At a time when reports of a “looming tech war” dominate news of US-China relations, Silicon Valley is ground zero. The Committee of 100, an organization that has worked for more than a quarter century to further US-China ties, invited experts and business leaders to America’s tech capital to tackle the tough questions facing the bilateral relationship, and the attendees had a clear message for Washington.
The Trump administration, along with a growing number of lawmakers in Washington, have a misguided view of China and its economic relations with the United States, speakers at the event agreed. Some, including Chas Freeman, a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute, suggested that Washington’s efforts are more of a desperate attempt to bring China’s rise to a halt. That is especially true with regard to recent sanctions placed on Chinese technology firms.
“This is what the multi-year ban on transactions with ZTE is about,” according to Freeman, whose experience with China stretches back as far as when he was the chief interpreter on former President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China.
There was, however, a palpable confidence among the attendees, both American and Chinese, that China’s rise was unstoppable. Any effort by the US to disrupt trading relationships across the globe would hurt America more.
“China is by far the largest market for industrial components,” Freeman noted. “We may be in the process of writing off that market, without much, if any, discussion of the long-term implications of doing so for our own economic prosperity.”
Despite the almost daily deluge of headlines in the United States sounding the alarm that China will “take the lead” in the field of artificial intelligence, Li Fei-Fei, a leader in the field, cautioned against erecting walls in fields of scientific research.
Li, who is currently leading the AI and machine learning research and development efforts at Google Cloud, implored that policy-makers and industry leaders frame the question of innovation in a different light.
“I want to ask anyone in the audience: Do you remember which company in the early 20th century owned modern physics? Which country owned modern physics?” Li asked. “100 years later, modern physics made our life better as a whole species… It’s not a company or a country.”
Echoing that emphasis on global cooperation, China scholar David Lampton, also speaking at the conference, touched on China’s push to connect economies through infrastructure investment.
Lampton, who is currently Director of Chinese studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, pushed back on criticism of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to boost connectivity from Asia to Europe, touching Russia and the Middle East along the way.
The initiative is not just some master plan in Beijing he said, drawing from his research for an upcoming book on the initiative, rather it is also driven by entrepreneurship seen in provinces throughout China. “BRI is not a plan. It is a vision,” according to Lampton, who recieved a lifetime achievement award for his work on China at the event.
Huiyao Wang, founder of Beijing-based think tank Center for China & Globalization, stressed that BRI is not a China project, rather, you can think of China as the “angel investor,” borrowing Silicon Valley venture capital vernacular.
Criticisms of the initiative stem from the inherent geopolitical implications of economic change, not a nefarious self-interest in Beijing, Lampton said. North-South connectivity in Asia, for instance, will push activity towards China. If even a fraction of a proposed Kunming-Singapore high-speed railway is completed, he said, “It will transform Southeast Asia.” If fully completed, it would be longer than the first transcontinental railway in the United States.
Growing hostility towards China seen among the American public, and reflected in policies and rhetoric coming out of Washington, is driven in part by misperceptions of the two countries’ economic relations, said economist Yukon Huang, former country director for China at the World Bank.
“Tensions and insecurities are overblown,” Huang said. “That’s part of the reason we see US-China trade and investment tensions as a major risk in the world.”
While discussions at the conference often veered toward criticism of the Trump administration, Susan Shirk, chair of University of California San Diego’s 21st Century China Center, said that apprehension surrounding China’s rise is a much more broad-based phenomenon. “What we see is a really strong backlash against China,” Shirk said. In a recent meeting with regulators from Japan, Canada, Germany, France, South Korea, she saw a common thread.
“What really struck me, and horrified me, is that in all these countries there are moves afoot to tighten up restrictions on Chinese investment in high-tech sectors… This is not just about Donald Trump and his ignorant and nationalist views about economic relations… it’s not just about Congress. It’s not just about America. It’s about a reaction, a backlash, against China’s practices in every advanced industrial country.”
When asked whether the United States and allies around the globe would ever form a united front in challenging China’s economic policies, Chas Freeman told Asia Times simply, “it’s too late.”
“That is to say that sufficient damage is going to be done to our relationships with Europeans and others that we will not be able to form a common front,” he said.
“America is here to stay as a great power,” Freeman said in his opening keynote speech, adding, “China is back as one.” If leaders in Washington want to ensure he is right about the former, those gathered in Silicon Valley said, they have accept the latter. They also have to focus on investing in their own country’s future, not sabotaging China’s.