How Can the U.S. Maintain Global Leadership in Science and Technology?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Among the central issues the incoming U.S. presidential administration will face as it formulates policy toward China is the interconnectedness between the two countries in the spheres of science and technology. U.S. concerns over national security, trade practices, intellectual property, espionage, transparency, and human rights all have contributed to calls for everything from a reassessment of the value of a global scientific commons to outright “decoupling” of scientific research and development between the two countries.

A newly released report, authored by a group convened by the University of California, San Diego’s 21st Century China Center and our colleagues at the Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations, offers recommendations for how U.S. policy ought to address challenges to national security and economic strength across four domains of science and technology: fundamental research, 5G broadband communications, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. We asked members of the working group how they think the U.S. should maintain scientific leadership (and to what extent its edge has eroded), and how to best manage the risks in collaborating on science and technology research, investment, and standards against a backdrop of deteriorating relations between the two countries. —The Editors


Policymakers in the U.S. and China realize that science and technology have become focal points of their relations. Some American politicians have panicked over what they see as a Chinese technological juggernaut that is on the verge of surpassing the United States. They therefore advocate “decoupling” from China—that is, dismantling the U.S.-China cross-border technology and production chains—or at the very least, reducing scientific and business collaboration with China in order to block its access to the crown jewels of American technology.

This would be a mistake. Foundational technology and long-term technological trends suggest the U.S. holds a lead in basic science, 5G mobile broadband telecommunications, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. Yes, some weaknesses have crept into the U.S. system of science and technology development. The best way to remedy them and to sustain U.S. leadership is to adopt a strategy that builds on America’s asymmetric advantages: its foundational technological strength, its adherence to an open global knowledge economy, and its superior ability to attract talent from around the world to its world-class universities and STEM workforce. Broad restrictions on cross-border collaboration and immigration would undermine American innovation.

Openness creates risks. The United States ought to utilize a highly targeted approach to managing risks, tailoring it to specific technologies and modeled on our experience with cyber security. A national-security-centered strategy aimed at eliminating all risks would be unrealistic and destructive to the U.S.’s vibrant society, economy, and innovation ecosystem. America would become weaker, and therefore less secure, if we follow that approach. Instead, we should utilize monitoring and risk-identification systems, construct multiple layers of safeguards, and increase redundancy of certain critical capabilities. We already defend against hacks or theft of personal information on the Internet but haven’t yet attempted to put in place systems to secure other new infrastructure technologies.

Though America still leads in many areas, much technological advancement now originates outside of the United States, including in China. Tackling the risks associated with climate change or producing new medical treatments depends on blending specialized capabilities from many sources. Once created, and regardless of where it is created, knowledge usually spreads despite government controls. In such a complex environment, the best leadership strategy is to race faster by investing in American innovation and welcoming talented individuals from all countries.

A new American strategy should focus on three key goals:

  • Bolster U.S. innovation capabilities through measures ranging from increased funding for fundamental research to selective upgrading of our production system.
  • Tailor targeted risk management measures to address current and future security threats.
  • Preserve as many of the benefits of an open, ethical, and integrated global knowledge economy as possible.

These three policy goals are complementary; the successful realization of one depends on the implementation of the other two. Moreover, they are most likely to succeed if they are designed and implemented collaboratively with like-minded countries.

To manage relations with China today and in the future, the foreign policy community needs to master the nuances of emerging technologies just as it had to learn about nuclear weapons during the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War.

Over the last decade, U.S. views of China’s technological prospects have shifted rapidly. After long dismissing China as a country of uncreative imitators, it’s good we’re now recognizing that Chinese research labs and tech companies alike are reaching the point where they can compete on the world stage.

At the same time, in most areas it’s not accurate to claim that China has outstripped the United States, or that it soon will. In artificial intelligence (AI), for example, much has been made of the importance of data and the supposed advantage China draws from having access to the digital footprints of its 1.4 billion citizens. In reality, the strategic relevance of data is not so clear, nor is it obvious that China has access to more or better data in practice than, say, U.S.-based multinationals. Likewise, consternation that China now publishes more AI research papers or files more patents than the United States should be allayed by the fact that Chinese researchers are heavily incentivized to publish and patent rapidly rather than well, and that comprehensive assessments of national AI strength consistently put the United States on top.

