Do Tariffs Make Us More Competitive?

David Firestein dropped by last week’s “World Spins” session to reassure us that at about $1 trillion, give or take a few million, the U.S.-China trade relationship is too big to fail. But he had some thoughts on where we’re taking it.

Firestein‘s credentials in U.S.-China relations are wide and deep — the State Department, EastWest Institute, and now, president and CEO of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations — in addition to his role in academia launching the LBJ School of Public Affairs’ China Public Policy Center.

Perceptions of growing authoritarianism

“China’s rising authoritarianism colors U.S. views in a profound way.”

David Firestein

The Uighur minority and the telecom giant Huawei are the poster children of American perceptions of China, prompting national security concerns that have underpinned both the administration’s trade narrative and domestic regulatory actions. On the heels of watching China use facial recognition software to persecute the Uighur and other Muslim minorities, San Francisco banned the technology. Last week those same concerns spread to Washington, bubbling up at the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Blacklisted by the administration, Huawei typifies China’s state-supported hybrid economy. The telecom giant sits on a deepening Maginot Line between the Internet of the East and that of the West, drawing a line between American interests and increasingly, everyone else’s.

“In public and private statements, American intelligence officials and telecommunications executives and experts have begun to concede that the United Sates will be operating in a world where Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies most likely control 40 percent to 60 percent of the networks over which business, diplomats, spies and citizens do business.”

David Sanger, The New York Times

There’s a silver lining for Big Tech. Nothing unites like a common enemy, and China has provided Qualcomm, Facebook, Google et. al. with a new “America First” narrative to relieve regulatory threats.

The missing quid pro quo

“China is vastly more closed to us than we are to them,” Firestein said. “When someone from China gets off a plane in San Francisco, they have immediate access to their email through WhatsApp. But an American landing in Beijing can’t access their Gmail.”

David Firestein

For an administration determined to deliver on its “America First” campaign promises, protecting America from China is a top priority. Vice President Mike Pence’s watermark speech at the Hudson Institute frames the U.S. response to Chinese “economic aggression.”

With China, all silk roads lead to intellectual property. In the absence of any Chinese quid pro quo to American openness, in 2018 the administration has expanded its powers to protect domestic technology from foreign investment. The Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) began to block mergers and acquisitions considered a threat to national security. The Export Control Reform Act (ECRA) and the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA) are charged with protecting tech sectors that map with its “Made in China 2025” strategy — advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, semiconductors and telecommunications.

Applying worst-of-breed practices

Unintended consequences abound. The ban on Huawei network technology hits rural areas the hardest because the small network providers have to swap out cheaper Huawei equipment for more expensive offerings. And faced with its American supply chain being cut off, China will accelerate its build-your-own strategy, a trend that is already impacting U.S. tech companies’ stock prices.

Which brings us to where Firestein breaks rank. A trade strategy based almost exclusively on punitive tariffs has penalized American producers by eliminating lucrative markets, disrupted supply chains and cost consumers at check out.

“The United States is adopting “worst of breed” practices that are destructive to the economy … Our trade deficit with China is the largest good and services deficit dating back to 1776.”

David Firestein

Nowhere is the cost of the trade war more obvious than in the agricultural sector. Last week at a “hats on” event, President Trump announced a $16 billion farm aid package in a robbing Peter to pay Paul strategy to offset farmers’ losses with taxpayers’ dollars.

In fact, tariffs can make industries less competitive.

It breeds a kind of laziness here,” said Simon Lester, director of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.  Tariffs are taxes on outside goods, so they inherently protect some U.S. businesses from foreign competition. “You don’t have to compete with the best in the world you can just relax you don’t have to work that hard and face any competition,” he says.

Marketplace, May 27, 2019

Despite the national security narrative, the relationship between China and the United States is not about military might. Certainly, the U.S. technology industry is rooted in federal defense funding, and the Department of Defense continues to fund innovation. But this is a 21st century struggle not a 20th century one. China’s goals are economic.

