In 2017, China’s chief justice, Zhou Qiang, told legal officials in Beijing to resist “erroneous” ideas from the West like “constitutional democracy,” “separation of powers,” and “independence of the judiciary.” His statements shocked some Western observers who had watched in cautious optimism as Zhou, a well-educated jurist with a reputation as a reformer, spearheaded efforts to make China’s courts more professional.1 Behind Zhou’s words was a hard truth: Reforms could only go so far before they collided with the reality that, in the People’s Republic of China, the judiciary is subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party.
This dynamic matters beyond China’s borders. Cooperative trading relations require a common set of rules or expectations that ensure that economic competition occurs on a level playing field. Beijing’s rejection of the rule of law as a fundamental operating principle means that the normative commercial structures upon which modern trade depends are at the mercy of a powerful and ideologically motivated political party. The Chinese Communist Party’s ruthless pursuit of techno-economic dominance in a range of strategic sectors has distorted activities that are usually thought of as positive sum — trade and technology cooperation — into zero-sum games.
The time has come for the United States and its allies to abandon the notion that competing on a level playing field with China’s state-led economy is possible and confront the reality of what I am calling the country’s brute force economics. I use this term as an analytic frame to summarize the aggressive, evolving, and often opaque web of policies and tactics that Beijing employs to give its national champions — corporations acting to advance government policy — an advantage and seize a dominant global market share in strategic sectors. The litany of specific practices is long: market access restrictions in strategic sectors, massive subsidies that fuel domestic overcapacity and enable Chinese firms to wipe out foreign competition, requirements for foreign firms to transfer technology in order to access the Chinese market, economic coercion, intellectual property theft, cyber- and human-enabled espionage, and forced labor. China’s brute force economics playbook puts competing firms out of business and destroys entire industries in rival nations. Once international competitors to Chinese national champions are either acquired or eliminated, trade partners have no choice but to rely on Chinese firms for critical technology products or inputs.
Foreign firms are sometimes complicit in Beijing’s economic distortions, owing to profit motives, ignorance, or fear of retribution if they speak out. Crucially, China’s tactics are not merely an assortment of cutthroat moves made by individual actors. Rather, they are features of Beijing’s long-term strategy, as I will argue below. As such, they are backed up by the full force of the country’s party-state system, creating a challenge that Washington cannot afford to ignore.
Huawei is a prominent example of Beijing’s no-holds-barred approach to boosting its national champions. State financial support worth an estimated $75 billion, market access restrictions to limit foreign competition in China’s domestic market, and decades of intellectual property theft and racketeering enabled Huawei to undercut rivals to become the world’s leading telecom equipment vendor and suppress innovation in the global telecom equipment industry.2 After Washington fought back with export controls and a diplomatic campaign to sound the alarm regarding digital dependence on an autocratic rival,3 threats of retaliation by China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats and state media against countries considering banning Huawei from their fifth-generation (5G) networks erased any uncertainty about whether resisting the company’s advances meant entering Beijing’s crosshairs.4
Washington and its allies are still struggling to fully conceptualize the challenge of brute force economics, much less mount a sufficiently robust counteroffensive.
China’s brute force economics has set off alarm bells in Washington and allied capitals. Of particular concern is the country’s emergence as a dominant player in a growing number of strategic industries such as steel, aluminum, solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicle batteries, high-speed rail, commercial drones, telecoms network equipment, and even energetic materials that power the U.S. military’s missiles and rockets.5 Policymakers have started to take action. The Trump administration compiled extensive evidence of China’s market-distorting practices,6 threatened tariffs to bring Chinese negotiators to the table, and, once negotiations failed to produce meaningful structural reforms, imposed tariffs. So far, the Biden administration has kept these tariffs in place.7 Both administrations increased coordination with allies and partners, with Trump’s team launching a trilateral trade ministerial with the European Union and Japan that was renewed by the Biden administration.8 President Joe Biden also set up new bilateral consultations on trade and technology issues with Brussels and has taken other actions, such as issuing executive orders to improve supply chain resilience and bolster the criteria for screening inbound investments for national security risks.9
Despite this growing momentum, Washington and its allies are still struggling to fully conceptualize the challenge of brute force economics, much less mount a sufficiently robust counteroffensive. As a director responsible for coordinating China policy at the National Security Council during the Trump and Biden administrations, I experienced this firsthand. One conceptual hurdle resulted from the difficulty of distinguishing between “fair” and “foul” in explaining China’s achievements. After all, Beijing’s success in capturing global market share has partially resulted from “textbook” economic factors: the unleashing of entrepreneurialism and trade after decades of near-autarky, China’s robust investments in manufacturing infrastructure, and the country’s natural advantages of size and scale.
