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'Techno-nationalism' unlikely to succeed: experts

By RENA LI in Toronto | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-07-30 11:03

A smartphone with the Huawei and 5G network logo is seen on a PC motherboard in this illustration picture taken January 29, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

With a ban on Huawei's 5G networks in the United Kingdom following sanctions imposed by the United States, experts warn that the world has entered a period of ambition-driven "techno-nationalism", but said such efforts were unlikely to succeed.

At a Canada-China Economic Forum held Monday, Paul Evans, a professor in the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, said the ban on Huawei's 5G is just "the tip of a very large iceberg in the chilly waters of techno-nationalism".

"Techno-nationalism … blurs the distinction between economic advantage, military capability and technological and scientific capacity. It treats them all as matters of national power and national security," Evans told the forum.

Evans said that US techno-nationalism is about maintaining "maximum spectrum dominance" in sectors ranging from telecommunications and artificial intelligence to biomedicine.

"And why is this coming to a crunch? I think the US is worried not all about trade imbalances and intellectual property. It is worried and upset about a certain kind of Chinese technological prowess, and the most fear is from China's innovation capacity," Evans said.

He said the Chinese innovation ecosystem in several sectors poses a fundamental challenge to American national power, and the ban of Huawei's 5G is a case study.

"It's unlikely to succeed, but it's the ambition that matters," Evans continued.

"I think American techno-nationalism now involves restrictions and limitations on a variety of Chinese partners in areas including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biomedicine, et cetera. Huawei is not the end of the battle. It is just the first stage of what could be a full techno-nationalism competition."

Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in 2018 in Canada at the request of the US, seems to have been caught in the middle of a geopolitical technology war.

"Canada is experiencing direct American pressure to line up Canadian policies and actions with the US approach, trying to move Canada in a particular direction," Evans said.

Despite the UK changing its mind earlier this month, Canada has not restricted the use of Huawei equipment in its 5G networks.

Evans recalled that five years ago, when Canada and China celebrated the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations, high tech was a sector of major promise. The bilateral agenda had a "foot on the gas". But the conversation has changed since then: "It's not about what we can do together, but what we can't do together."

"Regarding US policy, should we hold our breath for 100 days until the US election, will the anti-China, anti-engagement consensus continue into a new administration?" Evans asked. "Has techno-nationalism reached its peak or really just its first stage?"

The solution is collaboration with effective leadership, he suggested. Canada can negotiate with China on a new set of guidelines for exchanges and interactions in the high-tech sphere, and Canada can start with universities to keep the door open to a wide range of exchanges and joint research operations.

"We need a new form of strategic engagement — find the areas where we can cooperate on common interests that cannot be challenged by the ugly side," Evans added.

Mary E. Lovely, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said it's "not true" that the US sees all its technological advantages being stolen by China.

"We can see the majority of high-tech goods, defined by the Chinese, are still being exported by foreign-invested enterprises operating in China. And (we can see) the amazing amount of R&D which is being done jointly by foreign companies in China, as well as the productivity of Chinese scholars (operating internationally)," said Lovely, who studies the role of multinational firms in technology transfer to China.

She said there is an unstable trade triangle among Canada, China and the US. The US has made clear its opposition to high foreign value-added (FVA) imports from its free-trade-agreement partners and maintained trade barriers to keep them from "sneak(ing) in the back door", particularly regarding Chinese content.

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