Technology Tensions Redefining U.S.-China Relations, Says Security Expert Adam Segal

The headlines about the United States and China have been dominated by the spread of COVID-19 and trade deal negotiations. Experts in U.S.-China relations have warned against preemptive disengagement in a time of increased need for international cooperation and coordination, even as tensions between the two countries continue to escalate in the media.

From Adam Segal's perspective, as an expert in security issues, technology development, and Chinese domestic and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, one of the emerging considerations that will prominently affect the tone and timbre of the relationship between the United States and China in the coming years is how the two nations compete with one another in technological and scientific research and innovation. He delved further into this topic in a lecture as part of the China Program's winter/spring colloquia series.

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As Segal and others describe, both the United States and China benefitted immensely from the globalization of scientific research and collaboration, but in recent years, both have also become wary of sharing talent and resources too broadly or across too many sectors. As a result, each country has taken various measures in an attempt to gain and regain perceived advantages over the other.

As China has tried to move up the so-called economic value chain from being an overwhelmingly manufacturing and heavy industry-based economy to being a leader in tech and digital economies, it has simultaneously tried to wean itself from a dependence on foreign technological infrastructure. In its efforts to create indigenous innovation and technological growth, it has openly tried to court talent and intelligence from overseas. To the United State's rising concern, however, the Chinese government has been less open about the means used to accomplish this aim.

On its part, the United States has upped its efforts to expand cybersecurity research and initiatives. The Trump administration has very vocally critiqued companies such as Huawei and urged allies to step back from business with the telecom and networking giant. Similarly, allegations of espionage against native Chinese and Chinese-American scientists and academics have escalated in recent months.

Segal argues that these simmering tensions signify the growing awareness each country has of the other's increasing capabilities in the cybersphere, as well as a heightened understanding and awareness of the shortcomings of their own systems.

"I think technology, which had usually been a fifth, sixth, seventh on the agenda in the U.S.-China relationship, is going to continue to be one of the defining issues that structure the relationship, and increasingly is one not just about concerns about national security, but about values and how we think about how technology is applied, and governance issues."

To watch Segal's full lecture, click the video below or find it on our YouTube channel. A transcript of his remarks is available PDF iconhere