US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to calm the waters in the Taiwan Strait somewhat, but will not stray far from current policy on Taiwan relations. Photo: AFP

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not known to be a particularly original thinker. Every time he attacks China, alleging misbehavior, theft of intellectual property (IP) is always on top of his list of accusations. This is an American complaint about China that dates back to the 1990s and is regularly dusted off for reuse.

Lacking literacy in technology, Pompeo does not appear to understand that the nature of IP in technology evolves and changes rapidly. The leader of a particular discipline today can quickly become a follower tomorrow. To compete, companies in Silicon Valley regularly steal, infringe, copy or share by cross-licensing technology to keep up.

Chinese technology companies are not averse to using the same strategy. They nick IP when they can, they copy – euphemistically called “reverse engineering” – when they can, and they enter licensing agreements when necessary. 

The only difference is that the Chinese companies didn’t just stop there but went on to invest in their own research and develop their own proprietary IP. One example is Huawei.  Huawei employed 96,000 researchers and spent US$17 billion on research and development in 2019 alone. Not surprisingly, it holds 85,000 patents, including 19% of all standard-essential patents in fifth-generation (5G) telecom technology.

Because Chinese engineers are generally better trained, are more motivated and work harder than their American counterparts – and there are many more graduates in this field every year – some Chinese companies have introduced products and technology not seen in the US. Indeed, Pompeo doesn’t appreciate that in some technical disciplines, China has already surpassed the US, and the gap will only increase with time.

To suppress China’s technological advances, Pompeo’s approach is to harass Chinese executives, threaten sanctions to restrict their international travel, and bring about sudden unannounced arrests in transit lounges. By denying access to technologies and products where the US is more advanced, such as semiconductor manufacturing, he expects the Chinese to stop dead in their tracks.

Unfortunately for the US, the blowback to his approach has near and long-term consequences. An immediate consequence is a significant drop in sales of semiconductor chips to China. Previously, almost 40% of the US output was sold to China. Now, it’s possible that unsold chips will be keeping company with sacks of unsold soybeans.

Sadly, American companies can only watch their former advantages get washed down to the sewer by the actions of their own government. 

Once China has overcome the shock of doing without advanced US technology, companies such as Huawei will press all the harder to develop their own indigenous replacements for the American products. At some point, Silicon Valley will permanently lose a customer and gain a formidable competitor.

Pompeo’s simple-minded technology war with China extends to cutting off enrollment of Chinese students in American universities, especially at the graduate-school level. His thinking, shared by many of his Republican colleagues, is that the best and brightest from China come to the country for the express purpose of stealing from the US.

In actual fact, first-tier graduate schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or University of California at Berkeley would be reduced to a mere shadow of their former robustness if they only had US-born-and-educated students to staff their research labs.

China annually generates roughly 10 times as many graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as the US. Skimming the best from a population 10 times as large is bound to yield candidates with more impressive credentials. Furthermore, colleges and universities in China demand and expect more from their students before allowing them to graduate.

If President Donald Trump’s administration really cared about “making America great,” it should have actively welcomed students from China and found ways to entice them to stay and work in the US. Instead, Pompeo and his State Department have introduced deliberate ambiguity on approval of their visa applications, raising doubts on whether they can attend and can count on completing their studies.

When Chinese students stop coming

Pompeo’s tactics have succeeded. A significant number of Chinese students are changing their plans and deciding against going to the US. About 6,000 Chinese nationals used to obtain their doctoral degrees in science and engineering from American institutions annually. That number will surely decline.

Thanks to Trump’s persistent show of xenophobia insisting that China is to blame for the Covid-19 epidemic in the US, the frequency of physical violence against Asians in America has risen drastically. Pompeo’s wish is thus being fulfilled as increasing number of Chinese are going back to China. They are not sticking around to “steal” high-paying jobs from Americans.

The case of Cao Yuan comes to mind. He was a physics doctoral candidate at MIT who went home to China for the summer. Then he found out that US Immigration might not allow him to return. His suspension was lifted only after MIT interceded on his behalf. After getting his degree this year, Cao immediately announced his intention to go back to China.

America may come to rue this development. For his discovery of room-temperature superconductivity, the journal Nature recognized Cao as first among the top 10 who mattered in science in 2018. When superconductivity becomes common in daily use, China will be massively ahead of the US. Trump and Pompeo may be remembered for their ignorance of what superconductivity was all about.