But these factors do not tell the whole story. For my colleagues and me in the executive branch, textbook economic concepts like “market failure,” “macroeconomic imbalances,” and “trade distortions” were thin soup. Scholars have rightly described China’s policies as “mercantilist” or “neo-mercantilist.”10 But even these terms are insufficient to diagnose Beijing’s predatory mix of mercantilism, aggression, and criminality — operating at a scale that only China can muster.
Key Features of Brute Force Economics
The “brute” in brute force economics refers to the force, ruthlessness, and scale that characterize China’s economic strategy and make it an unprecedented challenge for Washington and its allies. While policy discourse, especially among U.S. economic officials, tends to focus on particular facets of the problem, such as market access restrictions, technology theft, or unfair subsidies, the reality is that these components overlap and are integrally linked in a comprehensive strategy that is more powerful and pernicious than the sum of its parts.
As an economically powerful and technologically advanced autocracy, the Chinese Communist Party can drive the full force of the party-state-military-intelligence system and the country’s massive national resources to serve its objectives. A foreign firm competing for global market share with a Chinese national champion is not competing with a typical commercial company but rather with what China scholar Jude Blanchette calls “CCP Inc.,”11 as the Huawei example above demonstrates. Such blurred lines offer both disadvantages and advantages for individual Chinese firms. On the negative side of the ledger, when push comes to shove, even ostensibly private firms have no choice but to throw their weight behind the party’s goals. Chinese law compels all individuals and companies in China to assist in national security and intelligence work, if required.12 On the other hand, national champions enjoy tangible advantages over their foreign competitors: China’s spending on industrial policy — estimated at $248 billion in a single year — far exceeds comparable spending by the United States and other advanced economies.13 China’s subsidy and export credit practices violate its World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments,14 but the WTO and its members have been powerless to stop them. National champions bidding for overseas business also have benefits that are harder to quantify, like state security agents stealing trade secrets and wolf warrior diplomats wielding incentives, inducements, and threats on their behalf.15
Beijing’s rhetorical commitment to “common development,” and “win-win cooperation”16 frames its economic relations with other nations in positive sum terms, but its behavior belies a zero-sum approach that shows little regard for the costs of its behavior for other nations. These are not mere marginal costs of doing business that can be easily written off. A Boston-based cyber security firm estimated in May that a Chinese state-backed cyber hacker stole trillions of dollars’ worth of sensitive and proprietary data on everything from diabetes drugs to missiles from approximately 30 multinational corporations in North America, Europe, and Asia.17 An independent commission estimated that China’s economic espionage and intellectual property theft cost the U.S. economy up to $600 billion annually, discouraging capital investments required for innovation and undermining U.S. firms’ overseas competitiveness.18 Even when justice is served, it often comes too late to protect American firms.
In one example, Chinese manufacturer Sinovel stole U.S. firm AMSC’s proprietary wind turbine technology instead of paying the agreed-upon price. In 2018, a U.S. federal jury found Sinovel guilty on all charges including conspiracy and trade secret theft starting in 2011. But by the time the verdict was rendered, Sinovel’s crimes had already caused AMSC to lose half its workforce (almost 700 jobs), $1 billion in shareholder equity, and $550 million in trade secrets, according to court documents.19 Meanwhile, China’s wind turbine industry prospered, with exports growing from $2.9 billion in 2017 to $7.2 billion in 2021.20
With a globally integrated, state-directed economy second only in size to that of the United States, China can practice brute force economics on a scale that no other nation can. The United States has often absorbed the unfair practices of its trading partners. However, China’s sheer size makes it an outlier, both in terms of direct harm and the opportunity costs it imposes by restricting access to 1.4 billion consumers for products and services that the United States excels in producing, like data services and social media. Sectors that Beijing partially or completely blocks to foreign competition include telecoms, fisheries, media, smartphones, agricultural machinery, cargo ships, electric vehicles, digital payments, solar panels, and — ironically — wind turbines, among others.21 It would be difficult to estimate the total cost to U.S. firms from lost revenues owing to China’s market access restrictions, but according to some estimates these restrictions cost individual U.S. firms billions of dollars.22 The reverse is not true: The Chinese app TikTok is projected to earn nearly $6 billion in U.S. ad revenues in 2022,23 while Meta and other U.S. tech platforms are blocked from China’s market. Market access restrictions mean that China’s accessible market — which is what matters for foreign businesses — is smaller than what is suggested by China’s massive economy and population.