So, does this imply that the United States can coast on its current success? Of course not. What it means is that policies to support U.S. technological competitiveness should be based on a sober assessment of our relative strengths, rather than a simplistic fear of China surging ahead.

The areas where the United States has an enduring advantage are not hard to find, once you look for them: deep alliances, world-class universities, a vibrant private sector, and the ability to draw brilliant researchers, engineers, and entrepreneurs from all around the world. Bolstering these strengths must be the core aim of U.S. technology policy. Where China attempts to exploit the openness of the U.S.-led system—for example, by stealing trade secrets or controlled technologies—targeted countermeasures are needed. But a technology strategy that focuses more on denying Chinese access than on building U.S. capacity is sure to fail.

In 1972, the great strategist Andy Marshall wrote that the key question for U.S. planners in the Cold War should be, “How can the United States move the competition into areas where it has an advantage, or the Soviets a disadvantage?” Although the United States today faces a different competitor in a different kind of competition, that underlying question is still an excellent guide. U.S. strengths are substantial, and—if fostered, rather than neglected—put us in good stead for the decades to come.

One of the emerging central arenas of long-term U.S.-China technological and security competition is in the dual-use civil-military domain. The spotlight has been on China’s pursuit of military-civil fusion (MCF), that is, the integration of the civilian and defense economies to share resources, know-how, and capabilities. The question of how China’s defense establishment can leverage the civilian sector to support its modernization has drawn special attention.

The Xi Jinping administration has made MCF a leading goal in its economic and technology development priorities from the outset of its rule in 2012, but the U.S. government only began to pay attention to MCF as a growing source of concern in the late 2010s. In the past year or so, the U.S. government has attributed some of the underhanded practices that China has used to acquire U.S. technology, knowledge, and research under the MCF label and sought to counter these efforts. This includes the arrest of Chinese military officers who were sent to U.S. universities posing as civilian researchers without disclosing their military affiliations. This past week, the Trump administration issued orders banning U.S. investment in Chinese firms that are believed to be linked with the Chinese military.

While much of the focus of the U.S. government has been on China’s efforts to pursue military-civil fusion, the U.S. has arguably an even better developed dual-use civil-military innovation system that has been overlooked by Washington, D.C. During the Cold War, the U.S. Department of Defense was often at the forefront of seeding new technology breakthroughs. When the Soviet Union surprised the U.S. in 1957 with the launch of its Sputnik manned space vehicle, the U.S. responded vigorously by establishing new innovative organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that helped to mobilize the basic research establishment for big and long-term technological challenges.

The U.S. national security innovation base faces a number of mounting barriers to remaining an innovation leader. Some of the biggest obstacles include an increasingly outmoded and broken acquisition system that moves at the pace of the Pentagon bureaucracy and a national security complex—traditional defense contractors and the Congressional defense constituency—that is insular and has few meaningful ties with the commercial innovation sector that could provide much needed new technology and competition.

The U.S. needs to undertake a similar exercise today as it did during the Cold War to revitalize its national security innovation base and promote cooperation and competition between the civilian and defense sectors by developing a U.S. version of MCF. Key priorities should include better leveraging the commercial sector for dual-use capabilities, significantly expanding investment in basic research and development, mobilizing the university system to support research on major strategic problems, and establishing a new DARPA or NASA-like organization focusing on dual-use and strategic commercial technologies such as quantum, Artificial Intelligence, and other next generation transformational technologies.

Technology is the primary driver of change in warfare. Thus, the ever more rapid development and deployment of new technologies with national security implications present challenges to U.S. defense and military leaders charged with anticipating the future nature of armed conflict. China’s emergence in the 21st century as America’s most formidable geopolitical rival—given its own increasingly capable innovative economy—makes these challenges more acute.

The report “Meeting the China Challenge: A New American Strategy for Technology Competition” offers useful insights for crafting a military strategy that effectively responds to potential threats posed by a steadily modernizing People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Drawing upon the report’s findings, let me offer three recommendations to U.S. defense planners.

