A China-US Technological Cold War

Forget the South China Sea. If you want to see the diciest area of US-China competition, it’s in the technology world – from cyberspace, to the technology industry, to outer space. The September 23 U.S.-China Internet Industry Forum is being described by the New York Times as China flexing it’s tech muscles before the Xi Jinping’s visit to the White House.

Five short observations.

1) This New York Times article describes China and the US in a “sort of technological Cold War” in which the US opposes China’s hacking and China squeezes US tech firms operating in China with unfair rules. A technological Cold War, if accurate, is significant because it points to a long-term struggle.

2) If this meeting is aimed at reminding the US that Beijing can hurt US companies, it also serves to drive a wedge between the US government and US business. This exploits the divisions between industry and government which arose in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden revelations.

3) Some would say those are the point of the Snowden revelations. Sure, for Westerners, Snowden is all about privacy rights. But for Snowden’s host-country, it’s about sowing divisions with the US and West. China may be taking a page from Russia’s playbook by using this tech forum in this way.

4) While the US and companies are tussling over privacy issues, there a questions of how far Corporate America backs the White House in its quest to rein in China’s hacking. After all, these companies stand to make a lot of money from China, though clearly many US tech companies also look to the US government for support in their China struggles.

It’s worth noting that the prospect of US corporate interests colliding with the public interest, epitomized within the US-China tech struggle, was ironically the theme to another Seattle event, the protests outside the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting. It is a major meta-theme in the US election today.

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On trade pacts and political blocs – Japan and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

In as much as trade-pacts are future political blocs, the US and Japan will still have some ways to go before they form a trade bloc, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, comprising 40 per cent of the global economy.

But for now, the US has officially allowed Japan to join the talks on the creation of the 11-member group. 

The White House and Japan’s Shinzo Abe are keen to hash out the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as a bulwark against China’s emerging economic dominance.

Abe, himself, highlighted the urgency, according to AFP:

“I want our participation in the negotiations to come into force quickly so we can play a critical role in defining the rules” of the pact, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo.

It’s worth noting that it is the White House, not all of the Democratic Party, that supports Japan’s inclusion, as it will put pressure on US automakers. The nascent manufacturing movement in the US also opposes its old foe Japan.

Alliance for American Manufacturing president Scott Paul:

“Including Japan in the TPP without ironclad assurances that it will open its markets and stop manipulating its currency is incredibly irresponsible.


“Before the real negotiations have even started, it looks like the Obama Administration has already given Japan a blank check to cheat.


“Haven’t we learned anything from the last decade? Large trade imbalances and barriers in autos, auto parts, and other manufactured goods have gone unaddressed, and were not adequately addressed in this consultation.


Abe, faces stiff resistance around agriculture, which the US and Japan have considered leaving out of the deal. For more on the announcement from the US, click here. And yet, Japan and the US are political allies, facing a huge shared political challenge in Asia. A key element to the TPP, which is highly controversial for its intellectual property and investor-state dispute settlement resolution clauses, is that it would throw a lasso of trade rules across the Asia-Pacific region. The concern among civil society activists, is that it would be a lasso of bad rules, which are overly company-friendly but damaging to democracy.

Then in the final analysis, the TPP’s intent must be compared to what will prevail in its absence in Asia regarding trade, IP, legal remedies for disputes. Bottom line: lots of work to do.

And as complex and cumbersome as the TPP negotiations are, if the governments involved want the rules to have anything like support from the citizens of these nations – which are at vastly different levels of development – they need to provide some element of transparency in the negotiations to their citizen-stakeholders.

As Cicero said: “Freedom is participation in power.” If the US, Japan and other countries can’t do better than this, than how are they any better than the clearly authoritarian governments they stand against?

Actually, “new American patriotism” may not be the right description.

What may be occurring is a new American realism, or American identification, forced by a recognition for the scale of the challenges facing the US economically and through technological competition. Civil libertarians will battle the government over privacy protections – as they damn well should – but these same civil liberatarians will recognize that there are real threats out there to the kind of freedom that he or she values. He only has to look at Russia, at China, at Iran. The power of the internet is being used against a nation’s own citizens in a way that is foreign to Americans. Inside the US, the openness of the internet which has spawned much innovation is being used – systematically – to undermine Americans’ economic interests.

Now, the critics and detractors not just of the excesses of American power but of the US itself, are just a click away, for even the civil libertarians to see.

In as much as the internet remains borderless, against the human psychological which needs some borders, Americans are a clump of humanity online, as are the Chinese, the Russian, etc. How this clump of humanity defines itself online is slowly being articulated. The expectation of a culture law is slowly colliding with other forces out there.

And that possibility, in the face of that, Americans are going through a renewed phase of self-indentification in this new world. It’s a place where, when the White House’s interests, match the Academy Award’s interests, which match – for a sec- the US clandestine communities interest, which are also inline with the US public’s interest, it will express itself unabashedly in a Star Spangled Plug by the First Lady.

Already images are being deployed more strategically in this way. The picture of Obama and Romney shaking hands in the White House after the election sends a powerful message to nations where power transfers often involve violence or intrigue.

The new fluid rules of engagement in the Argo announcement

The White House’s decision to announce that Argo won best picture at Academy Awards sends a veiled message to a global audience about a new American stance.
No one can miss the optics of the First Lady calling out the award for a movie about US clandestine work against a hostile country. And they shouldn’t. But the willingness of the White House to fuse its glow with Hollywood’s when it serves a purpose underscores a new strain of post-globalization (for lack of a better term) patriotism, in which members of the US establishment will increasingly step into each others spheres of influence in this wired, interconnected world. Other examples: without a doubt there was message coordination between US government, NYTimes and Mandiant around the stories and release of the report on PLA hacking. Google likely helps research and advise on internet policy with the US government. In fact, Eric Schmidt’s co-author Jared Cohen is an ex-US State Department official. This marks a change from the era of unbridled freemarket fundamentalism which held govenment and private industry remain separate. The fact is: the long term, more existential threats to US power and US industry are increasingly coming into focus. Methodical state sponsored hacking is a threat to both. Therefore, they are driven into each others’ arms in a recognition of the limits and linkages of power. The irony of course is that what this is a recent resurgence, it’s not a new trend. It would have been common during much of the Cold War.