The Biden administration has released its first National Security Strategy (NSS) with a renewed focus on great power competition and building on the strategic discourse that the Trump administration laid out in its 2017 NSS—ratifying a significant change in U.S. strategic thinking. The architects of the 2022 National Security Strategy laid the intellectual foundation for what they have referred to as the “decisive decade,” in which emerging technologies are the gateway to an emerging era of global order where states compete over data, artificial intelligence (AI), and information networks. By perceiving technologies as a gateway to the new global order, Washington not only aims to manage technological decoupling from China but also pursues a strategy of “tech containment” against Beijing.
Tech as a Gateway to the Global Order
Technology is where national interest, human progress, education, innovation, culture, and economic development converge. Thus, technology will continue redrawing geopolitical lines, redefining sovereignty, and altering the global order in the twenty-first century. China’s rise was defined by its significant geotech footprint, which allowed Beijing to maintain significant influence globally beyond its sphere of influence because of the increasing centrality of affordable Chinese tech to the global economy in the last two decades. From 5G to AI, drones to space, and autonomous vehicles to decentralized finance, China prioritized transforming itself into a “high-end self-reliant innovation power” that centers tech supremacy in its broader global positioning.
China is not unique; many middle powers are using tech to advance their geostrategic interests in their spheres of influence and far beyond. The success of Turkish drones in altering the military situation in Libya, Syria, Nagorno Karabakh, and Ukraine has transformed Ankara into a global power broker that is able to shape geopolitical outcomes more effectively than France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and even China and Russia. Despite being subjected to harsh sanctions for decades, Iran was able to develop robust home-grown defense, technology, and cyber capabilities that aided its quest to expand its influence to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, even allowing Tehran to emerge as the primary defense and technology supporter of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Intellectual Foundation of U.S. Tech Containment
There is a growing sense of fear that the United States is gradually losing its technological edge in a way that makes Washington no longer able to outcompete China or maintain its status as a tech gatekeeper globally—especially in critical technologies that are foundational to maintaining a favorable position for the United States in this emerging multipolar, multi-civilizational order. Because of this interpretation of the U.S.-China tech cold war, America risks not only losing tech hegemony to China but also losing to middle tech powers, which would likely undermine Washington’s position regionally and globally. Washington is unambiguous in its focus on rebuilding domestic technological capabilities while leveraging its control over technological chokepoints to pursue an aggressive agenda of a tech containment strategy against China and, ultimately, re-organizing the digital order on favorable terms for a U.S.-led technology bloc.
5G: Where It All Started
5G is the backbone of the next generation of the internet, as it provides users with faster download speeds, lower latency, higher connectivity, and bandwidth. 5G expands mobile communications from the human-centric ecosystem to the Internet of Things, the Metaverse, industrial applications, decentralized systems, and far beyond.
China’s Huawei has more key 5G patents (1,529) than Finland’s Nokia (1,397). Huawei has put forth 11,423 5G standards, considerably outpacing its Western rivals like Qualcomm, which has put down 4,493. By the end of 2020, Huawei invested 15.3 percent of its revenue and had 105,000 personnel working in R&D. Huawei is far ahead of leading Western companies like Nokia, Ericsson, and others in the race for 5G thanks to its significant investments in R&D, human capital, and critical patents.
Under the Trump administration, 5G emerged as a critical national security issue when the United States realized that Beijing was ahead of the West in the 5G race and that, in the long term, China would use Huawei’s 5G equipment to collect intelligence, obtain trade secrets, and shut down critical infrastructure networks in other nations during times of war and crisis—ultimately constructing a Beijing-centered global tech ecosystem that advances China’s geopolitical and geoeconomic interests with the eventual goal of displacing the U.S.-led order.
The internalization of technology as a guardian of the emerging multipolar order and its centrality to the United States’ global posture propelled the Trump administration’s intense confrontation with Huawei over 5G networks. However, the United States lacked a clear alternative that Washington could support to compete with Huawei. This, coupled with the market share that Huawei holds vis-a-vis Nokia and Ericsson, made the policy toolkit limited to banning Huawei from the U.S. technology ecosystem and limiting its access to American technologies while launching a reactive campaign to persuade allies and partners to exclude Huawei from their 5G networks. The Clean Network Initiative (CNI) succeeded in its primary objective of keeping Huawei from the Western tech camp. For instance, the United Kingdom pledged to purge Huawei from its 5G network by 2027, and Gulf allies recalibrated and pivoted to Open RAN.
Washington’s Tech Containment Strategy
The struggle against Huawei set the tone for a rare bipartisan consensus on the way forward for Washington’s tech containment strategy, which is unambiguous in its focus on rebuilding domestic technological capabilities, decoupling the technology supply chain from China, institutionalizing a U.S.-centric tech bloc, and limiting China’s and Russia’s access to critical technologies, eventually leading to their tech regression.
In a return to a Hamiltonian era of industrial policy, the bipartisan Chips and Science Act of 2022 “provides $52.7 billion for American semiconductor research, development, manufacturing, and workforce development.” The Chips Act also “provides a 25 percent investment tax credit for capital expenses for manufacturing of semiconductors and related equipment.” Building on this industrial policy and provoked by its assessment that American technology boosts China’s hypersonic missile program, Washington moved to the next stage of its aggressive tech containment strategy by choking off Beijing’s access to semiconductors, which is an integral part of China’s quest to become a tech superpower. Notably, more than $300 billion worth of semiconductors are imported into Beijing annually, and 25 percent of American companies’ earnings come from China. In October, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) implemented a series of targeted updates to its export controls to restrict China’s ability to purchase and manufacture high-end chips used in military applications and to also prohibit U.S. firms and personnel (including Green Card holders) from helping China develop leading-edge manufacturing capabilities for logic and memory chips. The objectives are to constrain China’s current access to the AI chips that power its civil-military fusion strategy and block China from accessing U.S. chip design software and manufacturing equipment—eventually slowing down the entire AI ecosystem and disrupting Beijing’s civil-military fusion. By utilizing its dominance across the semiconductor industry’s chokepoints, Washington is not only taking aim at China’s semiconductors but also leveraging its position to push allies and partners to side with the United States in this all-out tech Cold War.
Tech Containment Is the New Normal
Washington understands that its export controls would now only deprive Beijing of the necessary talent and American equipment and software to slow down China’s semiconductor industry, but also create an incentive for the Chinese government to shift its focus to supporting and building its indigenous semiconductor industry. However, timing is a deliberate choice in this envisioned tech containment strategy. With the United States realizing that time is on China’s side in this technological Cold War, slowing down the Chinese semiconductor industry is the right tactical move, especially as it is simultaneously accompanied by stepping up government subsidies for the domestic semiconductor industry, consolidating a U.S.-centric technology coalition, and tightening the United States’ grip on the semiconductor industry chokepoints. Beyond semiconductors, Washington will maintain its proactive industrial policy by identifying tech vulnerabilities, allocating its financial resources to rebuild shortfalls, and invigorating a global technology alignment with allies and partners.
Mohammed Soliman is the director of the Cyber Security and Emerging Technology Program at the Middle East Institute. You can find him on Twitter at @Thisissoliman.