“Military interests are a function of power. China is building its military to define its power … But let me assure you, China has no interest in becoming the world’s policeman.”

David Firestein

Relationships make the world go round

The conversation closed with a reminder that relationships grease the wheels that make the world go round. Firestein brought up a flash point from his first few weeks in Austin when two U.S. Congressmen, a U.S. Senator, numerous professors and the University of Texas student newspaper protested an offer from the Confucius Institute to make a donation to the CPPC. Firestein noted, however, that the United States has similar practices, and that in the end:

“Relationship matters. We have to get it in sync.”

David Firestein

What does the future look like?

A year ago, Firestein cautioned that competing with China was like a no-holds barred cage fight in wrestling. China knows what it wants its future to look like. State control provides a longterm planning horizon. It has a clearly written industrial strategy, state funding and a non-interference strategy with its people. The United States operates from tweet to tweet. As for a strategy?

In the end, we’re going to have to step up and compete. China is not our enemy but it is our fiercest competitor.

David Firestein, in a May 2018 talk at the “World Spins”

In the not too distant future artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, advanced manufacturing, semiconductors, telecommunications will shape not just American competitiveness but what our world will become. Even the current administration, loathe to cooperate on much of anything, went so far as to endorse a set of international AI guidelines sketched out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. To echo a comment made by Senator Richard Burr at the University of Texas’ Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum:

If we don’t create a framework for this technology, who will?

Senator Richard Burr, chairman, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Nov. 2018

China and Innovation: While You Were Tweeting, the Future Happened

David Firestein, the executive director of the University of Texas’ new China Public Policy Center headlined a recent session of our speaker series, The World Spins, with some advice about competing with China.

“In the end, we’re going to have to step up and compete.  China is not our enemy. But it is our most formidable national competitor.”

Firestein, an Austin native who spent 20 years in China with the State Department and another 10 as a senior vice president at the East-West Institute, has no illusions about what’s at stake.

“It’s like a cage match in wrestling,” he explained, where one wrestler, the United States,

David Firestein, Founding Executive Director, China Public Policy Center; Clinical Professor of Public Affairs
David FIrestein, executive director of the China Public Policy Center: “In the end, we’re going to have to step up and compete.”

follows the rules, and the other, China, uses any- and everything to win. And winning means becoming the first country in history to be a brutally market-oriented authoritarian dictatorship.

In a cage match, tweets and tariffs are a poor match against a singularly focused industrial policy and a bill of rights that says:  Citizen, you stay out of politics, and we, the government, will make you rich.

One battleground:  artificial intelligence and big data

If you’re not reading Jeff Ding’s ChinaAI Newsletter, you should be. Ding, who is a graduate student at Cambridge, shares translations of Chinese policy, strategy and technology. His most recent is a report from boutique private investment firm Rising Investments on China’s Civil-Military Fusion.  The report notes that although applications based on artificial intelligence (big data, internet) need time to developed.

  • AI military applications still need a lot of time: products for the military industry require “high reliability,” so emerging technology like AI will be used as reserves and not be applied until they are mature, and the related technologies for AI (big data, internet) also have a number of security issues.
  • Intelligent weaponry and intelligent robots will have a major impact on the strategy and the tactics of future wars.

China also plans to use the same public-private partnerships that built the American technology sector to achieve its goals.

  • China did not permit non-government capital to enter into national defense industries until 2005. They are still looking for the emergence of a 50-100bn military industry private corporation on the scale of say Lockheed Martin.
  • The goal is to have over 80% of defense industry information construction technology come from private enterprise. China hopes to reach the first wave of peak civil-military fusion in 3-5 years.

Will political turmoil stifle American innovation?

Without the Dept. of Defense we wouldn’t have the Internet or email, much less venture capital and private equity.  Read Andrew Ross Sorkin’s excellent article about the push back against defense contracts among the employees of Silicon Valley technology giants. Sorkin quotes Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School and a member of the Defense Innovation Board, an independent federal advisory committee set up under President Barack Obama, said he believed that the partisanship that was contributing to the debate would ultimately stifle innovation.

