U.S.-China Technological “Decoupling”: A Strategy and Policy Framework

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Technology is the engine that powers superpowers. As the chair of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), I led the effort that ultimately delivered a harsh message to the U.S. Congress and to the administration: America is not prepared to defend or compete in the AI era. The fact is that America has been technologically dominant for so long that some U.S. leaders came to take it for granted. They were wrong. A second technological superpower, China, has emerged. It happened with such astonishing speed that we’re all still straining to understand the implications.

Washington has awakened to find the United States deeply technologically enmeshed with its chief long-term rival. America built those technology ties over many years and for lots of good reasons. China’s tech sector continues to benefit American businesses, universities, and citizens in myriad ways—providing critical skilled labor and revenue to sustain U.S. R&D, for example. But that same Chinese tech sector also powers Beijing’s military build-up, unfair trade practices, and repressive social control.

What should we do about this? In Washington, many people I talk to give a similar answer. They say that some degree of technological separation from China is necessary, but we shouldn’t go so far as to harm U.S. interests in the process. That’s exactly right, of course, but it’s also pretty vague. How partial should this partial separation be—would 15 percent of U.S.-China technological ties be severed, or 85 percent? Which technologies would fall on either side of the cut line? And what, really, is the strategy for America’s long-term technology relationship with China? The further I probe, the less clarity and consensus I find.

In fairness, these are serious dilemmas. They’re also unfamiliar. “Decoupling” entered the Washington lexicon just a few years ago, and it represents a dramatic break from earlier assumptions. In 2018, for example, I remarked that the global internet would probably bifurcate into a Chinese-led internet and a U.S.-led internet. Back then, this idea was still novel enough that the comment made headlines around the world. Now, the prediction has already come halfway true. Meanwhile, policymakers—who usually aren’t technologists—have scrambled to educate themselves about the intricate global supply chains that still link the United States, China, and many other countries.

In 2019, I was appointed to be the chair of the NSCAI, a congressionally mandated bipartisan commission that was charged with “consider[ing] the methods and means necessary to advance the development of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and associated technologies to comprehensively address the national security and defense needs of the United States.”1 I worked with leaders in industry, academia, and government to formulate recommendations that would be adopted by Congress, the administration, and departments and agencies.

We were successful, but this effort did not go far enough. That is why I continue to advocate for major legislation (such as the United States Innovation and Competition Act and the America COMPETES Act), to develop the next phase of implementable policy options (through

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