Brute Force Economics and the Party’s Technology Strategy
Chinese leader Xi Jinping describes the world as experiencing “change on a scale unseen in a century” and an epochal power shift from west to east that offers China the opportunity to emerge as the world’s leading power.24 Critically, the Chinese Communist Party believes that success will depend on its ability to seize the advantage in disruptive and emerging technologies. In 2017, the party set a goal for China to become a “global leader in innovation by 2035.”25 This is not about technological achievement only for its own sake or for economic gain. As scholar Rush Doshi, who in 2021 joined the Biden administration as a National Security Council China director, explained in 2020, “China’s leaders have often seen technology and economic exchange through a political lens, particularly as a way to avoid dependency, strengthen China’s ‘comprehensive power,’ and build order.”26 As Xi said in 2021, “Technological innovation has become one of the main fields of international strategic competition, and the contest in key sci-tech areas is fierce.”27 At the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, where Xi secured a third five-year term as general secretary, he doubled down on these goals, emphasizing the need for China to achieve “self-reliance” in science and technology.28
Brute force economics is an expression of the Chinese Communist Party’s character as a political system. Within its own ranks, the party insists that its Marxist political system has been critical to China’s success thus far and will continue to be essential to achieving its objective of making China the world’s leading power.29 Its system, according to Beijing, enables the country to carry out long-term planning and marshal large-scale resources to pursue state objectives in technological, military, economic, and other domains, sustaining a collective effort in a way that democracies often cannot.30 For Beijing, China’s economic rise and technological achievements are evidence that its system and strategy are correct — and justification to pursue its strategy by all means necessary. In other words, the political ends justify the economic means. Brute force economics is embedded in China’s political institutions and is likely to survive even if Xi exits the scene and his successors try to soften the edges.
Caution and humility are warranted, but given China’s success in achieving market dominance in commercial drones, lithium-ion batteries, 5G wireless technology, and other sectors, the United States and its allies should not be complacent.
In its quest for comprehensive national power, Beijing has pursued what it calls “indigenous innovation” for more than a decade and a half.31 This strategy aims to boost China’s technological self-sufficiency by replacing imports of advanced technology with domestic production, to climb the global manufacturing value chain, and to capture greater international market share. Beijing’s Made in China 2025 plan, issued in 2015, gained notoriety in Washington owing to its explicit targets for market share across a wide range of critical technologies.32 (Recognizing the strategic and economic challenge for what it was, the Trump administration targeted these technology imports with its first tranche of tariffs.) These Chinese policies have much earlier roots, however. A major policy document issued in 2006 — the Medium- and Long-Term Plan for Science and Technology Development — set guidelines for the next 15 years and prioritized advances in integrated circuits, industrial biotechnology, information technology, including broadband mobile telecoms, and many other sectors. It called for China to “leapfrog in priority fields” and “lead the future.”33 These themes continued in Beijing’s 2010 decision to support seven “strategic emerging industries.”34 More recently, China’s 14th five-year plan for 2021-2025 intensified the drive for self-sufficiency with a policy dubbed “dual circulation”35 — essentially a one-way decoupling strategy that seeks to increase the world’s dependence on China while reducing China’s dependence on the world for critical technologies.36 China’s push for self-sufficiency and decoupling is not a reaction to recent tensions between the United States and China but has been underway for many years.37
Has Beijing’s approach been effective? Setting ambitious goals does not guarantee success, and massive outlays on industrial policies have led to waste. Measuring China’s technological progress is challenging since rigorous assessments are constrained in an opaque and autocratic system and the long-term effects of wasteful industrial policies take time to become clear. Caution and humility are warranted, but given China’s success in achieving market dominance in commercial drones, lithium-ion batteries, 5G wireless technology, and other sectors,38 the United States and its allies should not be complacent.
The implications for the United States and its democratic allies go beyond the techno-economic. All of Beijing’s plans are dual-use, aiming to maximize the efficient use of finite national resources to drive economic and military modernization simultaneously. Beijing’s national military-civil fusion strategy that emerged in the 2010s seeks to ensure that breakthroughs in civilian research and commercial sectors advance both military and economic objectives.39 Business leaders, technologists, and scholars involved in cutting-edge sectors should be on notice that their industries are in Beijing’s sights.
