The World is a Stage and the U.S. and China are the Players: The Competition Over Global Standards as the Next Big Fight
This article is the final article that I will discuss the policy difficulties faced by the US from material taken directly from my book The Future is Autonomous. I also include recent information that is not in my book. The US and China have engaged in a trade dilemma which has included trade tariffs on imports produced in the other country and export bans on products for Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE. The next battle in this trade war will be over who gets to create the global standards for new technology, such as the autonomous vehicle.
The World is the Stage and This Competition Has Lasting Significance
Before and after President Donald Trump took office, a common rallying cry in his tweets and speeches was “America First!” This broad slogan generally refers to a foreign policy emphasizing nationalism, unilateralism, protectionism, and isolationism, all of this pursed in the interests of the US. This turned out to be not just a slogan. The policies it promotes have been implemented by President Trump. The outcome for “winning” the race for autonomous vehicles, of setting the global standards for autonomous vehicles, has suffered accordingly.
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, President Trump railed against treaty arrangements that his predecessor, Barack Obama, signed with other countries. These treaties included the Paris Climate Accords. This was an international agreement designed to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This agreement was designed to lessen the potentially devastating human and economic damage of climate change.
Trump also objected to the Iran nuclear deal to limit Iran’s nuclear power program. When he officially withdrew from the Iran deal on May 8, 2018, he said, “The heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction: that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear energy program.”
On June 6, 2016, Trump had particularly harsh words directed at the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. He said, “The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country.” He withdrew from the TPP right after he was officially sworn in as president in January 2017.
President Trump comes from a business background. He leads an extensive real estate empire with hotels, casinos, and golf courses all over the world. Therefore, he treats relationships between countries like a contractual business partnership. He celebrates accomplishments, such as a revised Canada-US-Mexico Agreement (USMCA). He also celebrates bilateral trade agreements with Japan and the slightly revised US-Korea Free Trade Agreement with South Korea.
He celebrates these deals that bring short term benefits to the US. However, formal or informal alliances base on contractual terms can more easily be broken by competing arrangements from rival countries like China. Alliances built on shared historical, cultural, political, and ideological similarities last longer. The bonds between the countries are also more difficult to break.
Trump pressured NATO and other long-time US allies into contributing more money and placing import tariffs on goods and raw materials from the EU and other allies making the alliance weaker. This weakening of alliances hurts US foreign, diplomatic, and economic policy in the long term.
The US is also taking a less active role in international organizations. The US withdrew its membership from the UN Human Rights Council in June 2018. The US withdrew its membership from the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on December 31, 2018. The decisions to leave these two organizations relate to resolutions passed by both of them criticizing Israel.
Largely in response to perceived bias in the reporting on the current COVID-19 pandemic and allegations the organization covered up China’s role early on, President Trump also cut funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 29, 2020. Rather than revise his position, President Trump also tends to push it further, doubling down on policy decisions. Because of this, he announced the US would be withdrawing from the WHO in July 2020, although it takes one year for the withdrawal to go into effect.
The lack of US leadership, or even presence, in these global agreements and organizations does not mean they stop functioning. The leadership void has been filled, in large part, by China. In my chapter on General Secretary Xi Jinping’s efforts to transform China’s economy, focusing on developing new technology, I also touched on his desire to change global standards. He seeks to adjust standards that better protect the survival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and other similar authoritarian regimes.
Ironically, China has benefitted greatly from the international trade norms and organizations established by the West. This includes membership in the UN and WTO for its development agenda. However, Xi Jinping seeks to not only make China independent from foreign technology companies but also to start writing the rules for global cyber governance.
Huawei and 5G play a key role in this effort. China is attempting to dominate high-speed wireless 5G networks globally. This leads to worries by US analysts and policymakers that China wants to set the standards for things like safety for these networks and that the Chinese government could use these networks to spy on other governments’ secure information. 5G could be revolutionary for the future of technology because it supports countless other applications, including autonomous vehicles, with extremely fast wireless communications.
China has already started working on changing global standards related to personal privacy protection in the UN. These efforts could allow for authoritarian governments to repress civil liberties and to commit human rights abuses.
Chinese companies, most notably Huawei and ZTE, sell video cameras equipped with facial recognition technology to countries all over the world. These countries include both democracies and authoritarian governments. Huawei’s “Safe Cities” programs are ostensibly designed to assist police and security forces in their public safety and security efforts. However, the technology is not regulated and could be used for things like spying on political rivals. Without a strong US presence in the discussions about these issues, China can gain enough support to pass resolutions protecting their companies that sell this technology.
On November 15, 2020, China also joined the largest trade agreement in the world. This agreement includes 15 total countries, including every country in ASEAN. More costly to the US, this agreement also includes its closest allies in Asia — Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. This was then followed on December 30 by China signing an investment deal with the EU that had been in negotiation for over seven years.
One of the major advantages the US has in international politics is its security and political alliances with many countries, which China lacks. However, China has effectively countered that advantage by making agreements with the allies of the US. New President Joe Biden needs to work with his allies to reverse this trend and regain the advantage against China.
There needs to be a major shift in America’s foreign policy and diplomatic focus. The US needs these changes to both export autonomous vehicles to other countries and set the global standards related to them. Foreign policy and diplomacy in the twenty-first century, doesn’t resemble a simple game of checkers. In this analogy, moves are played out between one country and another one or two countries at a time. It is a game of chess. There are countless possible decisions to be made, and both short, and long, term implications need to be considered. One mistake can set off a chain reaction which can damage a country’s ability to achieve their desired policy outcome.
Greater cooperation between different groups of people produce a stronger result at the state and national levels. The same is true with respect to different countries working together to create standards and advance their mutual interests.
Therefore, the US needs to reassert its role as a leader in international institutions, such as the UN. It needs to rejoin organizations like the TPP which serve as a counterweight to Chinese economic influence in East Asia. The US also needs to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords to work for reducing GHG emissions with other countries. Ultimately, the US needs to be a part of any discussion about making global norms and standards in international bodies, whichever they may be. If not, it will be China, not the US, who will be making the rules related to human rights, the environment, and even autonomous vehicles.
The more different groups of people and different countries come together to develop autonomous vehicles, and promote the global standards for things like safety, the better the end result will be. Relations between China and the US are currently at their lowest point in probably forty years. The immediate future looks bleak for improvement. I hope I am wrong, however, because both countries have brilliant people and innovative companies working on autonomous vehicles.
Technology should be more cooperative to achieve the best possible solutions to problems. I hope the US wins the race for autonomous vehicles but it may be ten years or longer before the technology matures for passenger autonomous vehicles and hopefully much less for a policy framework at the national level. At the end of the day, I would be happy owning an autonomous vehicle made in China if it meant people like me would be able to own a car and drive again. But I would really love to own and drive an American-made autonomous vehicle!
If you are interested in learning more about the global competition for technology dominance between the US and China and all of the benefits that autonomous vehicles could bring society, please read my book The Future is Autonomous!
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