Amid soaring tensions between the US and China which has led to a full-blown trade war, experts argue that the underlying reason behind the trade war is China’s technological self-sufficiency, seen as a threat to the US losing its global supremacy.
According to Laurie Macfarlane, a fellow at the UCL Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose, Washington’s fears about Huawei are genuine. But beneath the rhetoric about national security lies a deeper concern – China’s economic model may have the potential to rival and threaten the technological supremacy that has long underpinned US hegemony thanks to its high-end universities, military and tech sectors.
The US repeatedly pressured the UK government to ban Huawei arguing that it posed a national security threat. However, when the British intelligence agency was unconvinced, the US decided to force the UK’s hand by imposing new sanctions that cut off the company from international semiconductor supplies. This further soured relations between Beijing and London.
It is important to understand why the US is singlehandedly going after Huawei. Even though Huawei isn’t a state-owned tech giant, it has received considerable support from the Chinese state including a $30bn line of credit from the China Development Bank.
Huawei emerged as an unparalleled global leader in the development of 5G networks. It recently overtook Samsung as the world’s largest smartphone maker and became the first Chinese tech company to become globally dominant.
The US loathes this success. Council on Foreign Relations has described China’s plans as a “real existential threat to US technological leadership”, and the US trade representative Robert Lighthizer acknowledged they pose “a very, very serious challenge”.
“While the US was happy to encourage China’s economic development when it provided a cheap pool of labour for western supply chains, the goal of achieving technological self-sufficiency has set alarm bells ringing in Washington,” stated Macfarlane.
Under Xi Jinping’s regime, China has been overtly clear about its intentions to achieve self-sufficiency in strategic technologies such as advanced information technology, robotics, aerospace, green vehicles and biotechnology. This ambitious strategy is seen as a sign by experts as a significant threat to the US.
Experts have claimed that the rising tensions between China and the US have never been about trade. The US has been trying to prevent China from becoming a technological power so as to remain a monopoly in the market.
“In the case of Huawei, the Trump administration’s goal is clear: to crush one of the first Chinese tech companies to become globally competitive, and prevent it from gaining a dominant position in a key infrastructure of the future,” said Macfarlane.
She added that this strategy is not without its risks, and could easily backfire. By pressuring countries not to do business with Chinese firms and cutting them off from global supply chains, Washington may end up inadvertently accelerating Beijing’s efforts to develop domestic capabilities in leading technologies, thus fuelling these tensions even further.
We are moving towards a world where countries will have to choose between American technology or Chinese technology, but not both. The author concluded by saying that while Huawei’s rise is undoubtedly a story of Chinese success, it is also a story of Anglo-American decline.