Creating dependence in critical sectors provides Beijing with strategic leverage. As the Ukraine crisis has painfully highlighted for European countries, depending on an adversary for critical inputs like energy can suddenly prove dangerous and costly during a crisis. China, with an economy 10 times the size of Russia’s and an outsized role in global supply chains,40 has a greater capacity than Russia to weaponize its economic clout and a growing track record of doing so.41 America’s reliance on China for products and materials that are critical to the defense industrial base — such as rare earth elements required for military hardware like the F-35 and night vision devices — would leave the country vulnerable in a bilateral dispute or crisis.42 In fact, China has threatened to cut off America’s rare earth supply several times, including as recently as 2021.43
Innovation Economics in a Zero-Sum World
Evidence is mounting that Beijing’s use of brute force economics is undermining innovation in other countries, putting their long-term prosperity at risk. Robert D. Atkinson has shown that, by shrinking markets and reducing profits that innovators need to invest, China’s mercantilist practices have slowed the progress of innovation in the United States and other developed nations.44 Innovation is the single most important long-term driver of economic growth for advanced economies like the United States.45 Thus, allowing China’s brute force economics to continue unchecked may hinder the U.S. economy’s capacity to generate prosperity for Americans.
The distortionary effects of China’s brute force economics can be understood through the lens of what economists call absolute versus comparative advantage. The theory of comparative advantage posits that trade allows countries to specialize in items they can produce at a lower opportunity cost compared to other nations. When each country specializes in its areas of comparative advantage, trade produces overall welfare gains in the form of increased total output and product variety.46 The theory suggests that, with a few exceptions, trade barriers should be reduced or removed. At the turn of the millennium, the logic of comparative advantage animated U.S. policymakers seeking to grant China permanent normal trading status and help it gain membership in the WTO. They believed this would unleash unprecedented new economic opportunities for Americans as China removed trade barriers to state-backed industries. In 2000, President Bill Clinton predicted, “For the first time, our companies will be able to sell and distribute products in China made by workers here in America without being forced to relocate manufacturing to China, sell through the Chinese government, or transfer valuable technology … . We’ll be able to export products without exporting jobs.”47
The theory of comparative advantage is not wrong. It is simply that Beijing is operating on different principles, pursuing absolute advantage for China rather than comparative advantage and greater total welfare for the world.
The opposite occurred. One study estimates that between 2001, when China joined the WTO, and 2018, the growing trade deficit with China cost the United States 3.7 million manufacturing jobs. The computer and electronic parts industry was hit particularly hard: Three congressional districts in the industry’s epicenter, Silicon Valley, lost between 12 and 20 percent of total jobs.48 As the jobs depart, the skills are lost as well. After decades of moving manufacturing jobs offshore, it is little wonder that many U.S. companies are facing large shortages in workers with technical skills.49 Scholars have also documented that when China targeted and subsidized a sector in its five-year plans, it was correlated with fewer new firms and lower output, employment, and earnings in corresponding sectors in the United States.50
America’s loss has been China’s gain. As Jonathan Pelson explains, “this model of wealth creation [comparative advantage] only applies when you’re dealing with trading counterparts, where the relationships are long-term and the tone is primarily cooperative.”51 The theory of comparative advantage is not wrong. It is simply that Beijing is operating on different principles, pursuing absolute advantage for China rather than comparative advantage and greater total welfare for the world. Laws of economics suggest that China’s excesses must eventually catch up with it, but it is impossible to predict when this will happen and how it will affect Beijing’s approach to the outside world. For now, because of China’s large size, its brute force economics is changing the international landscape, making competition on a level playing field impossible.
Brute Force Economics in Practice
A look at a few case studies, in addition to the telecoms and wind turbine examples above, illuminates how China’s brute force economics works in practice to increase domestic production, knock out foreign competition, and seize international market share.
According to Rick Switzer and David Feith, “Solar technology was invented and first commercialized in the U.S., only to be targeted later by China’s state planners.”52 Solar technology has been a priority for Beijing since the publication of the Medium- and Long-Term Plan for Science and Technology Development in 2006.53 Access to foreign technology, generous state support, and preferential policies for domestic firms combined to produce striking results: Since 2005, China’s share of global production of solar photovoltaic cells rose from seven to more than 80 percent, more than double its domestic demand.54 To achieve this, China dramatically scaled up production, lowered prices, and dumped solar panels on the international market. American and European solar companies shed jobs, bled market share, and eventually had no choice but to shut down.55
The harm went beyond lost industries and jobs. David M. Hart has shown that China’s below-market prices reduced incentives for foreign innovators to invest in alternative pathways to innovation in solar power, likely resulting in less diversity in solar technology today.56 To make matters worse, much of the world’s polysilicon, a key component used to produce solar panels, comes from Xinjiang in northwest China, where the government is conducting a systematic campaign of mass repression and genocide targeting ethnic and religious minorities that includes the use of forced labor. In 2021, the United States banned imports from a Chinese producer of silica-based products used in solar panels that is suspected of using forced labor, and later that year it passed a law prohibiting imports from Xinjiang unless the importer could provide evidence that the goods were not produced with forced labor.57 China’s dominance in the solar supply chain has forced upon the rest of the world a Solomonic choice between the rapid expansion of solar power, on the one hand, and avoiding complicity in Beijing’s systematic human rights abuses, on the other.
