Commentary. An unsolvable problem persists under the veneer of dialogue, which could be summarized as follows: the United States cannot afford to share technological primacy with China.

Beijing’s unstoppable race toward self-sufficiency

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s visit to China is yet another sign of the leaderships of China and the U.S. trying to talk to each other, shrugging off their respective hawks who are instead calling for a tougher mutual stance.

At the beginning of her tenure, Yellen had seemed quite tough on Beijing, but over time she has become softer, and now, as is evident from comments in the Chinese national media, she is seen there as a sort–of “friend” to the People’s Republic, because she’s saying out loud what they’ve been saying in China for a long time: that decoupling the two economies would be detrimental to everyone and that China and the United States are two economic partners who should have a stable relationship.

If this isn’t the case, it’s not only the two countries who suffer, but the whole world. In the U.S., they are also aware of the large share of U.S. government debt in the hands of the Chinese, long considered to be the ace up Beijing’s sleeve that it might play as a last resort in the trade war with Washington.

Yellen’s visit comes after a tumultuous period that has seen rather drastic decisions taken by the two countries. It’s like an unsolvable problem persists under the veneer of dialogue, which could be summarized as follows: the United States cannot afford to share technological primacy with China. This is true for several reasons, both economic and otherwise.

The war in Ukraine has shown that American technology is still capable of making a difference in a military confrontation, and in Washington they know that this “primacy” could be jeopardized by China, whose military development goes hand in hand with its development in Artificial Intelligence, quantum supercomputers and satellites.

True, China is aware that it is behind the United States from a military point of view, but it’s just as true that Beijing has made extraordinary leaps in recent decades. And then there is the issue of the public imaginary: as TikTok has shown, innovation and success can also come from the East, no longer exclusively from our part of the world.

This technological rivalry, which today is being played out on an uneven playing field with threats of bans and actual bans (such as Biden’s recent decision to try to exclude China from access to cloud computing offered by big US companies), is unsolvable: it is impossible for either the U.S. or China to compromise, because the rivalry has to do with the pillars of the two countries’ international stance.

As is often the case with China, certain recent moves by Beijing appear very surprising to us, such as export controls on certain critical materials such as gallium and germanium, which are critical to the production of microchips.

This is a topic that has been debated in China for a long time, and actually represents only a tiny part of a much larger, epochal challenge that encompasses Big Data, national security, and the advancement of technologies capable of, among other things, challenging current cryptographic systems.

For example, in 2016, newspapers across the world published many articles on the Chinese supercomputer Sunway TaihuLight, which had become number one in the international ranking of high-performance computers. It would remain so until 2018 (according to research published in May 2023, it is in fourth place today), but in 2016 this was a shock for the whole world – a double shock, in fact.

First of all, finding out that China was leading the supercomputer rankings was rather sensational and unexpected news; second, unlike most other Chinese supercomputers, which used processors designed in the United States, TaihuLight had been built with a processor entirely “created and made in China.” In other words, as Tom Mullaney, a leading expert on computing in China, wrote in Foreign Affairs, “the new rankings showed that China’s domestic computing industry has come into its own.”

This can all be traced back to 1986, with “Project 863” initiated by Zhao Ziyang, then CCP secretary, but whose success was later claimed by Deng, who was stressing at the time that computer science needed to be taught to children. Accordingly, the 2016 achievement did not surprise the scientific community all that much.

In his article, Mullaney also recalls a rather amusing episode about a delegation led by Severo Ornstein, an engineer doing research for the most prestigious U.S. universities, which went to China in the 1970s.

Ornstein knew he wasn’t famous enough to succeed in getting an invitation from Beijing, so he began enlisting others, and ended up bringing together some of the most prominent American scientists of the time. He would call one of them and tell them that other very famous figures – that he actually hadn’t contacted yet – would also come on the trip. In the end, he put together a dream team that after some time finally received an official invitation from China.

Along with Ornstein were Herbert Simon, Nobel laureate and professor of computer science and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, Alan Perlis, professor of computer science at Yale University and the first recipient of the Turing Award, and a whole host of other world-class scientists.

On July 10, 1972, the delegation arrived in Guangzhou, and some time later, the team that had arrived in China published an article in Science with the subtitle: “Computer technology advances rapidly in China without outside help.” Indeed, from the recollections of the American scientists, the Chinese were keen to emphasize that their main policy was one of self-sufficiency and “keeping scientific development in our own hands.”

This was back in 1972, and it’s interesting first of all to note that China’s race towards self-sufficiency – so much emphasized today by Xi Jinping – is nothing new. Secondly, people in the US were perfectly aware of it. It’s just that we are used to thinking that certain things, innovation for example, are an exclusive Western heritage, a long legacy of the Enlightenment. That is not the case.

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