As we can see from this brief survey, Secretary Pompeo is like that overeager player on a soccer team who not only messes up all the plays, but actually scores errant own-goals.  There has rarely been such a continuous string of diplomatic defeats and faux pas: If this were a game, he would have been fouled out, traded, or sold long ago. Yet he continues to lead the US into a diplomatic abyss.  

Pompeo’s boss is also doing his utmost to shake the American people’s confidence in democracy. When Trump asks voters to break the law and cast their ballot twice, he is challenging the legitimacy of mail-in ballots and making it difficult to vote as an absentee or in person. He can then cry foul over the very voter suppression that he has created.

Small wonder that three of the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific publications, Scientific American, New England Journal of Medicine and Nature, could no longer stand idle while Trump made a mockery of democracy. They broke a historic precedent to remain apolitical and publicly endorsed his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, for president.

Assuming that Trump does not succeed in stealing the coming election, what would a Biden presidency do? Should the Biden administration go down the same self-destructive rabbit hole? “Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” say performers, but Pompeo’s diplomatic comedy is actually deadly and destructive to the world and the US. 

Will Biden continue the same dying and deadly stand-up routine in front of a global public that has already left the theater? Will he double down on the lies and the farce?

Biden has apparently adopted the China policy statements from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the reconstituted neocon think-tank from the George W Bush years, as his template for foreign policy on China. This is not encouraging. They have grandfathered in all of Trump’s Sinophobic policies and worked out in obsessive detail to further acts of confrontation and escalation.   

How Biden can save America

To avoid hurtling over the precipice and turning America away from economic and military disaster, we recommend that the Biden presidency take the following actions:

  • Drop CNAS from the foreign-policy advisory committee. The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) led us to the disastrous Middle East quagmire. In a similar fashion, CNAS will lead us into catastrophic war with China.
  • Drop Michèle Flournoy and the old “blue team” neocon or “Pacific pivot” holdovers.  They have no business doing politics, given their atrocious records.
  • Facilitate the release of Meng Wanzhou from Canadian custody immediately, and apologize for her kidnapping. Her only crime is being the daughter of the chief executive of a Chinese company the US wants to destroy.  
  • Apologize for Biden calling President Xi Jinping a “thug.” The only justification for insulting a head of state in that manner is if you intend to go to war.
  • Stop the “freedom of navigation operations“ (FONOPs) and other belligerent military maneuvers in the South China Sea. Halfway around the world is not your back yard, and besides, the Chinese have no reason to interfere in any of the shipping – it’s all headed for or leaving China.
  • Stop the harassment of Huawei and its supply chain. Compete properly or cede the field, but don’t kidnap its executives. Same for TikTok, Tencent, and Ant Financial.
  • Stop militarizing Taiwan. Stop building an embassy there. Stop using airbases there. Don’t mislead Taiwan into thinking that if it provokes a conflict, the US will come to its aid. Taiwan is part of China, and Taipei and Beijing need to resolve their differences without Uncle Sam in the room.  
  • Shut up about Xinjiang. It’s all lies, and the longer you keep up the lies, the more embarrassing when you get found out. Uighur terrorists who fought for al-Qaeda do not become “freedom fighters” when they go back to Xinjiang.
  • Shut up about Hong Kong. Hong Kong is part of China, and it has no capacity or desire to be independent (it gets its food, water, and electricity from mainland China). Funding black-shirted fascists will only result in catastrophe.
  • Shut up about Covid-19. Get your house in order. Implement real public health measures, and a people-centered medical-insurance program.
  • Stop the harassment of scholars and students. The US without Chinese scholars and engineers is a country of MBAs, JDs and gun-toting survivalists – an unproductive failed state heading for a surreal apocalypse.    
  • Stop trying to derail the Belt and Road Initiative, and for God’s sake, stop waging wars, coups, assassinations, and explosions in its key nodes. 

Imagine what it could be like, collaborating in peace, open trade based on relative advantages, and exchange of ideas and people in friendship.

America cannot win and China cannot win in a zero-sum game. But China is no threat to the US, and it is no pushover either. Biden can and should make the bold move to the northeast quadrant of game theory where both can win and prosper.

This is the concluding article of a two-part report. Read Part 1 here.

George Koo is a retired international business adviser and frequent contributor to Asia Times. K J Noh is a journalist, political analyst, writer, and teacher specializing in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region.

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K J Noh

K J Noh is a journalist, political analyst, writer, and teacher specializing in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region.