Shipbuilding, also a priority in China’s 2006 plan for science and technology development, has followed a similar playbook. Blanchette assessed that state support between 2010 and 2018 worth approximately $132 billion, along with barriers to foreign competition, forced technology transfer, and state-sponsored hacking and commercial espionage, facilitated China’s growing dominance in the maritime supply chain. Other countries have provided support to their domestic shipbuilding industries, but, as Blanchette notes, “the scale of China’s support is unmatched.” As a result, China went from roughly 10 percent of global shipbuilding market share in 2002 to around 50 percent in 2021.58 The stakes for the United States are strategic as well as commercial. As Blanchette notes, in a military contingency the United States could face maritime logistics challenges given the shrinking size of its merchant marine fleet.59
Border Security Technology
Chinese state-owned enterprise Nuctech, founded by former Chinese General Secretary Hu Jintao’s son, has enjoyed generous state support, a protected home market, and ties to China’s military and the highest levels of Chinese Communist Party power to become the world’s leading company by revenue for cargo and vehicle scanners used at ports and airports around the world. By underbidding foreign rivals by 30 to 50 percent, Nuctech is seizing a growing global market share. In the European Union, Nuctech has won contracts in 26 out of 27 member states, including in sensitive locations such as along NATO’s borders with Russia and in Europe’s largest ports.60 Only a 2014 ban on Nuctech equipment in U.S. airports spared the United States from a similar fate.61 The ban was proven prescient in 2020, when Nuctech was added to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List, which imposes export licensing requirements, because Nuctech’s equipment performed below par when it came to detecting nuclear and other radioactive materials.62 The growing presence of Nuctech equipment at border locations overseas undermines efforts by the United States and its foreign partners to stop the proliferation of materials that could be used in weapons of mass destruction.
Electric Vehicle Batteries
Beijing’s ambitions to build a world-class automobile sector date back to its 863 Program, a high-tech development plan launched in 1986.63 In the medium- to long-term plan released two decades later, this ambition was refined to focus on energy-efficient and new energy automobiles and was reemphasized in Made in China 2025. In 2016, the Chinese government announced that a “third industrial revolution” focusing on digitization and “new energy” would allow China to take the lead in automobiles. Lavish government subsidies, a captive home market, and requirements that foreign automakers transfer critical technology to a local firm in order to sell cars in China have allowed national champion CATL to capture one-third of the global electric-car battery market.64
In the semiconductor industry ... [Beijing] is leveraging massive amounts of state support, targeted intellectual property theft to aid national champions, knowledge transfer from technical experts trained in the United States and allied countries, and preferential treatment for domestic firms to tilt the playing field in its favor.
Looking ahead, Beijing’s brute force economics will not stop at solar panels, shipbuilding, border security equipment, and batteries. China’s 14th five-year plan makes clear that industries at the cutting edge of the American economy, like artificial intelligence, semiconductors, biotechnology, aerospace, blockchain, and cloud computing are all in China’s line of fire.65 In the semiconductor industry, for instance, Beijing’s playbook is on full display. It is leveraging massive amounts of state support, targeted intellectual property theft to aid national champions, knowledge transfer from technical experts trained in the United States and allied countries, and preferential treatment for domestic firms to tilt the playing field in its favor.66 The sheer complexity of the semiconductor industry has held back Beijing’s progress in some areas, but over time it is mastering more complex processes. Projections suggest that China could become the world leader in chip manufacturing by volume within 10 years.67
Selective Disentanglement: Countering Beijing’s Brute Force Economics
Traditional channels for addressing China’s brute force economics have been tried repeatedly and found insufficient. Over the last two decades, Washington has made numerous good-faith efforts to deal directly with Beijing through bilateral dialogues, trying to persuade China’s leaders to operate on a level playing field and comply with its WTO commitments.68 The United States has also frequently worked through multilateral channels, bringing 27 cases against China in the WTO, many of them in conjunction with other member states. But despite winning every case that was decided, China’s pattern of behavior continued and in many cases worsened.69
Given the failure of years of engagement to persuade Beijing to change course, Washington should frame its approach differently than in the past. It should adjust to the fact that, in China, it does not have a sincere, cooperative partner. The United States should focus primarily on shaping its own choices, then on shaping those of its allies and partners, and lastly (and with low expectations for success), on shaping Beijing’s. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged in a speech in May 2022, “We cannot rely on Beijing to change its trajectory.” Instead, America will seek to “shape the strategic environment around Beijing.”70
Washington and its allies should pursue a strategy of selective disentanglement from China that would deny support to Beijing’s techno-economic ambitions while strengthening ties with each other. Selective disentanglement should be thought of as a progressive shift, not an abrupt and total abandonment of economic and trade ties with China.71 It should focus on areas where economic and technological entanglement poses the greatest risks for national security and competitiveness, such as critical infrastructure and technology. Change will entail some pain and disruption for the United States and its allies, but it will also result in creative destruction that clears a path for new growth opportunities.