“I worry that it will stall progress,” said Grant. “Innovation has been fueled for decades by private-public partnerships. It smacks of cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Meanwhile, Firestein reminded us, China is in that cage match, its eye on the long-term, even as American strategy changes with an election cycle, from tweet to tweet. It’s hard to win a cage match when it’s unclear what winning looks like.

“I think we’re at the beginning of a major transformation and a technology revolution that is, by an order of magnitude, more disruptive than the internet revolution 20 years ago,” Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council recently told American Public Media’s Marketplace Report.

“If we don’t get wise to these trends that are reshaping our economy and are going to affect the way we work, live and everything else, the future is going to take us by surprise.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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World Spins Series Spotlights Thought Leaders on the Cusp of Disruption

I wanted to let you know about a project I’m working on with the World Affairs Council.  Its best described as a salon series showcasing some of the forces re-shaping the world we think we know — climate change, blockchain technology, the shift of global power from military to technological supremacy.  Our new series “The World Spins,”  will bring  people at the forefront of issues that are re-shaping the world we live in:  climate change, national security, blockchain technology, China and innovation. I’m thrilled to have these brilliant people — thought leaders, participants – not observers — share their time with us.  If you’re in Austin, please join us!

NATIONAL SECURITY & CLIMATE CHANGE, Dr. Joshua Busby, an associate professor,

Dr. Joshua Busby, associate professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin
Military leaders accept climate change as a major risk to our national security. Do we have a policy? Internationally recognized expert Dr. Josh Busby dives into a thorny issue.

the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, has been deeply involved in climate change policy since 2008. He participated in the discussions around Paris Accord, as well as their follow-on sessions, the next scheduled to take place in Poland later this year, as well as managing multi-million dollar grants for the Dept. of Defense. Quick update:  President Trump announced the United States’ intention to withdraw last December.  Former National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster recognized the relationship between the weather and security. He’s out, and former ambassador and Fox News analyst John Bolton is in.  What’s next?   April 12 at 6:30

 

BLOCKCHAIN, Pete Harris, founder of Lighthouse Partners, works with companies who are integrating blockchain technology into their business strategy. Talk about disruption, blockchain promises to dramatically reshape our financial, supply chain and trade relationships.  Think Walmart tracking the safety of sliced papaya from Central America to a store in Iowa. Pete, who consults internationally, is part of the axis of the blockchain

Pete Harris, Lighthouse Partners
Pete Harris, founder and president of Lighthouse Partner, has been talking blockchain and innovation since it was piloted on Wall Street.

community in Austin, Texas, where there are over 70 start ups involved in commercializing this nascent technology into our financial, health care, food safety and transportation ecosystems. A nascent technology, the growing use of blockchain is overshadowed by its trendy subset, bitcoin.  But companies like IBM and Oracle are integrating it into the way their customers do business. Pete founded the hub of Austin’s blockchain innovation, the  Austin Blockchain Collective and chairs a monthly Blockchain for Business Meetup at the Capitol Factory which is free and open to all.   March 29 at 6:30

 

CHINA AND INNOVATION, David Firestein, is the founding director of the new China

David Firestein, Founding Executive Director, China Public Policy Center; Clinical Professor of Public Affairs
David Firestein is shaping how a world-class university uses the resources and relationships of the (other) major world power.

Public Policy Center at the LBJ School.  From his bio: Throughout his career, Firestein has played an active role advancing U.S.-China and U.S.-Asia trade. He has also produced path-breaking thought leadership, scholarship and Capitol Hill testimony on a range of topics, including U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, U.S.-China infrastructure investment cooperation, and the role of national exceptionalism as a driver of major international conflict today. Firestein is native Austinite who speaks Mandarin at near-native level (hard to imagine in a Texan) and has published a book on what else – country music and diplomacy. May 22 at 6:30

 

 

 

If you’re in town, please join us!  All sessions are held at the historic Neill-Cochran House  where you can park right behind the building for free — speaking of a changing world.