Last month in Indonesia, the presidents of the United States and China met to discuss the question of Taiwan, the war in Ukraine, and the issue of human rights in the People’s Republic. The biggest recent development between their two countries, however, might have been something much lower profile: In October, the U.S. Commerce Department introduced a comprehensive ban on technology exports to China, including cutting-edge semiconductor chips—the foundational components for advanced computers and other electronic devices—as well as software for designing them and equipment for manufacturing them. The new ban covers not only American companies but any company in the world that uses American semiconductor technology. And it forbids all U.S. citizens, residents, and green-card holders from working for Chinese chip makers. The threat to China’s high-tech industries—whether in military applications, artificial intelligence, or the surveillance technology Beijing relies on to monitor its citizens—appears so grave that Gregory Allen, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, called the new U.S. approach to China’s tech sector “strangling with an intent to kill.” How deadly is this?
Chris Miller is an assistant professor of international history at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and the author of the new book Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology. In the defining great-power competition of the early 21st century, Miller says, U.S. President Joe Biden has made an unusually aggressive move to halt technological progress in China’s military by exploiting the West’s critical advantages in the chip sector. The strategy could end up doing real damage to China’s economy over the long term; but in the meantime, it could also spur Chinese President Xi Jinping to create an independent Chinese production chain—and all the uncertainties for the U.S. that would come with it.
Michael Bluhm: What’s behind these new export controls?
: Over the past two decades, the military balance between the U.S. and China has shifted dramatically in Beijing’s favor. Over the next decade, China is likely to continue developing its military capabilities and shifting the balance even further—for instance, by building more ships and airplanes than the U.S. will. And China is likely to continue producing more military systems than the U.S. will—and to deploy more of these systems in contested regions across Asia, above all in the Taiwan Strait
All of this has been happening with the U.S. becoming increasingly concerned about China’s intentions—in Taiwan and elsewhere in the region. Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea, in particular, in recent years suggest that, where it can, it’ll use its military power to bolster its political influence and territorial control.
Now, given that the Chinese government has a standing policy to establish territorial control over Taiwan, there’s been a growing concern in the U.S. that the shift in the military balance between it and China could destabilize the region—by opening the door for Beijing to try to take Taiwan or otherwise transform Asia’s security landscape.
The question for the U.S. is what to do about this. One option would be to give up on trying to maintain the status quo in Asia—but there’s a bipartisan consensus in the U.S. that this isn’t a good idea. So the Americans have to find some way to halt the deterioration of their military position relative to China’s.
Bluhm: How does the U.S. administration expect the export ban will address the problem?