A strategy of selective disentanglement with China should combine offensive, defensive, and collective elements. It should have three prongs: doubling down on asymmetric American advantages, denying support to China’s accumulation of techno-economic power, and moving away from overreliance on China and toward increased interdependence with friends.72
Double Down on Asymmetric American Advantages
Prevailing against China’s brute force economics requires the United States to get its own house in order, that is, to strengthen its domestic competitiveness. But this need not mean trying to “out-China China.” America’s economy and innovation ecosystem have numerous advantages that China is hard pressed to match, including world-class universities and research institutions, the ability to attract talent from around the world, a highly productive and growing workforce, and global leadership in finance backed up by trusted institutions that foster conditions in which innovation thrives. The United States should double down on these systemic strengths and ensure that policies that support them are up to date for an age of emerging technology and strategic rivalry. Vital steps for strengthening America’s innovation ecosystem include boosting support for research and development, maximizing the digital economy’s potential, and investing in a tech-savvy workforce.
Research and Development
Increased spending on research and development can not only spur innovation but can also serve as a powerful mechanism to boost productivity growth and GDP over the long term.73 The CHIPS and Science Act that Biden signed into law in August 2022 is a step in the right direction, providing a $52 billion infusion to boost semiconductor production, including $11 billion for research and development.74 Policymakers should make additional investments in research and development in battleground technologies like smart manufacturing, biotechnology, next-generation networks, and computing technology. They should also incentivize public-private partnerships that harness the dynamism of America’s private sector to pursue scientific and technological goals of strategic significance.75
China used brute force economics to stake out Huawei’s dominant position in global 5G network infrastructure. But the United States still has an opportunity to race ahead by capturing the economic promise of 5G to unlock America’s potential as an advanced manufacturing powerhouse. The United States is already investing billions of dollars deploying Huawei-free telecom network infrastructure across the country,76 but it should also look ahead to the applications that will run on advanced public and private networks, like smart factories that could make it more appealing for firms to bring production back to American shores. The U.S. government should boost incentives for innovators to create and diffuse these applications.77
America’s productive and still-growing workforce, and its ability to attract global talent, is one of its greatest strengths, particularly in contrast to China, where demographic decline is an economic drag.78 In the United States, however, shortages in skilled workers in some technical fields are a limiting factor in the nation’s ability to outcompete China. The United States should strengthen education and workforce training programs and speed up immigration processes to ensure it has a workforce that can compete and thrive in cutting-edge technology sectors.79
Deny Support to China’s Techno-Economic Ambitions
Getting its own house in order will not be sufficient. The United States should also target China’s brute force tactics. To do so, America, working with allies and partners whenever possible, should stop supporting China’s buildup of techno-economic power at the expense of its own security, values, and prosperity. The United States should not provide material support to China when doing so will 1) accelerate China’s military modernization, 2) enable Beijing’s techno-authoritarian abuses of human rights, or 3) weaken the long-term competitiveness of U.S. and allied high-tech industries. There is already growing policy consensus on the first two criteria. When it comes to military modernization, for example, ensuring that China does not use U.S. technology and know-how to develop military technology like hypersonic weapons, deep-earth penetrating warheads, and quieter submarines — as it has done in the past80 — is hardly a controversial policy objective among U.S. national security professionals, even though more concrete policies and robust implementation are urgently needed. On the human rights front, some U.S. firms stopped providing technology to China when it was revealed that it was being used for state surveillance and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.81 More robust export controls,82 as well as new laws, policies, due diligence standards, and ethical guidelines are needed, but at least the principles are gaining wider acceptance.
Beijing’s target list is long, posing a prioritization challenge for Washington, but biotechnology, an area in which the United States currently sits at the technological frontier, stands out.
