U.S.'s irrational technological protectionism lives on
First Voice

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Presidents come and go, but the policy stays the same. By blacklisting 12 Chinese companies and citing they pose a national security risk, U.S. President Joe Biden is drowning in the protectionism impulse that its immediate predecessor was infamous for.

By now, it is no longer news or surprising to say that the United States, a country that prides itself on its technological advancement and military capability as the world's sole superpower, has an outsized and irrational fear towards China's technological development. It's Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin described China as a "pacing challenge."

The report of China testing a hypersonic missile earlier spooked the politicians up and down the government. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten, the second highest ranking general in the U.S., expressed in an interview that the purported testing of the missile should create a "sense of urgency" liked the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik did during the Cold War.

This explains why the focus of the blacklisting this time is specifically targeted at high-end tech. Of the 12 companies blacklisted, eight have to do with quantum technology and others are semiconductor and aerospace related. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo tried rationalizing the move by saying that "global trade and commerce should support peace, prosperity and good-paying jobs, not national security risks." She mentioned that the department is "committed to effectively using export controls to protect our national security," while overgeneralizing the concept of national security by the U.S. government is always taken as an excuse to suppress foreign companies.

Visitors check out the interior of a model of the core module of China's space station at an exhibition in China Science and Technology Museum in Beijing, China, March 21, 2021. /CFP

Visitors check out the interior of a model of the core module of China's space station at an exhibition in China Science and Technology Museum in Beijing, China, March 21, 2021. /CFP

It's folly. China's technological prowess has not been gained through corporate espionage. It has been acquired through innovation and hard work of Chinese scientists and investment in Chinese students and researchers that constantly inject new blood into the field.

According to a Georgetown University's report released in August this year, U.S. universities awarded twice as many doctorates in the STEM fields as Chinese universities did in 2000. By 2007, China had surpassed the U.S. The report estimated that by 2025, China's yearly STEM PhD graduates would double that of America's. The Programme for International Student Assessment tests show that China topped in mathematics, science and reading in 2018. The U.S. ranked 38th in math, 19th in science and 14th in reading.

The investment in the most fundamental element of innovation – the people – would inevitably lead to growth in tech field. Protectionism cannot protect the U.S. from losing its edge in innovation and science. In fact, it'll only speed it up.

Donald Trump tried it. His administration put all the pressure it could on China's tech giant Huawei. His administration imposed sanctions, forced U.S. allies to restrain the company's operation in their countries and used the company's CFO as a political chip for blackmail. But what did the U.S. get in return? A deterioration of China-U.S. relationship that hurt the U.S. economy; a political problem that took China and the U.S. months to fix after Trump left office; and a Huawei that still connect over 3 billion people in more than 170 countries.

Biden administration's actions would yield no different results. Blacklisting Chinese companies and preventing American companies from exporting certain technologies wouldn't be able to rescue the decline of U.S. innovation nor would it serve to foster a better relationship between the two countries. The continuation of protectionist policies would only isolate the U.S. more from the international community as well as the advances in global technological exchange.

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