The tech fight is about economic survival for Beijing, but just another ‘war’ of choice for US politicians and technocrats. It’s easy to predict which side has the greater will to prevail.
A leading Chinese telecoms company released a new smartphone and no less than the White House’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was asked at a press conference to comment on America’s plan for a strategic response.
Is it just me or do others also find that a somewhat ridiculous spectacle? In any case, Sullivan said the US needed to analyse Huawei Technologies’ new phone chip in precise technical details.
“I’m going to withhold comment on the particular chip in question until we get more information about precisely its character and composition,” Sullivan told a White House briefing on Tuesday.
“What it tells us, regardless, is that the United States should continue on its course of a ‘small yard, high fence’ set of technology restrictions focused narrowly on national security concerns, not on the broader question of commercial decoupling.”
“Character and composition” … “national security concerns” – in the old Cold War days, that kind of response would have been if the Soviets had just tested a new type of nuclear bomb.
As many commentators have observed, it was no accident that Huawei released its latest phone during US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s high-profile mission to China.
Its Mate 60 Pro is powered by the new Kirin 9000s chip whose processor runs on the 7 nanometre technology, precisely the kind of advanced chips that Washington wants to deny China.
The new phone has been selling like hot cakes. It has generated patriotic fervour and enthusiasm across the country not because consumers can’t buy comparable 5G phones, but because it’s made by Huawei. Shares of Huawei’s component suppliers have shot up, with an index that specialises in tracking China’s top chip makers outstripping the broader equities by almost 10 per cent.
It’s exactly what Chinese leaders love the most in life – a commercial hi-tech success that inspires nationalism while boosting the stock market – and sticking it to the Americans. It’s also indicative of where the chip war is going.
In this metaphorical tech war between the US and China, China is bound to win. There is a simple reason for that. The Chinese can’t afford to lose, but the Americans can. This means China has an unbounded will to fight and achieve technical independence. Quite simply, everything else – artificial intelligence, quantum computing, 6G+ telecommunications – all depend on this single technology. On it rests China’s hope to achieve hi-tech pre-eminence as a nation for the rest of this century. The chip war is a bit like the last space tech competition.
Despite Vladimir Putin’s frequent belligerent statements and actions against the West, well before his invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, the US was happy to cooperate with Russia over space projects, including joint projects on board the International Space Station (ISS), even today. Yet, it refused cooperation with China’s space agencies and banned Chinese astronauts from ever visiting the ISS.
What did the Chinese do? They have built their own space station and are planning manned missions to the moon, perhaps even to Mars.
The chip war really is about China’s national security, if not survival. For the US, though, it is really about neither, however much its leaders want to claim otherwise.
Washington may pretend denying the most advanced chips to China is all to do with the US’ national security. After all, it even rolls out the national security adviser to pontificate on the latest Mate 60 Pro. Imagine if Beijing wheeled out a top general to comment on the latest iPhone as a security threat!
No one would be convinced, of course, except the most foolish and gullible. US alarmism only holds by the broadest definition of security, the kind of typically exaggerated security claims according to which any advance made by an unfriendly state amounts to a threat to the US’ national interests or security.
Perhaps it may be argued that China’s tech advances are against America’s national interests. But that’s not really about security or survival. In fact, US’ domestic tech giants and foreign allies have no stomach for the fight, recognising from the start that as Washington prosecutes its chip war, it’s they who will actually be paying the price. It’s one thing fighting for the survival of the free world, something else to be sacrificed for whatever strategic interests America’s highly erratic leaders claim at any one moment.
If we apply the analogy of war to the chip “war”, the US can afford to lose, the same way it has paid for the high price of losing “the war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will just move on to fight the next war, metaphorical or actual.
There is also a corollary to the war analogy. A war of necessity is a war that will have to involve the whole people. Citizens must feel they have the highest stake in the fight.
The patriotic fervour inspired by Huawei’s new phone shows precisely that; many Chinese people think they have a high stake in countering America’s chip aggression against their country. But it gets better. They are not being drafted into fighting a war.
Younger Chinese always love buying the latest tech gadget. They instinctively equate buying Huawei’s latest phone with patriotism. The best patriotic acts are those that don’t require sacrifice but instant gratification. Who doesn’t like a state-of-the-art 5G device that’s as good as any iPhone but costs only a fraction of the price? What’s more, you are sticking it to the Americans.
Ever since America first imposed a chip ban on Huawei in 2019 and sought to arrest its No 2 on dubious charges, Washington has wanted to kill it off to deny China’s 5G network access to the rest of the world. That is turning out to be a pipe dream.
For the opposite reason, whatever pre-eminence Huawei may have already played in China’s hi-tech ecosystem, the Chinese state must make sure it survives and prospers as a matter of national prestige.
To rephrase John F. Kennedy’s famous saying, for patriotic Chinese consumers today, ask not what Huawei can sell to you, but what you can buy from Huawei.
Original article published in South China Morning Post on 7 September, 2023.