Much stronger consensus is needed on the third criterion — the need to stop supporting China’s ability to out-compete the United States. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in a speech in September 2022 referred to this idea, stating that
we have to revisit the longstanding premise of maintaining ‘relative’ advantages over competitors in certain key technologies. We previously maintained a ‘sliding scale’ approach that said we need to stay only a couple generations ahead. This is not the strategic environment we are in today. … We must maintain as large of a lead as possible.83
Sullivan’s words were backed up by an executive order published the same week strengthening the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. The order broadened the scope for investment review beyond traditional defense issues to include criteria such as protecting Americans’ sensitive data and enhancing U.S. supply chain resilience. Crucially, the executive order also directed the committee to consider whether a transaction affects U.S. “technological leadership and therefore national security” and listed microelectronics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and several other sectors as examples.84 Several weeks later, in its strongest policy actions on China to date, the Biden administration announced new controls on the sales of advanced semiconductors and semiconductor manufacturing equipment to China and restrictions on U.S. persons providing support to the sector, among other measures that, if implemented robustly, will slow China’s progress in semiconductors, high-performance computing, and artificial intelligence.85 Generating a greater understanding of these policy changes among executive branch departments and agencies, Congress, industry, the American public, and U.S. allies and partners is important in order to generate support for vigorous enforcement. It will also help build momentum for further policy action to prevent China from surpassing the United States in additional fields such as quantum computing and biotechnology.86
Closer monitoring of, and enhanced restrictions on, China’s access to U.S. markets, technology, and expertise in cutting-edge technology sectors will be required. When it comes to the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, this means keeping the process up to date by regularly monitoring China’s strategic documents as they are issued, since they provide insight into what sectors Beijing is targeting.
Beijing’s target list is long, posing a prioritization challenge for Washington, but biotechnology, an area in which the United States currently sits at the technological frontier,87 stands out. A strong uptick in Chinese merger and acquisition activity in the U.S. biotech sector in the last few years reveals an aggressive effort by China to acquire American intellectual property in a race to get ahead.88 Furthermore, China is using foreign-acquired technology to conduct mass DNA collection in violation of Chinese law and international human rights norms.89 In 2013, despite security concerns raised in a Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States investigation, Chinese genomics company BGI acquired California-based Complete Genomics, which had developed the fastest and most cost-effective gene mapping technology in the world.90 BGI has subsequently risen to become the world’s largest genetic research organization. According to the Department of Defense, BGI contributes to China’s military-civil fusion strategy,91 and, in 2020, two of its subsidiaries were added to a U.S. export blacklist for collaborating with Beijing in committing human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.92 Chinese acquisitions of U.S. biotech companies should be afforded an extra level of scrutiny, and in many cases restricted,93 to ensure that the United States is not selling its crown jewels to China and enabling its systemic repression of human rights, as it has done in the past.94
The United States should also create a mechanism to screen outbound investment to prevent U.S. investors from contributing, wittingly or unwittingly, to China’s advance in strategic technologies at America’s expense. Oftentimes, it is the know-how that accompanies U.S. investments, rather than the money itself, that facilitates China’s advance. A new mechanism should include the authority to review and, when required, restrict transfers of expertise, technology, and capital. For example, U.S. firms participated in 58 investment deals with China’s semiconductor industry from 2017 through 2020,95 contributing to China’s progress in a sector where it is imperative that the United States remains ahead.
Lastly, the United States should find ways to restrict Chinese access to U.S. markets in critical industries where China is racing to catch up to and surpass the United States. America has done this in the past with positive results. In 2011, for example, Congress blocked Chinese access to America’s space industry owing to concerns that U.S. technology would be used to advance China’s military capabilities.96 More than a decade on, American firms lead in commercial space launches, unhindered in the home market by China’s brute force economics.97 To take another example, America’s 2014 ban on Nuctech for security reasons means that, today, the United States — unlike countries in the European Union98 — is not experiencing a flood of unreliable border security and scanning equipment from a Chinese national champion at its ports and airports. The United States should explore reforming, and then using more aggressively, the International Trade Commission’s Section 337 process to block the import of Chinese products that have benefitted from unfair trade practices like intellectual property theft.99
When an outright ban on market access for Chinese companies is not feasible, the United States should develop laws, policies, regulations, and guidelines that set strict standards for transparency and accountability for the import, purchase, or use of sensitive technology products such as surveillance equipment, hardware and software for data systems, dual-use items, and components for critical infrastructure. Country-of-origin requirements, for example, could place restrictions on products and services from firms in countries of concern including China, preventing such products from being used in sensitive areas such as critical infrastructure.100 The principle of rebuttable presumption, a policy innovation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, should also inspire additional laws and policies to increase transparency and accountability for U.S. persons wishing to pursue transactions involving technology transfer to, or cooperation with, China. For example, export controls and licensing policies should be updated to address the risk posed by China’s military-civil fusion strategy that technology or expertise transferred to China could benefit the People’s Liberation Army. If the U.S. person wishing to conduct the transaction can provide satisfactory evidence that the transaction would not be detrimental to national security and competitiveness, the transaction could be permitted to proceed.101 The onus would thus be shifted to industry to take steps proactively to avoid harmful transactions taking place.