First, anticipate that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will eventually match and in some areas exceed the U.S. in the development of basic militarily relevant technologies. But this alone is no cause for alarm. Even during its competition with a Soviet Union that was far less economically formidable than contemporary China, America’s armed forces did not overmatch every Red Army weapons system. Most U.S. senior military officers with whom I have recently spoken emphasize that the PLA’s possession of a certain set of technologies does not guarantee it will produce superior applications of those technologies. The design of superior military applications is a matter of human capital at every stage of the process, from tech development, to military thought, to peacetime military innovation, to military adaptability in time of combat.

Second, adopt a “whole of allies and partners” approach to managing technology competition with China. The quest for superior military applications will be facilitated by a collective enterprise. Importantly, such an approach is essential if efforts to protect and sustain leads in those several technologies deemed the crown jewels, such as semiconductor capabilities, are to succeed. We live in a very different world economically and commercially than that of the Cold War, when the U.S.-led Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCOM) attempted to coordinate the national controls member states applied to the export of strategic material and technology to the Communist world. Nevertheless, agencies and rules fit to purpose and grounded in current realities must be established.

Third, add the influential voice of the Department of Defense and U.S. armed forces to the side of those in intragovernmental debates advocating that America preserve its long-standing fundamental advantage in its ability to attract the world’s best talent to its universities, laboratories, and centers of commercial innovation. Military commanders know that there are certain contests where strength in numbers matters. High-tech competition is one such contest. The size of the U.S. population is less than one-quarter that of the PRC; the PRC’s is less than one-fifth that of the entire world. The U.S. must be able to draw on the world’s best students, scientists, and engineers to maintain its position as the global leader and safeguard its security.

Even at the height of the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet scientists collaborated on openly publishable fundamental science research. Arthur Bienenstock took part in these collaborations.

It is vital that the U.S. remain a leader in basic science. With the U.S. only performing about one quarter of the world’s research and development (R&D), international collaboration is an important part of our scientific enterprise. China is, by far, the primary nation with which U.S. researchers collaborate. We must maintain those collaborations, particularly in areas of common concern like climate change and pandemics.

Yet, China’s huge, state-dominated economy, its questionable political and military intentions, and its slow progress in IP protection make it a formidable and threatening competitor. In recent years, there have been reports of researchers at U.S. universities inappropriately transferring ideas and IP to China, and of U.S. scientists’ failing to disclose Chinese funding and participation in Chinese government-run talent programs.

A targeted approach to managing the risk such breaches pose is far better than closing our borders to collaboration with China and others. The following steps can help mitigate the risks of open and collaborative research:

  1. The U.S. visa-vetting system must have primary responsibility for screening out those deemed inappropriate for graduate studies to participate in research at U.S. universities. The government should exercise its responsibility in a manner that maximizes the access by U.S. universities and industries to talent without compromising national security.
  2. Highly sensitive research in dual-use areas should be classified and transferred from universities to national labs, which can vet researchers and protect IP better than universities.
  3. Openness requires honesty, transparency, and integrity. Universities should strengthen and rigorously implement conflict of interest, commitment policies, and vetting of foreign-funded projects while also providing relevant training in these areas to everyone from senior researchers to students.
  4. Finally, we must cooperate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region to ensure that they implement a similar risk-mitigation strategy.

Finally, the U.S. must strengthen its R&D ecosystem by increasing funding for basic R&D, and it must continue attracting the world’s best talent to its universities and laboratories while growing a more diverse domestic pool of STEM talent.

A strong commitment to openness, coupled with smart risk mitigation, is a sure road to maintaining American leadership in fundamental scientific research. Closing up the U.S. research system and stymying collaboration will harm the United States, causing us to fall behind and become a second-rate nation in science and technology.

The twenty-first century will be the century of biology, much as chemistry and physics dominated science and technology in the twentieth century. The biotech sector will become an important part of the U.S. economy. Bioeconomy already accounts for about 5 percent of the U.S. GDP today, or about U.S.$1 trillion per year; future biotech development promises to transform human lives and society around the world. As the world seeks tools to address the COVID-19 pandemic, innovation in biotechnology is the source of molecular diagnostics, antibody tests, therapeutics, and preventive vaccines.

Recognizing its transformative power, China is investing a huge amount of resources in developing its biotech industry. China’s leaders have written biotech into the country’s national strategic plans. They are betting that China’s statist model will succeed in propelling China into a technological super power. China’s universities are graduating more STEM students than American colleges even though the U.S. still attracts a far greater amount of Chinese talent than the other way around. As the People’s Republic of China government looks for new economic growth points, China’s investment in biotechnology is poised to grow more in the coming years and decades.

