TRUMP ESCALATED AMERICA’S WAR AGAINST HUAWEI AND CHINA.

TRUMP ESCALATED AMERICA’S WAR AGAINST HUAWEI AND CHINA.

IN A SPEECH delivered almost exactly one year before the 2020 election, Vice President Mike Pence outlined the stakes of a potential tech cold war between the United States and China. 

China had “smashed the barriers between civilian and military technological domains,” Pence said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, just around the corner from the White House. “By law and presidential fiat, companies in China—whether private, state-owned, or foreign—must share their technologies with the Chinese military,” Pence said. Those technologies, in turn, were being weaponized by the Communist regime in Beijing to hone its authoritarian conduct at home—and, Pence added ominously, were being increasingly exported “to countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.” Pence went on to say that America did not seek a technological “decoupling” from China. But other parts of that speech— and some of the actions taken by the Trump administration in the months since—conjure images of a silicon curtain descending across the world. 

The Trump administration’s conflict with China was dominated by a trade war focused on industrial and agricultural goods, and by an unexpected pandemic that appears to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But the most lasting and significant aspect of how President Donald Trump has reshaped the U.S.-China relationship may prove to be the White House’s efforts to cut off China’s telecom industry from its global supply chains. 

At the center of that effort lies a single company, Huawei, which has become the boogeyman for Americans fearful of Chinese technological superiority—fears that are unlikely to subside when the Trump era passes. China hawks and Trumpian nationalists see Huawei as a symbol of the rising threat posed by the Middle Kingdom or as evidence of America’s waning technological superiority. Having already banned Huawei equipment from being used in America’s next-generation cellphone networks, the Trump administration spent 2020 bullying allied nations to take similar steps. 

In September and again in November, the conflict escalated when the White House issued orders that effectively banned foreign companies from doing business with Huawei if they also want to do business with American firms. Both Beijing and Washington are now pursuing what Evan Feigenbaum, vice president for Asian studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calls “technonationalism.” That is, they view private-sector technological developments through the lens of national security. 

A cellphone isn’t just a cellphone; it’s a potential weakness that could be exploited by an enemy. The supply chains for semiconductors and other bits of equipment are sprawling and multinational, but governments on both sides of the Pacific are eyeing each other warily and threatening to choke off innovation for fear of losing the so-called “race to 5G.” “Technonationalism everywhere threatens to disrupt flows of technology and talent that have enabled decades of innovation,” says Feigenbaum. “If every commercial technology is now viewed as central to national security, it will re-entrench past patterns of technonationalism that many believed to be relics in an era of supposedly ‘borderless’ innovation.” Put more starkly, the rapid pace of global technological innovation that we have come to take for granted—which has made people all over the world healthier, longer-lived, more productive, and happier—could be brought to a halt by a combination of paranoia and cronyism. 

It could presage a more dramatic economic disruption that would be a crushing blow for American businesses, and not just those already doing business in China. Trump may be on his way out of the Oval Office, but American anxiety about Huawei—and, more broadly, about the nation’s status as the world’s technological superpower—both predate and almost certainly will outlast him. President-elect Joe Biden has criticized Trump’s handling of the trade war with China, but he has also made clear that he plans to adjust Trump’s strategies rather than reverse them. Technonationalism could be here to stay.

 

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