Diversifying to Build Collective Resilience and Self-Defense
As the United States and its allies come to grips with the reality that China has no intention of undertaking structural reforms that could make a level playing field a reality, they must adopt the more realistic and sustainable objective of collective resilience and self-defense. This entails using their combined economic leverage to blunt the harmful effects of Beijing’s techno-economic strategy. Some U.S. allies will be concerned by the threat of China’s economic coercion, but the recent experiences of Sweden, Australia, and Lithuania demonstrate that countries can successfully stand up to coercion.102
To better resist coercion and reduce the risks associated with overdependence on China, the United States and other market-oriented democracies should strengthen trade, investment, financial, and technology ties among themselves while partially disentangling from the Chinese economy. This could evolve into the “partial liberal system” that Aaron Friedberg has described in these pages: a group made up primarily, though not exclusively, of democracies that would resemble the economic arrangement the United States built during the Cold War.103 The United States should start by assembling small groups of countries with shared concerns and form trade blocs that withhold market access from Chinese companies in specific industries unless they meet stringent conditions specified by the bloc. Membership in these small groups could be expanded over time.
Internationally, policymakers can continue to promote the goal of a global, rules-based order as a long-term ideal, while taking an incremental approach to building a new partial liberal order.
Given growing skepticism among Americans about the economic benefits of trade,104 moving in this direction will not be easy. New trade arrangements will require careful consultation with the U.S. public and lawmakers, whose skepticism of new trade deals has prevented U.S. membership in blocs proposed to reduce dependence on China — the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Domestically, U.S. policymakers will need to develop compelling arguments about how trade can benefit American workers in the 21st-century economy. Internationally, policymakers can continue to promote the goal of a global, rules-based order as a long-term ideal, while taking an incremental approach to building a new partial liberal order. As Hal Brands and Michael Beckley point out, the challenge of collective action makes it hard to build “big clubs” of countries, but even a “patchy collection of mini-lateral agreements would build multilateral resilience against Chinese pressure by reorienting strategic supply chains away from Beijing.”105
Groupings could focus on issues such as greentech, digital trade, and supply chain security, areas in which allies share far more in common with each other than with China. For example, the United States and the European Union could pursue a carbon border adjustment mechanism that would impose high tariffs on carbon-intensive imports while lowering tariffs for countries whose exports meet specified conditions for clean production. Since China lags well behind the United States and its allies in low-carbon manufacturing, this would effectively exclude the former.106 To take another example, the United States should work to expand digital trade among democratic market economies while limiting data flows to China.107 As Agatha Kratz and Janka Oertel point out, “[T]here are significant economies of scale in digital industries.”108 To build resilience in critical supply chains, the United States and its allies and partners should enhance coordination through mechanisms such as the Minerals Security Partnership announced in June 2022 by the State Department to build robust, responsible supply chains for critical minerals.109
It is time for Washington and its allies and partners to acknowledge that ever-deepening techno-economic integration with China is not in their best interest. Twenty years ago, it was understandable that the dazzling promise of making economic gains through trade blinded Western policymakers to Beijing’s long-term objectives. But in 2022, it should be obvious that China is not a cooperative economic and technology partner. It is anachronistic — and even dangerous — to make policy choices contingent on a false hope that it will become one.
Imagine you are a small farmer unlucky enough to live next door to a neighbor who, after years of buying your produce, turns into a predator intent on driving you out of business. She steals your tools, seeds, and tractor, then hacks into and steals the database of your distribution networks. With help from the local mafia, she buys out all the small farms and locally owned grocery stores in the region, becoming the area’s sole grocer. Hoping she will play fair is fruitless. At this point, maintaining an “open door policy” would be preposterous. Instead, prudence would dictate installing a more powerful security system and deepening friendships with other neighbors, working together to grow a community garden and organizing to defend yourselves. Over time, practicing resistance, resilience, and interdependence with friends would become a normal response to the predatory neighbor.
Liza Tobin is senior director for economy at Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP). She served on the National Security Council staff as China director during the Trump and Biden administrations. Prior to her struggle sessions with brute force economics at the National Security Council, she stared down the problem at the United States Indo-Pacific Command and the Central Intelligence Agency.
This paper expresses the views and opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the SCSP, its board, or the staff as a whole. The author wishes to thank Brady Helwig for invaluable editorial assistance and Erik Britton for originating the term “brute force” to describe the People’s Republic of China’s economic approach.