Country Report: China (December 2021)


In late 2021, Chinese analysts devoted significant attention to the Biden administration’s global technology policy, asserting that technological competition has become a key facet of the broader strategic competition between China and the United States. They assessed South Korea’s successful global public health diplomacy in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the role of this diplomacy in enhancing South Korea’s soft power. They also examined the prospects for a China–South Korea–Japan FTA in the wake of the recently concluded RCEP agreement, arguing that an FTA would be in the strong interests of China and that, despite challenges, conditions were ripe for the rapid conclusion of ongoing negotiations.

China–US Technology Competition

In Meiguo Yanjiu, no. 5, 2021, Li Hengyang argues that, given the priority the United States places on remaining the world’s leading technology power and China’s rapid advances in science and technology, technological cooperation and competition between China and the United States will have a complex impact on the two countries’ bilateral relations and will greatly influence global technological progress. From Li’s perspective, US technology policy is grounded in the US view of science and technology as an important component of US hegemony; consequently, technology is an important part of the broader Sino–US strategic competition. China must therefore adopt a long-term technology strategy to encourage innovation and serve China’s national interests.

Li contends that the Biden administration has continued the Trump-era assessment of relations with China as characterized by great power competition. The Biden administration’s technology strategy is consistent with “China threat theory.” While the Trump administration focused on a “containment” strategy that tried to suppress China and limit its technological progress, the Biden administration has adopted a “self-strengthening” approach that seeks to improve US capabilities through greater investment to promote innovation. Unlike the Trump administration, which sought to comprehensively “decouple” from China, Li asserts, the Biden administration has adopted a “small courtyard, high wall” approach, through which the US government is very protective of technologies that it views as critical to US national security, but more open with other technologies. The Biden administration has explicitly connected its science and technology policy to its values-based diplomacy, arguing that this is one aspect of a broader struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.

Li argues that the Biden administration has adopted a comprehensive four-pronged approach to its technological competition with China. First, the Biden administration is focused on building a stronger foundation for the domestic development of science and technology. This includes elevating the role of scientific experts in decision-making processes within the White House, greater investment in research and development, and active recruitment of foreign high-tech experts through targeted immigration reforms. Second, Li asserts, the Biden administration suppresses China’s technological development by strengthening export controls (which prevents Chinese companies like Huawei from using certain US parts and components) and restricting both Chinese investment in US companies and US investment in Chinese companies. Third, the Biden administration seeks to strengthen supply chain resiliency, which it sees as beneficial for both economic and security reasons. To this end, the United States has tried to increase domestic capabilities, cooperate with Western allies and partners, and diversify suppliers. Increasing US reliance on Asian semiconductor suppliers is a particular area of concern. Finally, Li writes, the Biden administration has prioritized close cooperation with democratic allies as a way to “contain” China’s technological progress and shore up US access to the global supply chain. This science and technology alliance helps the United States and its allies to create norms and standards for emerging technologies and advance their cyber security goals, with a particular focus on areas such as artificial intelligence, energy, semiconductors, biotechnology, quantum computing, wireless network technologies, and surveillance technologies.

Li contends that this US science and technology policy destabilizes Sino–US relations and may stymie global progress by creating multiple global technology standards. The Biden administration’s pressure on specific Chinese companies invites countermeasures from the Chinese government. Moreover, Li cautions that in the long run US efforts to restrict Chinese companies’ access to US technology will spur the development of indigenous Chinese technological capabilities to take its place. US companies will suffer financially from decreased trade and cooperation. Cooperation on green energy and environmental technologies is a rare bright spot, where bilateral cooperation seems likely to continue. Nevertheless, the overall impact on global technological progress will be negative, as Sino–US competition prevents global scientific collaboration and impedes scientific progress.

Li argues that US efforts to implement its science and technology policy will face significant hurdles. Domestically, progressive groups have pushed back against an ideological, Cold War-inflected approach toward China and called for a more cooperative policy. High production costs and extensive environmental regulations hinder efforts to bring back manufacturing to the United States. The United States also lacks sufficient STEM graduates, and must recruit foreign talent and expertise. At the same time, cooperation between the United States, Europe, and other allies is bumpy. The level of trust between the United States and the European Union has decreased and Europe increasingly believes that its strategic interests are best met through a more autonomous position. The United States and the European Union hold substantially different positions on issues such as privacy, data security, and taxation of US technology companies. Given the benefits to the EU of friendly relations with China, the EU is increasingly willing to resist US demands that it choose sides in favor of a more balanced policy between China and the United States. This will constrain US efforts to create an alliance of democratic states. Li concludes by arguing that a US technology policy based on competition with China is doomed to fail, and the interests of the two countries are far better served by a more cooperative approach.

