to cut economic ties with China. Biden’s policies will be better coordinated, less abrupt, but move in the same direction.”
Although the US and China signed a phase one trade deal in January, it has done nothing to prevent a rise in tensions in other areas, especially in high-technology supply chains, investment, security and human rights.
Biden is a China critic, but he has also acknowledged US weaknesses.
“To win the competition for the future against China or anyone else, the United States must sharpen its innovative edge and unite the economic might of democracies around the world to counter abusive economic practices and reduce inequality,” Biden wrote in a Foreign Affairs article in January.
Jake Sullivan, an American policymaker and adviser to Biden, recently said that the US “should put less focus on trying to slow China down and more emphasis on trying to run faster ourselves”, suggesting that a Biden administration may prioritise strengthening the domestic economy.
But analysts say a complete policy reversal on China and technology is unlikely.
“If Biden is elected, it is unlikely there will be a significant change in the US-China relationship vis-à-vis tech deals, particularly given the more pressing domestic issues in the US,” said Amita Haylock, a partner in the IP & TMT group at lawyers Mayer Brown in Hong Kong.
The Democrats’ 92-page platform outlines how the party will “take aggressive action against China or any other country that tries to undercut American manufacturing”, work with “allies to stand up to China” and enforce sanctions on entities responsible for “undercutting Hong Kong’s autonomy” and “China‘s mass internment of Uygurs and other ethnic minorities” in Xinjiang.
“A Biden administration will likely continue to accuse China of forcibly or illegally obtaining the intellectual property of US companies in China,” said Elizabeth Freund Larus, professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.
Biden has promised “aggressive trade enforcement action” against unfair practices, particularly intellectual property theft, according to his campaign website.
Some experts say that Biden, who prefers multilateralism to the more isolationist foreign policy of Trump, will likely re-engage with traditional allies, such as the EU, which could mean more trouble for Beijing on issues such as human rights and 5G networks.
“We‘ve been saying for a long time that the US-China trade war isn’t about trade, it’s about tech and finance,” said the EIU’s Demarais. “We’ve seen this recently with 5G, and this suggests growing European appetite for such a US strategy [of excluding China on security grounds].”
The Trump administration unveiled a more aggressive “Clean Network Initiative” in August in a bid to purge more Chinese tech companies from America’s internet in the name of national security. The move could affect Chinese telecoms carriers, cloud services, undersea cables and apps in the US.
“Expect Biden to continue US scrutiny of Chinese technology, equipment and tech firms to determine if they have any association with the Chinese Communist Party or China’s military,” said Larus.
Chinese companies, regardless of whether they are owned privately or by the state, are obligated under China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law to cooperate with intelligence officials if asked to do so.
But what happens if Trump defies the polls and defeats Biden in November?
“A second Trump administration is likely to further limit sales of advanced technology to China on national security grounds,” said Larus. “[There could also be] greater scrutiny of Chinese graduate students engaged in technology research in the US.”
Others say there is a chance the mercurial Trump could de-escalate hostilities.
“Donald Trump’s hard stance on Chinese tech firms is, at least in part, a pillar of his re-election strategy,” said Mark Natkin, managing director at Marbridge Consulting in Beijing.
“Whipping up the perception of an external threat has been part of his playbook since before the 2016 election, and painting China as the danger du jour helps deflect the electorate’s attention from his own mishandling of the pandemic response,” said Natkin. “If he manages to win a second term … I wouldn’t be surprised to see him soften his rhetoric, such that US tech companies that rely on revenues from China don’t take too big of a hit.”
On balance though, most analysts think that a Biden presidency has the best chance of bringing a breath of fresh air to the currently poisonous atmosphere.
“I think that there will be some improvements made in other areas [if Biden wins], such as pardoning companies that are crucial to us [China] from targeted US sanctions,” said Li Yi, chief fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Studies, referring to blocks on chip suppliers such as Qualcomm. “In addition, there could be more relaxed visas for Chinese scholars and students in key science and engineering fields.”
The environment, an overarching global issue, could also be a promising area for more cooperation.
Biden has outlined ambitious plans to make the US a net-neutral economy in terms of its carbon emissions by 2050 and proposed US$2 trillion in investment to improve energy efficiency and increase research in critical technologies.
“China’s energy and environmental policy has been progressive compared with US policy in recent years. This could provide ample opportunity for joint policy proposals around clean technology and industrial upgrades, which could potentially help to balance against tensions elsewhere,” according to a recent EIU report.
“Compared with Trump, the biggest difference [with a Biden presidency] is that the bottom line will be clearer, the uncertainty will be reduced, the possibility of war will be reduced and there will be more cooperation on globalisation, even though ideological divisions could intensify,” said Chu Yin, an associate professor in foreign affairs management at the Beijing-based University of International Relations.
One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.