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As US positions with China, we must prioritize technological advantages over diplomatic wins

Warmer relations with Beijing cannot be Washington's only objective

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left, center) meets with President Joe Biden at Filoli Estate in California on Nov. 15.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left, center) meets with President Joe Biden at Filoli Estate in California on Nov. 15. (Rao Aimin/Xinhua via Getty Images)

In the realm of international diplomacy, where brief moments can lead to lasting consequences, U.S. leaders must remain steadfast in their commitment to winning the race for global tech domination.

This past week, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen unveiled her plan to improve economic ties with China in 2024. This comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s highly anticipated meeting last month with China’s leader Xi Jinping. That encounter, set against the backdrop of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ forum in San Francisco, was the culmination of a series of high-level interactions between U.S. and Chinese officials. These engagements have sparked speculation about a possible warming of U.S.-China relations. But nothing about these developments alters the reality that the United States and China remain in a fierce multifront competition.

Over the past five months, we have seen U.S. officials lay the foundation for President Biden and Xi to shake hands at the APEC summit, culminating in the People’s Republic of China agreeing both to reestablish communications between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, which had been shut off since 2020, and to work to curb the export from China of the precursor chemicals for fentanyl. Resuming a dialogue with China so that both sides can better understand each other is important. The reestablishment of military-to-military communication, in particular, should also be applauded as a key step in mitigating the risk of miscalculation and in managing a crisis, should one occur. On fentanyl, there is reason to be skeptical until concrete steps materialize.

In the wake of the president’s high-level meeting and the diplomacy efforts of other U.S. leaders that have followed, leaders at all levels in the U.S. must remain clear-eyed that the underlying dynamics responsible for the tensions in the relationship between the United States and China have not changed and — based on the objectives of Xi — are unlikely to fundamentally change in the future. We are in a contest with a peer competitor who doesn’t share our values and indeed wants to undermine those values.

So it remains imperative for the United States to continue to vigorously compete with China in a variety of areas, the most important of which are the advanced technologies that will determine a country’s future economic success and its relative military and intelligence capabilities. This is a high-stakes competition along economic, technological, military and political fronts that will determine whether the international order reflects Western values or those of the Chinese Communist Party.

Recent international crises underscore the necessity for continued U.S. leadership in advanced technologies. The wars in Ukraine and Israel serve as stark reminders of the fragility of international peace and the importance of deterrence, particularly in the context of the Chinese military’s rising number of incursions into Taiwan’s waterways and airspace. We must view our engagement with China through the broader lens of global stability. A readout of President Biden’s meeting with Xi asserts as much, but prioritizing deterrence ensures that our actions, and not just our words, communicate to Beijing that aggression will be met with a formidable response.

Our national security is not just about military and intelligence capabilities — it is about the factories that produce weapons, the labs and companies that develop cutting-edge technologies while maintaining secure supply chains and the workers who power these innovations. A weak industrial base or an overly regulated technology sector diminishes our collective ability to out-innovate adversaries in technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), 5G and 6G, quantum computing, microchips and others.

Ensuring that our technological and industrial sectors stay ahead of China is vital for safeguarding our national security, our economic prosperity and our ability to maintain a free and open information environment both at home and abroad.

As such, the Biden administration and Congress should advance an affirmative technology agenda that uncompromisingly advances U.S. national interests, with a focus on empowering U.S. companies to compete against heavily subsidized Chinese companies, particularly as the CCP aggressively invests in catching up to the United States on AI. With China stealing hundreds of billions of dollars worth of intellectual property from American innovators each year, the CCP has materially injured our technological advantage in an effort to propel theirs forward. In an era where technological supremacy often translates to geopolitical dominance, we cannot afford to cede any more ground.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. was the 19th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Frances F. Townsend is a former White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser. Michael J. Morell is a former deputy director and acting director of the CIA. All serve as National Security Advisory Board members for the American Edge Project.

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