In Guoji Luntan, No. 6, 2021, Ling Shengli and Luo Jingyu focus on the Biden administration’s “technology alliance” as a key aspect of its science and technology policy that aims to maintain US hegemony. Ling and Luo view US technology cooperation with its European and Indo-Pacific allies as part of a larger effort to rebuild alliances that were damaged under the Trump administration. They argue that the technology alliance has three main objectives. First, like Li, they believe that the United States views its continued technological dominance as a key aspect of its attempt to maintain hegemony. Second, they agree with Li that the United States is pursuing a “high-tech technology blockade” of China in an effort to contain China’s rise. Finally, they contend that the United States sees a technology alliance not only as essential for gaining the upper hand in a technological competition with China, but also as a way to repair alliance relations more broadly. This technology alliance, they argue, has received widespread support in the United States.

Ling and Luo elaborate on the key emerging technologies on which the technology alliance is focused. Chief among these is 5G; US companies have been at the forefront of developing 5G technologies, but there are no major US manufacturers of the core network equipment (the United States has been particularly suspicious of Huawei, one of the major Chinese companies). A second major area is semiconductors; here, too, US efforts to build a technology alliance attempt to compensate for a decline in domestic production and concerns about Chinese companies like Huawei. Other areas of focus include artificial intelligence and quantum technology, which both have important military applications. In addition, the United States has prioritized space technology, clean energy, and biotechnology.

Ling and Luo contend that the US-organized “technology alliance” is fundamentally designed to achieve “technological containment” of China. To this end, the Biden administration has sought to strengthen domestic companies and harm Chinese competitors, while pursuing partnerships with private industry. The Biden administration has also emphasized close cooperation with Europe. Unlike Li, Ling and Luo believe that the European Union is very receptive to these proposals. Furthermore, the Biden administration has focused on strengthening technological cooperation with its Asia-Pacific allies, particularly Japan and South Korea, although the efforts also extend to countries such as India, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Ling and Luo assert that the current technology alliance has some similarities to previous US efforts, but also has distinct characteristics. While during previous periods, the United States operated from a position of dominance, the United States no longer holds such clearcut technological superiority and is beset with social and economic instabilities. The current technology alliance is also explicitly strategic; it focuses on maintaining US hegemony by maintaining the right to write the rules governing the high-tech field. Like Li, Ling and Luo note the explicitly ideological aspect of the alliance, which draws together democratic states to take a stand against authoritarian states such as China and Russia. Furthermore, the technology alliance is a comprehensive whole-of-government effort that brings together the different branches of the US government, multilateral agreements, public-private partnerships, and a multi-sector approach. Finally, the approach is multilayered: the first layer is domestic US efforts to review the security of the supply chain and strengthen US capabilities; the second layer consists of cooperation with allies regarding technology development and rulemaking; and the third layer consists of trade cooperation with global partners. Taken together, these efforts have advanced the US goal of imposing a technological blockade on China.

Ling and Luo identify some of the same potential challenges to US policy as does Li. They agree that European preferences are not perfectly aligned with those of the United States as Europe seeks greater strategic autonomy. They also point out that the US policy is likely to raise costs for domestic companies, which lose out both because of US restrictions on trade with China and because their European competitors do not have to abide by such strict trade rules. Furthermore, they argue that this policy cuts against the common gains to be made through greater cooperation. However, in addition, they question the United States’ ability to ensure the continuity of this policy, given the disruption to alliance relations imposed by the Trump administration and the questions this raised among allies about the wisdom of continued reliance on the United States. They are also skeptical of US efforts to build an alliance of democracies, pointing to domestic discontent with governance within many of these countries (including the United States) and the fuzziness of the distinction between democracy and autocracy. Ling and Luo conclude that China must respond both by supporting the development of emerging technologies within China so they can better compete with the United States and also by seeking opportunities to exploit the gaps between the interests of the United States and its allies and between the US government and the interests of private businesses.

