Skip to Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues Full Site Menu Skip to main content
December 18, 2019

Responding To: Final Insights from the U.S.-China Research Group on E-Commerce and Mobile Technology

Shifting Strategies in a Fluid Geopolitical Context

Yeling Tan

The format and structure of the dialogue was very conducive to scholarly exchange and learning. The sustained engagement over three meetings and the course of 2018-2019 helped participants develop a common conversation and set of ideas over time. The mixture of scholars based in both the United States and China was particularly useful, and I expect the dialogue will have fostered ties between U.S. and Chinese academic circles that will last beyond this individual project. I very much valued being able to hear the perspective of leading Chinese scholars on key technology issues at this critical time where the bilateral relationship is facing major challenges. The other useful aspect was having a pair of energetic and brilliant co-conveners (Abe Newman and Henry Farrell) who very deftly shaped clear themes and questions for the participants to focus their minds on.

I have learned a tremendous amount from the other participants about important technical and geopolitical aspects of technology innovation and competition in fields that are outside of my direct research, such as autonomous driving, cyber-security and global supply chains. Interdependence, multinational firms, networks and non-state actors are far from new themes in international relations research, but the ways in which technology has reconfigured patterns of communications and production, alongside major shifts in geopolitical power, mean that there is a lot of scope for new and creative scholarship in this area.

Predictions of decoupling are too simplistic. The broader geopolitical context is fluid and so much depends on what kind of agreement or compromise the U.S. and Chinese leaderships can come to. Broadly speaking, there are four different scenarios that the world could be moving towards, in different issue areas. One question is whether we will continue to see the deployment of tariffs, export controls and investment restrictions, or whether alternative mechanisms aimed at risk mitigation and verification might be adopted to bring more stability into the technology relationship.

In the shorter term, I think that Chinese firms will engage in a two-pronged strategy to respond to the turn in U.S. policy towards one of strategic competition and the turn in Chinese policy towards hyper-charged indigenization in innovation and supply chains and stockpiling of critical components. To the former, we might see more Chinese firms start to de-nationalize parts of their production, by shifting to other countries and entering hybrid partnerships with non-Chinese firms in other parts of the world, so as to skirt U.S. barriers. This might involve developing “dual nationalities” – one global entity that abides by rules set by developed economies, and another Chinese entity that abides by domestic rules on data-sharing and national security. ByteDance’s moves to separate TikTok from the technology operations of its Chinese app, is one such example. At the same time, we can expect the same firms to also look for ways to take advantage of the injection of state funds within China to support their development in high-tech sectors. Some of these strategies will be more successful than others, and these strategies will also prove more effective in some high-tech activities than others. In other words, the landscape will be varied.

Other Responses