US China Technological War

Synergia Foundation hosted its 60th Roundtable Conference on “US-China Technology Conflict and Lessons from the Peloponnesian War”. The roundtable discussion featured the keynote address by Dr. A.J. Paulraj. Dr Paulraj is an Emeritus Professor at the Stanford University. He is the inventor and a pioneer of MIMO (Multiple Input Mulitple Output) and has authored over 400 research publications, several textbooks and is a co-inventor of 800 US patents. He has also founded three wireless technology companies in the US which were later acquired by Intel, Broadcom and Hewlett Packard Enterprises. His recognitions include the Friendship Award, the highest award of Government of PR China for foreign citizens, US Government National Inventors Hall of Fame, the Marconi Prize and the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal. He is a fellow of several National Academies in Engineering and Sciences in the US, China, India and Sweden. Dr Paulraj served the Indian Navy for 25 years where he developed ASW Sonar Technology. His recognitions in India include the Padma Bhushan

Background

China never attempted to conceal its ambitions for technological pre-eminence.  It took its cue from the US, the reigning power and its erstwhile mentor.  Discarding Mao’s adage that ‘power flows from the barrel of the gun’ China now seeks to rival US through the route of scientific excellence.

As per Dr Paulraj, the ongoing trade war is just one symptom of the larger conflict for technological superiority. Fearful of being overtaken and ultimately overwhelmed in this chase, US has begun to go after China's strengths (e.g. Huawei) including its economy which feeds its scientific quest,  with vengeance.   US is cutting the umbilical cord to  40 years of Sino-American scientific and economic engagement that brought strategic and fiscal benefits to both sides. 

US is convinced that there is a real chance for China to unseat US as the world’s leading technological powerhouse. “Very dangerous,” President Donald Trump said recently when talking about the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei; National Security Adviser John Bolton has warned of a “Manchurian chip.”

Analysis

Thucydides, a soldier and  historian wrote in his seminal work  "The History of the Peloponnesian War" (Athens vs Sparta)”,  that when a rising power challenges a ruling power, war is inevitable. History of the past 2400 years has largely proven Thucydides right. The question now is whether the Sino- US high tech rivalry will translate into something more deadly and lead the two giants, and the world,  on a calamitous path.

Due to his close association with Chinese academia and industry spread over decades, Dr Paulraj enjoys a deep insight into the mindset of the Chinese. The analogy quoted by him from the Peloponnesian War places the US-China technological rivalry in the correct perspective.  

Dr Paulraj has been a witness to China’s rise.  According to him, emerging from the ashes of  Mao’s cultural revolution, China began its quest to seek its rightful place in the global community.  Smarting  over 100 years of humiliation by Western powers and Imperial Japan, China sought to harness technology to spur its rise.  It invested its earnings to send thousands of its scholars around the world, it accepted degrading manufacturing (over 30% of global share) to fill its coffers while it sought to gain knowledge.  It replicated technology, stole it where not forthcoming and now it has started to innovate and invent.  Every day hundreds of patents are being filed by the Chinese. Today’s China is at the forefront along with the best with 5G, AI, biotechnology and quantum computing.  

In the dynamic world of science,  the ability to continuously research and innovate is critical.   Smug over its dominance after World War II, US was rudely jolted out of its reverie when USSR sent the Sputnik into space. Since then, US has not looked back and has anchored its power on its vast network of research establishments manned by a diverse scientific community. The Silicon Valley is the perfect example of coming together of minds and ideas from around the globe.

Dr Paulraj explained how Comprehensive National Power (CNP) is intrinsically linked to a thriving economy which feeds off mass marketed technology.  Real wealth in unmeasurable quantity comes from mass marketed high technology sold at a premium which is thousands of time its material value. As examples he cited civil aviation, Information Communication Technology (ICT), pharma (biotech and molecular research) and in the near future Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics.  

President Xi Jinping has aptly summed up the strategy as   “catch up and surpass” abbreviated as ganchao in Chinese. This has not happened overnight. It has always been in the minds of China’s leaders- Mao Zedong to the suave Xi  Jinping- that technological progress was not only a means to power but also an ideological end in itself.  

A nation’s ambition to achieve technological pre-eminence needs long term vision and the commitment to put this vision into effect. China has proved that as a nation it is up to the task for it thinks not in terms of days but in decades, in stark contrast to the culture in liberal democracies where electoral compulsions drive the pace. Sometimes, policies do not survive a month!

Assessment

  • Indians lack the passion to enquire into the realms of technological frontiers to invent and innovate. Dismally few patents are registered by Indian inventors.  Till we get rid of this mindset, we will continue to lag behind as a second rate provider of services.
  • China has been restrained  in its response to US tariffs. Reverse tariffs by China have not been extreme ones. If China decided to prohibit Apple from operating/selling in the country, as US has done with Huawei, collapse of the American tech giant might become a possibility.  This is a silver lining on otherwise dark clouds.
  • US seems to be looking for a Berlin War between US-China and there will be no room left for talks in that case.  Therein lies the danger for rest of the world who will be forced to pick sides in this conflict, a second cold war, albeit a technological one, being in the offing.

India Watch      

Dr Paulraj regretted India’s failure  to tap into its extraordinary potential, blessed as it is with such high-quality human resources. Foreign companies are reaping the benefits of the cerebral capital which they hire in hubs like Bangalore.

Dr Paulraj spoke at lenght of the advantage that Indian technology producers have in terms of a huge domestic market, which we are unable to harness.

The Indian bureaucracy, manned by generalists, has perhaps failed to comprehend the dimension of the ongoing titanic technological struggle and missed out on opportunities even when held out to them on a platter.  Foreign based Indian inventors like Dr Paulraj have offered IPs for Indian ownership but failed to invoke  a response from a slumbering behemoth. 

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