In Guoji Zhengzhi Yanjiu, No. 5, 2021, Yin Nannan and Liu Guozhu continue this theme, agreeing that the Biden administration’s science and technology policy is a key aspect of its great power competition with China, but focusing in particular on a number of challenges the United States will face in implementing this policy. Yin and Lin highlight the commitment to “selective decoupling” and a “small courtyard, high walls” approach as the foundation of the technological alliance, which allows the United States and its allies to prioritize which technologies to restrict and which to jointly develop with China. The core efforts of the alliance revolve around evaluating technology transfers, coordinating investment screening, and formulating technical standards. Shared democratic values are insufficient to ensure the continuity of the alliance, they assert; the alliance must also meet the security needs and economic interests of the parties involved. For the US policy to succeed, the benefits of participating in the alliance must offset the opportunity costs to its members of diminished ties to the Chinese market.

Like the other authors, Yin and Liu identify several challenges facing the US science and technology policy, but they go much farther in exploring the underlying logical tensions. Yin and Liu share Li’s view that there are reasons to question Europe’s commitment to the technological alliance. The United States has sought to portray the technological alliance as a natural outgrowth of the shared US and European commitment to democratic values and individual rights and to convince Europe that this alliance with the United States is a viable alternative to participation in China’s Digital Silk Road. The US pursuit of a technology alliance with the EU therefore reflects realist balance of power calculations: by pursuing a technology alliance with the European Union, the United States hopes to persuade the EU to ally with the United States against China. However, by agreeing to participate in such an alliance, the EU would have to turn its back on its policy of strategic autonomy and might even be forced to pick sides between China and the United States. Furthermore, US cooperation with Europe has focused on the core members of the EU but disregarded the EU as an institution, which is structurally problematic because of the EU’s strong role in the governance of digital issues. The EU, Yan and Liu argue, is unlikely to simply agree to the US approach because the EU is both committed to greater global cooperation characterized by free, open, and fair trade and prioritizes its strategic autonomy. In addition, European voices have charged that the United States has called upon European companies not to cooperate with China, but then allowed exceptions for US companies, which limits European access to the Chinese market while privileging the access of US companies.

A second set of challenges revolve around the effectiveness, representativeness, and legitimacy of the technology alliance. To achieve its goals, Yan and Liu argue, the alliance must focus on protecting technical knowledge, coordinating a shared export control framework, and preventing the use of Chinese 5G equipment in global information and communication infrastructure or industrial supply chains. The legitimacy of this alliance is therefore grounded in great power strategic competition and the national security interests of these major powers. However, this creates the possibility that the alliance will pursue the strategic interests of only a core set of “elite” technologically advanced countries; the interests of much of Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America will be underrepresented or excluded. The United States will then fall prey to the charge that it is using developing countries as a tool to contain China rather than advancing the interests of the developing world. To avoid such a scenario, which Yan and Liu term a “moral dilemma and embarrassment,” the United States could choose to expand the number of state and non-state actors included within its alliance and expand its agenda. However, the larger the number of actors involved and the broader the agenda, the more likely actors are to seek mutually incompatible objectives and the less likely the alliance is to be effective.

A third major challenge, also raised by Ling and Luo, is the credibility, effectiveness, and long-term continuity of the Biden administration’s policy approach. Trump’s “America First” approach caused US allies to question the stability of the US commitment to its long-standing alliances. Although the Biden administration has recommitted the United States to global leadership, Trumpism and populism remain strong in the United States and the Democratic Party’s ability to maintain power after future elections remains uncertain. Consequently, potential allies do not know if they can trust that the United States will remain committed to the technology alliance. Furthermore, although the Biden administration has emphasized the importance of US investment in the technology alliance, its investment focus has clearly been on the United States, and foreign investments in the context of a weak economy, populism, and technological nationalism may invite a backlash. At the same time, although Republicans and Democrats share a critical view of China, they cannot agree on how to govern technology companies domestically, calling into question the US ability to lead the global governance of digital technologies. Despite these challenges, however, Yan and Liu conclude that the Biden administration’s technology alliance will pose a major challenge to Chinese technological development and that China must prepare a strategic response.

