Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 27, 2021
On many days in Washington, it sounds as if our need to compete with China. and to a lesser degree Russia, is the only thing that seems to matter — except for assuring that Joe Biden (or son, Hunter Biden) is somehow to blame for any slippage over the last three decades or so.
Indeed, some procedural votes last week allowed the Senate to vote overwhelming for a defense bill to separate it from a China competition measure, which also has bipartisan support. Apparently, we all want to compete with China, and are fighting among ourselves only about how fast and strongly to do so. And any U.S.-China issues immediately are broadcast as hitting the top screech on the amplifier.
So, the disappearance or not of a Chinese tennis star after her ill-received criticism of a Chinese official over unwanted sexual harassment suddenly was sharing equal evil billing with military brushes in the skies over Taiwan, the continuing theft of intellectual property from companies who insist (or, according to Republicans, are encouraged by Democrats) to establish factories for lower wages in China, Chinese cheating on international currency markets, misleading tariffs and their effect on American farmers, and Chinese snubs for international climate goals. And for originating covid, of course.
No matter the specific issue, the pols have a way of making this about whether America is up to shoving China back against the wall to get its way. Among Republicans like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark, and Donald Trump, Biden is being depicted as a hapless handmaiden to Chinese desires.
Meanwhile, no one forced Apple to take its assembly plants overseas, politicians from both parties, excepting Trump, willingly and repeatedly have signed on to international standards for enforcing human rights within China, and you can hardly find a voice who opposes protecting defense of an independent Taiwan.
Calls for Competition
The pushes for competition are muscular, increasingly immediate and skip over the hard part — preparing we for what would amount to real commitment.
Basically, this China competition measure — a 2,400-page bill — is to throw a quarter-trillion dollars over five years into scientific research and development to bolster competitiveness in basic industrial technologies and towards luring the semi-conductor business onto American shores.
Last May, an essay in The Los Angeles Times noted that “competitiveness” in Washington is a kind of macho appeal for politicians that basically is “nationalism stripped of its unpleasant connotations. The message is: We all need to get onboard with this agenda to beat the other guys.” It is an approach that assumes that policymakers know what to do to make us more competitive.
That seems like a big assumption, since China is in this push-and-pull for the long haul and has been spending decades to prepare even for this moment.
Clearly, Xi Jinping, the Chinese premier, has been working hard to put himself in an authoritarian leadership position for years to come. Under his leadership, China has become aggressive in investing in its military, in its economy, in intelligence and space and in its outreach around the world, investing in projects in African nations with rich mineral resources, for example, that will be necessary to build lithium batteries and the elements of election cars, solar panels and the rest of a clean energy global economy.
In other words, China has drawn the lines for any “competition” very broadly, and it’s going to take more than American-made semi-conductors or the more immediate purchase of U.S.-grown soybeans to make a dent.
As the world’s largest market for many products, by size alone, China stands to be a disruptive force and, with low wages, a leading supplier to other nations.
Areas of Competition
The list of competitive areas is growing, as evidenced by the raft of academic and official studies that show up in Google searches.
Weapons. In military and weaponry alone, new developments show that U.S. officials are worried about lagging. China and Russia have each recently launched hypersonic missiles flying at five times the speed of sound and glide on the edge of the atmosphere that the U.S. cannot match or even track on radar or from space. Recent interviews with U.S. military officers suggest it will be 2024 before the U.S. has its own such weapon, and years more to deploy it.
Minerals and Energy. The New York Times just published an investigation of how China moved openly into mining of cobalt as a necessary base mineral for the clean energy industries. As with lithium for batteries, China does its homework and sets out on years-long acquisition programs to get its hands on the lands where these base minerals that will prove essential are found. We don’t hear about that with official U.S. research and development; rather we hear constant calls to expand ocean drilling for oil and gas deposits representing our past and current dependencies.
Technology, whether developed or through theft. Every business journal we look at tells the story of how China has long sought to become self-reliant in semiconductors, software, telecom equipment, mainframes, and databases. To keep any sense of a U.S. edge in these areas, say researchers, the U.S. government needs to reverse years of stagnation in official investment and support for research and development, now estimated at its lowest level in roughly sixty years, while China is promising to increase its own research efforts by seven percent annually for next five years. Much of this funding should be directed towards artificial intelligence, quantum computing, advanced battery storage, and next-generation telecommunications. Hmmm. Maybe someone should tell Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WVa, and Senate Republicans who oppose spending bills like these.
The covid factor. The pandemic — and China’s cover-up attitude — have only worsened international relations and prompted lots more thinking about self-sufficiency and national security, as well as trade deficits, business ethics, and human rights. But clearly this is a multi-year effort with lots of complications and the side effects of price hikes for consumer goods.
Education. Likewise, the need for innovation and creativity also requires foundational investments in basic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills, and critical thinking skills. Instead, we hear Republicans encouraging culture war protests based on parental control of school curricula and books. Where’s the competitive spirit here?
Immigration. The limits on immigration have included blocking green cards to postgraduate degree holders and reducing H-1B visas, hitting exactly the people we want to invite here to work on critical technology problems. But that’s not politically expedient in Washington. A recent report by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence put it, “immigration reform is a national security imperative,” including for Chinese students who had represented about a third of foreign students in the U.S.
Bottom line is that being competitive once again is more than a slogan on a hat.