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What Really Matters in the Sino-American Competition?

Although the United States has long commanded the technological cutting edge, China is mounting a credible challenge in key areas. But, ultimately, the balance of power will be decided not by technological development but by diplomacy and strategic choices, both at home and abroad.

CAMBRIDGE – The United States and China are competing for dominance in technology. America has long been at the forefront in developing the technologies (bio, nano, information) that are central to economic growth in the twenty-first century. Moreover, US research universities dominate higher education globally. In Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s annual Academic Ranking of World Universities, 16 of the top 20 institutions are in the US; none is in China.

But China is investing heavily in research and development, and it is already competing with the US in key fields, not least artificial intelligence (AI), where it aims to be the global leader by 2030. Some experts believe that China is well placed to achieve that goal, owing to its enormous data resources, a lack of privacy restraints on how that data is used, and the fact that advances in machine learning will require trained engineers more than cutting-edge scientists. Given the importance of machine learning as a general-purpose technology that affects many other domains, China’s gains in AI are of particular significance.

Moreover, Chinese technological progress is no longer based solely on imitation. Former US President Donald Trump’s administration punished China for its cybertheft of intellectual property, coerced IP transfers, and unfair trade practices. Insisting on reciprocity, the US argued that if China could ban Google and Facebook from its market for security reasons, the US can take similar steps against Chinese giants like Huawei and ZTE. But China is still innovating.

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