South Korea’s COVID-19 Response and Global Public Health

In Dangdai Hanguo, No. 3, 2021, Li Mingfeng argues that the Moon administration’s successful domestic management of the pandemic and global public health approach have drawn widespread attention and enhanced South Korea’s international reputation. As South Korea became wealthier and began to engage in international development work, public health diplomacy became an important component of its broader public diplomacy approach. The main governmental bodies engaged in public health governance include the Ministry of Economy and Finance’s Economic Development Cooperation Fund (established in 1987), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Korea International Cooperation Agency (established in 1991), and the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Korea Foundation for International Healthcare (established in 2004). In 2006, South Korea established a Committee for International Development Cooperation chaired by the prime minister, which includes these agencies as well as members from the private sector. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea’s global health efforts were largely channeled through the WHO, with a particular focus on vaccinations. It has also been an active participant in the Global Health Security Agenda, which works to mitigate the security threats posed by infectious disease, as well as in various efforts that operate under the frameworks of the G20, ASEAN+3, and the East Asia Summit. Since 2006, the Korea Foundation for International Healthcare has provided medical and health assistance to developing countries in Asia and Africa. The Korea International Cooperation Agency and the Economic Development Cooperation Fund offer assistance for hospital construction, the purchase of medical equipment, maternal and child health, and family planning.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea has actively participated in global efforts to combat the virus. Together with other countries, South Korea has established a joint international health and security cooperation mechanism to respond to the pandemic and has worked particularly closely with China and Japan. South Korea has also collaborated with other bilateral and multilateral institutions, such as the G20, ASEAN, the G7, and the European Union. In addition, South Korea has shared its experience in fighting the pandemic, along with medical supplies and technical resources, with the international community. For example, South Korea has been a global model in the production and deployment of rapid tests, including drive-through testing, to allow infected individuals to quickly determine their status while minimizing risk to other test-takers and medical personnel. South Korea has been a major exporter of tests to dozens of countries, and also exports masks and hand sanitizer. It has also been developing pharmaceutical treatments and has created an app to allow public health personnel to monitor those who are ill in home quarantine. Furthermore, South Korea has modeled a science-based immigration control policy that balances efforts to limit the spread of infection with the desire to maintain open borders by implementing testing, quarantine, and isolation for those who test positive, without hard closures of the borders. Li argues that, taken together, these measures demonstrate a compelling Korean model for fighting the pandemic, which has gained global attention and strengthened South Korea’s soft power.

Li asserts that South Korea’s pandemic response has five main characteristics. First, South Korea has actively participated in global public health governance through traditional diplomatic channels. Under the framework of South Korea’s “New Northern Policy” and “New Southern Policy,” it has worked with Europe and Southeast Asia. In its pandemic response, South Korea has demonstrated intellectual power (by developing new COVID-19 tests and treatments), cultural power (through its model of pandemic mitigation), and moral power (through its assistance to developing countries in Asia and Africa), three key elements of soft power. Second, South Korea has expanded its international influence by advancing digital public diplomacy. South Korea has actively used videos and teleconferences to conduct international exchanges when travel was impractical due to pandemic conditions and has been transparent in its communications with the public through television, the Internet, and social media. Third, Korea has disseminated information about its pandemic approach globally, largely through think tanks, which has further popularized its policies. Fourth, South Korea has publicized its overseas development assistance (ODA) programs to its citizens, which has increased their support for these efforts. South Korea’s efforts to diversify participation in ODA programs has attracted private industry, civil society organizations, and individuals. Finally, South Korea’s approach has prioritized bilateral and multilateral dialogue and cooperation, rather than unidirectional ODA from a more developed country to a less developed country, as all countries simultaneously face the new threat posed by COVID-19. Li concludes that in a world where pandemic prevention and control are of the utmost importance, South Korea’s policy response is worth careful study.

RCEP and the Future of a China–South Korea–Japan FTA

In Dangdai Hanguo, No. 3, 2021, Jin Xiangdan assesses the prospects for a China–South Korea–Japan free trade agreement (FTA) in the near term. Although negotiations on a potential FTA have been ongoing since 2013, Jin argues that the successful November 2020 signing of RCEP and the shared threat imposed by global protectionism have convinced the three countries that an agreement is both more necessary and more feasible. RCEP has promoted closer economic cooperation between South Korea and Japan, which provides a strong basis for a trilateral FTA. RCEP has also increased the economic and strategic value of a trilateral FTA because such an agreement would allow the three countries to take fuller advantage of the opportunity created by RCEP to strengthen the regional value chain in East Asia. Furthermore, the signing of RCEP demonstrates the willingness of the three countries to adopt a more “pragmatic” foreign policy, especially when faced with the common threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential for shared economic gains from cooperation. Jin is optimistic that increased trade integration will further encourage this pragmatic approach because the cost of “weaponizing” trade disputes will increase. RCEP marked the first trade agreements between China and Japan and between Japan and South Korea; now that these countries have agreed to trade liberalization measures and shared rules and standards under the auspices of RCEP, they will have the confidence and the common ground to advance their trilateral FTA negotiations.

