China-US competition in digital era

By Yan Xuetong Source:Global Times Published: 2020/1/21 20:17:13


Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

International relations have entered a digital era alongside a new round of technological revolution. The rapid development of internet and communications technologies has been particularly influential in this regard. Many believe the strategic competition between China and the US has become a "new Cold War" seemingly based on geopolitical and ideological theories. But as China-US competition is now set in the digital era - far from the backdrop of the Cold War - such an appellation will likely be disproven in time.

China-US competition in the internet and digital economy era is entirely different from the US' competition with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the digital economy era, resource competition between nations will focus on the digital economy rather than natural resources. The digital economy's increasing weight in the GDP also means its significance is rising in China-US strategic competition. When the digital economy becomes the major source of nations' fortunes, any country that dominates in that field will therefore dominate the world economy. Any country that does not focus on the digital domain will be at a disadvantage.

Future China-US strategic competition will focus on the digital world - particularly wireless communications technologies - which at present means attaining 5G technology dominance. 

Although the US is currently the world's largest digital economy and China the second-largest, China's 5G technology is at the same level or slightly beyond that of the US. Thus, 5G competition between China and the US is set to intensify.

Clearly, China-US trade talks are no longer focused on balancing the trade deficit. Instead, the US wants to slow the speed of China's scientific and technological progress through new trade deals, and China seeks to counter such efforts. The US is no longer concerned about the trade deficit. Instead, it has shifted its focus to utilizing new deals to suppress China's technological innovation capabilities, with a focus on communications technology.

Since the conclusion of the Cold War, competition among super powers has focused on the creation of international rules. Currently, the focus is more specifically on the creation of international communications technology rules - 5G rules. China-US competition, like that between Airbus and Boeing, is currently at a stalemate. Without cooperation, neither can become the sole global leader, and neither can build global rules for the digital and internet sectors independently. 

Strategic competition between China and the US in the digital age is different from traditional geostrategic competition in both content and form. This is the first time that mankind has competed in a strategic battlefield that is not comprised of natural geography, and both sides lack relevant historical experience. Although the US' internet technology is more advanced than China's, network technology cycles, which are less than 10 years, require that strategies be adjusted according to technological changes. Therefore, each time a new technology appears, the two countries begin at the same starting line and develop strategies accordingly. This cyclical nature weakens the US' strategic advantage, and is favorable for China.

In addition, China-US competition is not just about which side carries out more efficient reforms, but is also about which side is slowing down more rapidly.

In the digital era, strategic competition between China and the US is not focused on a one-time technical advantage, but achieving long-term technological innovation capabilities. If one country can provide a lasting impetus for innovation through reforms, it can "win" the competition.

The US is more advanced than China in almost all areas. Despite this, the gap between the two sides in terms of overall strength has narrowed as China's reforms since the beginning of the 21st century have been stronger than those of the US.

The stronger a government's ability to reform, the faster a country's innovation ability and national strength can rise. When a government adopts backward and destructive policies, its innovation capacity will fall and the country will decline.

The author is distinguished professor of Tsinghua University and a foreign member of Russian Academy of Sciences.


blog comments powered by Disqus