Rasser: Three Principles to Protect U.S. Advantages over China

A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last month offers a candid assessment of the largest threat to U.S. national security: “China increasingly is a near-peer competitor, challenging the United States in multiple arenas—especially economically, militarily, and technologically—and is pushing to change global norms.”

Martijn Rasser, Senior Fellow with the Center for New American Security’s Technology and National Security Program, has been ringing that bell for some time.

In January Mr. Rasser offered an equally solemn assessment: “For the first time in nearly a century, the United States confronts a strategic rival that is capable of overtaking it as the world’s leading economic, military, and technological power, and one that is economically entangled with the United States.”

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS)—and specifically the next undersecretary appointed to lead it—will help determine the outcome of that competition between China and the United States.

Technology, “a key enabler for economic, political, and military power,” Mr. Rasser explains, is central to the U.S.-China power struggle. The BIS has the tall task of ensuring export controls prevent the Chinese government, military and other adversaries from acquiring sensitive U.S.-born technologies, which could be used against the United States.

Mr. Rasser offers three “tenets” to modernize the U.S. export control regime for a new era of strategic global competition—work with allies; raise the threshold; and reframe the goal.

Because most technologies have both civilian and military end use applications, “the United States rarely has the clout to act unilaterally and be fully effective,” Mr. Rasser notes. Instead, U.S. policymakers will be more successful working in concert with likeminded allies “to craft a unified approach to technology policy.” 

Export controls should be tailored to undermine indigenization efforts, which requires an understanding of U.S. advantages and where technological chokepoints are. “Export controls should then only be used if no viable alternative technology acquisition pathways exist,” Mr. Rasser argues.

In the semiconductor market, for example, Mr. Rasser explains that export controls should be focused on the “tools and know-how needed to manufacture them, not the chipsets themselves, the majority of which are commodity items.”

Finally, Mr. Rasser suggests that the next head of the BIS should consider export controls in the broader context of “national technology and economic statecraft strategies,” and not as “haphazard and blunt” economic levers. In regard to China, that means protecting select U.S. areas of technological advantage.

A total decoupling between the United States and China is unrealistic, Mr. Rasser notes, because of deep economic ties between the two countries. Yet, policymakers should be vigilant to curb China’s ambitions to usurp U.S. leadership in the semiconductor space.

“It is unaffordable to create a China-only supply chain, and there will almost certainly be some reliance on foreign technology and expertise,” Mr. Rasser told Nikkei Asiain response to reports that Yangtze Memory Technologies Company (YMTC), China’s leading memory chip maker, is conducting a “massive review of it’s supply chain… to replace the current dependence on American technology.”

“What [China] can do is build a globally competitive industry, and that is something that U.S. policymakers are eyeing closely.”