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Tech policy

The US and China aren’t in a “cold war,” so stop calling it that

In our globalized economy, the term is not only outdated, it’s harmful.
December 19, 2018
Nico Ortega

In recent months the New York Times has reported that “a cold war is being waged across the world’s most advanced industries,” that we are witnessing “the opening stages of a new economic Cold War,” and that the rise of China fuels a generalized “new Cold War.” A Wired headline last fall warned of “the AI cold war that threatens us all.”

The comparison has dramatic appeal because it conjures two giants confronting each other over which will have the greater influence. The problem is that equating today’s competition in tech with the Cold War ignores the reality of the US and China’s interdependence and encourages policymakers’ worst instincts.

So why do we keep hearing about it? Probably because the idea of a cold war is a convenient placeholder when it’s so hard to describe what’s actually happening: the unfolding of ideological and geopolitical tensions in a deeply connected and integrated technological environment.

Unlike the US and USSR, in which science and technology developed on largely independent tracks, the US and China are part of a globally intertwined ecosystem. As an example, ZTE, the Chinese maker of network equipment and smartphones, was nearly shut down last year by a US threat to cut it off from American semiconductors. Apple’s devices, meanwhile, rely heavily on components and assembly in China, and the company makes one fifth of its revenue there. It would have huge problems if China were to cut it off from either its suppliers or its customers in retaliation for US tariffs.

Companies and innovators in both countries would suffer if international research, development, and manufacturing were to shut down. Meanwhile, even if the US and China cut off trade with each other, both countries would still have to worry about security risks from components, since risks along the supply chain exist everywhere.

In coming years both the US and China will face dilemmas about how to secure supply chains in an interconnected world. They’ll both have privacy challenges. They’ll both have to figure out how to regulate the proliferating uses of artificial intelligence. And along with every other country in the world, they’ll have to deal with the risks of climate change.

But the cold war theme isn’t just wrong; it’s harmful. It assumes an existential struggle between competing blocs. It encourages political decision-makers to turn to bygone strategic concepts designed to fit the post–World War II era. It makes people on one side more hostile toward people on the other.

The analogy does at least provide an example of an outcome to avoid: a costly, destructive standoff between societies closed off from one another. There is real friction between the two countries, from different systems of government to military tensions over disputed territories to conflicts over intellectual property. We shouldn’t stop being vigilant. But we can’t stop being pragmatic, either. 

Graham Webster (@gwbstr) is a fellow and coordinating editor of DigiChina at New America.

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