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Trade and technology

Techno-nationalism and the US-China tech innovation race


Published 03 August 2020

The US-China tech innovation race is challenging the laissez-faire economic model. State interventionism, techno-nationalism and US tech funding initiatives are increasing. This paper outlines the implications for markets, academia, research organizations, and governments of the US-China competition to achieve innovation advantage.

A US-China tech innovation race has sparked a paradigm shift in global trade and commerce that is challenging the long-standing primacy of the world’s open trading system.

Current thinking is tilting towards increased state activism and interventionism, not only in the technology landscape but in many of the industries of the future.

Listen to a discussion with Alex Capri related to this report.

Techno-nationalism

Driving this change is techno-nationalism: a mercantilist-like behavior that links tech innovation and enterprise directly to the national security, economic prosperity and social stability of a nation.

In response to decades of Beijing’s innovation-mercantilism, the US has embarked on its own innovation offensive. Washington’s future tech funding initiatives could surpass the scale of the “moonshot” projects last seen during the space race with the former Soviet Union.

Andrew Staples and Alex Capri from the Hinrich Foundation discuss why US tech funding initiatives could surpass the scale of the “moonshot” projects.

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The innovation race involves a broad range of emerging and foundational technologies that will define the industries of the future, including:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning
  • Quantum computing and information systems
  • Robotics
  • Energy storage
  • Semiconductors
  • Next generation communication (including 5G and 6G)
  • Hypersonics.

Underlying themes: US techno-nationalism and innovation

As Washington and its allies ramp up techno-nationalist initiatives, core themes will drive the paradigm shift.

  • Public-private partnerships (PPP) – Technology alliances and government-funded initiatives will play an increasingly important role in advancing long-term innovation in the US, the EU and other traditionally open markets.
  • Avoiding the China innovation model – The US and EU innovation agendas will not seek to emulate China’s centralized, authoritarian system of techno-nationalism, but, rather, to turbo-charge markets and leverage entrepreneurial ecosystems, as well as academic and defense establishments.
  • Balancing tensions between MNEs, markets and techno-nationalism - Multinational enterprises (MNEs) will remain the primary drivers of R&D and innovation in free markets and play a vital role in PPP initiatives. They will be pulled into the US-China technology war in a variety of ways which will require a careful balancing of market forces, the interests of MNEs and the needs of state actors.
  • Multilateral technology alliances - US techno-nationalist policy will increasingly align with the security, economic and ideological objectives of the EU and other historic allies. This will produce more cooperation between the US and its partners.

Structure of the report

The report comprises three sections:

Download the report.

Section I - The US-China innovation race: The role of the state

This section examines trends for public-spending in R&D and innovation and reviews a series of techno-nationalist funding initiatives from the US government. 

It analyzes state activism in free markets and why governments are uniquely qualified to promote innovation and “blue-sky” technologies in ways that the private sector cannot.

Finally, Section I spotlights a historic example of techno-nationalism: SEMATECH and the US semiconductor public-private partnership, which led to a technological leapfrog by the US semiconductor industry, past Japan, in the 1990s.

Section II - MNEs, markets and governments: Navigating new complexities

Section II focuses on non-state actors and their increasingly complex role in public-private partnerships. It explores the tensions between open market forces, multinational companies, and techno-nationalist state activism.

To highlight these tensions, the report analyzes Facebook’s “Libra initiative and Beijing’s efforts to reduce dependency on the US dollar via the digital Yuan, and the challenges those create for MNEs. A US semiconductor sector case study illustrates how state activism can have detrimental effects on markets and backfire on the very parties it is looking to protect. 

Section II concludes with an analysis of how open-sourced innovation could be a game-changer in the US-China technology war, particularly regarding future 5G wireless competition.

Section III - Academia and techno-nationalism: Open versus closed systems

Universities, research organizations and academia have become hot zones in the US-China innovation race. Human capital development is key to conducting leading-edge R&D and driving innovation.

Section III looks at how US export controls are affecting R&D activities at universities. It highlights the rules-based frameworks that universities must build to handle increasing government funding into academia.

The section showcases China’s Thousand Talents program and highlights its challenges for public-private partnerships involving academia. It also discusses why the US, in particular, should keep its human capital and innovation pipeline open as it pertains to foreign students, fundamental research programs and, ultimately, why an open system (despite China’s exploitation of it) is better than a closed one.

Finally, section III looks at how some inevitable strategic decoupling between Chinese and US entities will result in the ring-fencing of more “sensitive” R&D activities within the US defense establishment.

Listen to a summary of the report in this podcast featuring Alex Capri and Andrew Staples, Director of Research and Outreach.

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This report is part of a series of Hinrich Foundation papers, authored by Alex Capri, that review the implications of rising US-China techno-nationalism for global trade and international businesses. The two papers focused on Semiconductors at the heart of the US-China tech war and Strategic US-China decoupling in the tech sector.


Author

Alex Capri

Alex Capri is a Research Fellow at the Hinrich Foundation with over 20 years of experience in value chains, logistics and global trade management, both as an academic and a professional consultant.

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