Despite this optimism, however, Jin cautions that negotiations on an FTA face some significant challenges. After agreeing to RCEP, Japan and South Korea developed some hesitation toward increased economic interdependence with China, which has hindered China’s efforts to accelerate FTA negotiations. Japan has become increasingly concerned about supply chain diversification and resiliency, which has increased its interest in seeking additional trade partners and reduced its enthusiasm for greater interdependence with China. South Korea views RCEP as consolidating South Korea’s East Asian supply chain and helping South Korea to achieve Moon’s “New Southern Policy” by increasing its access to markets such as ASEAN, India, and Australia. South Korea also seeks to join the CPTPP and is increasingly focused on closer trade ties with the United States, both of which reduce its interest in deepening its economic dependence on China and draw its attention elsewhere. As a result, neither Japan nor South Korea is as enthusiastic about accelerating negotiations on a trilateral FTA as Jin expected them to be in the aftermath of the RCEP agreement.

A second set of complications arises from disagreements between China, Japan, and South Korea regarding “RCEP +.” A potential FTA would need to go farther than RCEP in sensitive areas like agriculture, automobiles, and machinery, and would need to address challenging standards and rules issues involving the digital economy, competition, and state-owned enterprises. The three countries’ interests may not be sufficiently aligned to move these negotiations forward quickly. As major manufacturing companies, the three countries compete for market share and hold different preferences regarding trade rules. Japan wants to maintain its manufacturing advantages and prevent China from gaining dominance; it views the establishment of high-standard trade rules as an essential part of a potential trade agreement. South Korea worries that further opening of its domestic market might limit its ability to expand given the overlap of its main export industries with those of Japan, while diminishing the benefits it has gained from its bilateral FTA with China. South Korea might also face increased competition from China’s rapidly growing high-tech industry and its highly competitive digital economy technology. Therefore, from South Korea’s perspective, a trilateral FTA might upset the balance it has achieved between market openness and securing its industries. China’s main concerns are focused on whether a trilateral FTA would support its efforts to upgrade domestic manufacturing. Consequently, China prefers to create “Asian rules” that preserve space for the development of East Asian manufacturing technologies. Given these different preferences, it is unclear whether the three countries can reach an agreement.

A third set of challenges relates to the impact of Sino–US strategic competition. Jin asserts that the Biden administration is concerned that none of the multilateral trade frameworks in the Asia-Pacific include the United States (a result of the US decision to withdraw from the TPP), which poses difficulties for US efforts to reassert its global leadership. Consequently, the United States wants to strengthen relations with its key allies, notably Japan and South Korea. As the United States strengthens cooperation with Japan and South Korea on areas such as digital rules, intellectual property rights, and labor and environmental standards, Japan and South Korea will diverge more sharply from China. At the same time, the United States may pursue the establishment of a US-centered supply chain with partners in the Indo-Pacific including Japan and South Korea, which will decrease their reliance on China. These shifts in the supply chain will hamper negotiations for a trilateral FTA.

Jin contends that despite these challenges, a trilateral FTA would be strategically meaningful for each of the three countries. An FTA would allow the three countries to jointly ensure the security of their supply chains and would protect each countries’ industrial strength. It would also jumpstart the three countries’ economic recoveries and allow them to take full advantage of their large combined final consumer market. Furthermore, an FTA would promote East Asian integration on the basis of “Asian rules,” which would advance the interests of manufacturing industries and shield them from excessively “high standards” that function as a form of protectionism (a particular priority of China’s).

Whether a trilateral FTA is achieved will depend on whether the three countries can control their competitive impulses, satisfy their various interests, and cooperate in the face of a serious global economic challenge. Jin argues that South Korea and Japan recognize the importance of economic cooperation with China and realize that it will be difficult to reduce their dependence on China in the near term. They also understand that the United States can no longer play the global role that it once did, despite Biden’s efforts to do so, given the continuing impact of Trump-style populism and the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, failing to seek deeper cooperation with China in favor of closer ties to the United States would be a poor strategic choice. Jin concludes that China’s ability to stage a strong economic recovery will ultimately determine the short-term prospects of an FTA. If China’s economy recovers, the economic benefits of an agreement will be clear and will overshadow geopolitical concerns. Jin argues strongly that it is in China’s strategic interests to conclude an FTA as soon as possible given US efforts to contain China.

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