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Technonationalism as a term has started to spring up in Chinese policy discussions regarding technology trade with the US and China.
Technonationalism is a term used by economist Robert Reich in 1987 to describe the relationship between technology and national security. Reich used the term in an article that he wrote for The Atlantic. It originally referred to the intervention of the Reagan administration in the United States to prevent the acquisition of Fairchild Semiconductor by Japan’s Fujitsu. Reich felt that the Reagan administration mis-understood the the technology problems faced by the US and blocking the Fujitsu-Fairchild deal was the wrong thing to do.
The China effect
In English language usage, it started to be mentioned in publications as far back as 1969 and seems to have had two distinct peaks. The first was from the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union through to 1990. The second peak coincides with China’s rise.
From a Chinese perspective, strategic conflicts between major powers have revitalised the concept in the international political arena. Of course, this ignores China’s own actions and their perceptions by other countries:
- Military-civil fusion
- Coercive technology transfer
- Strangleholds of strategically important materials
- Wholesale industrial espionage
- Chinese government policies to promote economic independence and induce strategic dependence of other states across all infrastructure technologies – or as the FT calls it ‘Fortress China‘
Today, the competition between China and western democracies is focused on critical materials like pharmaceuticals and a range of strategically important advanced technologies.
These sectors include:
- Electric vehicles (or as they are called in China new energy vehicles)
- Drones, virtual reality,
- Various type of machine learning ‘artificial intelligence’
- Big data and data mining
- Robotics and automation
- 5G networks
- The Internet of Things (IoT),
- Synthetic biology
This conflict is considered more severe than the US – Japanese semiconductor trade friction of the 1980s. But Japan and the US were largely aligned from a political, defence and economic perspectives during this time.
The technology related to disputed sectors are seen as key to the next generation of defense systems, industrial capabilities and information power China and western democracies.
Neo-liberalism & technonationalism
This implies that economics is an extension of defence rather than completely separate, as implied by the western neo-liberal laissez-faire approach to globalisation. This places company leadership dead set against the wider interest of their own western countries. During the cold war with the Soviet bloc western companies were much better aligned with their country’s interests.
Palmer Luckey’s Anduril represents a notable exception in Silicon Valley and its attitude is remarkably different to the likes of Apple or Microsoft.
Post-war Asian miracle model
While technonationalism as a term was given voice in the mid-1980s, one could consider the directed economy efforts by the likes of MITI in Japan and its counterparts in Taiwan and South Korea as being technonationalist in nature.
From this perspective, technonationalism played a crucial role in post-World War II economic and industrial policies, fostering domestic industries, promoting scientific and technological innovation. These polices propelled Japan to become a global technological power. Korea took a similar tack with Park Chung Hee’s compact with the chaebols and the Taiwan government was crucial in the roots of Taiwan’s dominance in semiconductors.
Back to the present
The current increase in technonationalism by China and western democracies means that international trade in many fields will continue to change due to national security concerns evolve. This is often masked in language such as de-risking, de-coupling and de-globalisation.
More related content here.
Chip War by Chris Miller