What should the U.S. do to remain competitive?

First, the U.S. must work to maintain its leadership in biotechnology, an industry that it has dominated since it emerged in the 1970s. A loss of U.S. leadership in biotech will impact American competitiveness and security for sure. But perhaps more consequential is the weakening of the existing norms and institutions that underlie an open, ethical, and internationally collaborative enterprise in basic and applied biosciences research and biotech commercialization. The U.S. government must improve policy coordination at the highest level, update its IP laws to incentivize biotech productive development, develop next-generation manufacturing capabilities, and dedicate greater resources to training a competent, diverse, and innovation-minded workforce.

Second, the United States must put in place vigorous but targeted measures to minimize the risks that accompany any international collaboration, including with Chinese institutions. The U.S. government must block illicit or forced tech transfers to China and counter harmful Chinese industrial practices that disadvantage American innovators and investors. We should also aggressively pursue greater reciprocal rules and harmonized standards for exchanging information and biomaterials.

Finally, American policymakers should keep in mind the enormous benefits of U.S.-China collaboration in biotechnology for solving the world’s pressing medical and public health problems. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, the world loses enormously from any political obstacles to international cooperation. Re-joining international organizations such as the WHO is the right thing to do, as is maintaining scientific collaboration with China on urgent or shared challenges, assuming appropriate risk mitigation processes and rules are in place at both federal and institutional levels. The stakes are simply too high for the U.S. and China to go their separate ways, especially in a highly connected world where pandemics do not recognize borders.

U.S. sanctions against Huawei and ZTE have thrust 5G broadband mobile technology into the center of the U.S.-China technology contest. Huawei’s early leadership in the first generation of 5G radio access networks raised the specter of China crushing the U.S. in a 5G race. But is the U.S. behind on the true fundamentals of 5G’s evolution?

5G’s initial rollout features faster broadband. More importantly and over time, it will enable innovative information technology applications that allow networks of trillions of devices to perform novel tasks, such as autonomous vehicle operations.

The drivers of these changes will be semiconductors, cloud computing, software, and complex system solutions. The United States leads the world in all these fields. We can lay to rest the conventional wisdom that China is winning the race, and that the U.S. is behind.

But America’s long-term strengths cannot play out without a smart strategy. Today, 5G is much like computer networking was in the early 1990s. As Japan was pressing American firms hard in mainframe computing back then, U.S. government-sponsored research yielded the technology standards and protocols that we call the Internet. The Internet architecture created transparent standards that allowed new specialized American firms, such as Cisco, Microsoft, and Intel, to transform computing and communications.

The Internet lesson has implications about competitiveness and security for the U.S.’s 5G policies. With regard to competitiveness, the United States should not attempt to win a race between Huawei and a new American national champion. It should enable a larger variety of American firms to participate in 5G innovation. This strategy will undercut the dominance of Huawei and other legacy providers like Ericsson. America should push back against a concerted Chinese strategy to dominate the 5G standards process. The U.S. should facilitate 5G standards to embrace protocols that will move away from a single-vendor model to make 5G more like an open and modular network, driven by software and Cloud computing, much like the organized networks powering the Internet. The other keys are to use federal research and development and procurement dollars to encourage new entrants into the 5G market while working with allies to curtail the effects of Chinese government subsidies for Huawei’s low-cost offerings.

The competitiveness strategy will help manage immediate security risks. The new 5G standards will move control over the network from the traditional network equipment to smart devices at the edge of the network and cloud computing. This can reduce the risks of sabotage, espionage, and dependence. Meanwhile, as some countries, such as the U.S., decide to ban Huawei network equipment, others should work out security protocols to reduce potential risks created by its use.

The long-term security risk from 5G is far more sweeping than just Chinese technology. As 5G evolves, trillions of connected devices and software applications, many from international suppliers, will create massive data flows across borders. Every institution should practice targeted risk management, requiring continuous network monitoring, pre-established rapid response and repair protocols, redundancy, and backup. China will be a risk, but not the overriding risk. To get ahead of these threats, the United States should join like-minded countries in building complementary risk management practices.