WASHINGTON – The Biden administration is poised to put semiconductors, artificial intelligence and next-generation networks at the heart of America’s strategy towards Asia, attempting to rally what officials call “tech democracies “to stand up to China and other” techno-autocracies.”
The new framework for the rivalry between the United States and China has been made urgent by the sudden global shortage of microchips needed in products such as cars, cellphones and refrigerators.
The strategy would seek to rally an alliance of nations fighting for an advantage in semiconductor manufacturing and quantum computing, upsetting traditional arenas of competition such as missile stocks and troop numbers.
Current and former government officials, as well as outside experts, say the administration’s tech plans are a microcosm of its broader plans to take a more alliance-oriented but still hostile to China approach after a more chaotic approach under former President Donald Trump.
“There is a new awareness of the importance of semiconductors in this geopolitical struggle because chips are the basis of all technologies of the modern era,” said Lindsay Gorman, technology researcher emerging markets at the German Marshall Fund in the United States on the technological comparative advantage of the United States and its democratic partners.
This is an approach based in part on China’s refusal to access certain technologies for as long as possible, seeking to crush Chinese behemoths like Huawei Technologies Co. and even taking a page from the Party manual communist by strengthening government involvement in key industries when needed.
It comes as leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, including President Xi Jinping, are expected to explain how they intend to make technology a centerpiece of future development at the National People’s Congress which begins later this week.
Several people familiar with the administration’s planning, and in particular that of Kurt Campbell, the Asia Coordinator of the National Security Council, say he plans a broad approach that puts more emphasis on a few key partners such as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, while offering incentives to bring chipmaking back to the United States
The chips feature in plans to bolster the Quad – a once nagging alliance of the United States, Japan, Australia and India that gained increased support during the Trump era – including ultimately bringing more technological production in South Asia.
The battle over microchips – and the attention they gave in the early days of the Biden administration – is forced of necessity on the new White House.
A global chip shortage, due in part to storage by China and a surge in demand during the pandemic, has forced some US automakers to shut down factories and exposed weaknesses in US supply chains, with their heavy dependence on a few manufacturers in Asia.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday ordered a review of the global supply chain for microchips as well as large capacity batteries, pharmaceuticals and critical minerals and strategic materials such as rare earths.
Most of the American chips come from Taiwan, which China still claims as its territory, and the United States gets almost all of its rare earths from China.
China quickly dismissed the promise of finding alternative sources of supply as unrealistic.
Officials say it’s too early to detail what the US strategy will look like. The idea of techno-democracies defying techno-autocracies emerged in a report by Foreign Affairs magazine late last year that called for “a global forum in which like-minded countries can come together to develop policies common response to China’s challenge”.
“We have to face this challenge together – China’s abuses, China’s predatory practices, China’s export of the tools it uses to promote its brand of techno-authoritarianism,” the state department spokesperson, Ned Price, said during a press briefing on February 22.
The approach is already receiving a positive response from Congress, where lawmakers are proposing a number of bills to bolster U.S. technology, such as the Chips Act, which would offer incentives to bring chip making home, and the Endless Frontier Act to invest more largely in technological progress.
“The president has been very receptive, as has the vice president,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, after meeting Biden at the White House on Wednesday.
“We all understand that this is important, not only for our economy, but also for our national security, because these cutting-edge, high-end semiconductors – they work on everything from the fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter to our mobile phones.”
While many ideas for the emerging plan come from the Trump administration, its supporters say one of the differences is the effort to align disparate elements into a unified strategy. Under Trump, getting tough on China often clashed with his goal of getting a trade deal with Beijing, confusing the message.
Biden supporters say his strategy will include working more closely with other countries. And it seeks to strengthen existing partnerships that were rarely used. Chief among them is the Quad and the belief that India may be newly willing to oppose China given recent tensions between the two most populous nations in the world.
It is also based on the feeling that China has essentially forced the United States to start severing elements of trade and technology ties in a pattern known as decoupling.
China has essentially erected its own internet infrastructure, banning many American media and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, and has shown its willingness to use its market size and economic strength as a weapon to bring in other countries to line up.
An irony of the state of US-China relations is that, despite all the traditional disputes in the United States over capitalism versus communism, there is growing bipartisan support in Washington for a greater role for government in providing incentives and investments in businesses.
“To be competitive, we’re going to have to change the way we play the game,” said Elizabeth Economy, senior fellow at Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
“China is not going to adapt to the rules of the road as we have structured them, so we have to adapt.”