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As Troop Withdrawals Make Headlines, U.S. Trailing in War Most Americans Are Not Even Aware Of: The Tech War With China

According to news reports, the Pentagon earlier this month confirmed a further withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Meanwhile, as National Defense Magazine editor-in-chief Stew Magnuson writes in a new piece for the publication, the U.S. is engaged in a war most Americans were not even aware of — the “Tech War” with China. And, in case you are wondering, it’s not been going so well.

Zeroing in on Chinese President Xi Jinpin’s recent assertion United Nations General Assembly that his nation had “no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot one with any country,” Magnuson writes:

“That may be. But what is really happening is a ‘technology war.’ There is little awareness among the American public about this undeclared war, but it’s well understood in Beijing. (…) The U.S. record in this rivalry stands at 0-1, or possibly 0-2. The United States lost a major battle that it didn’t even realize it was fighting when China over the past decades established monopolies on several critical rare earth elements and a few other strategic minerals (…).”

If the term “Tech War” rings a bell, it may be because it’s been a recurring theme on our blog for the past few months, ever since ARPN Principal Daniel McGroarty argued that the “specter of using rare earths as an economic weapon makes clear that the current trade war between the U.S. and China is in fact one front in a larger tech war – a competition to see which country will dominate the 21st Century Technology Age” in a piece for The Economic Standard.

Magnuson believes that the failure to build out a domestic Rare Earths industry will prove to be a “major strategic defeat as these elements are the building blocks for many of this century’s emerging technologies,” — but it does not end there.

The Tech War, as Magnuson describes it, has a number of battlefronts, ranging from the control over Rare Earths (or, more generally speaking, critical mineral resources) over aviation, space technology, biotech, quantum sciences, robotics, and military technology to artificial intelligence. Already down 0:1 over Rare Earths, he argues that the U.S. runs the risk of going 0:2 when factoring in the battle for 5G dominance, an area where, according to several recent think tank reports, the U.S. is allowing “China to eat its lunch.”

The fact that, even with partisan tensions flaring in Washington, DC in the months leading up to the election, China’s 5G rollout, is “one of the few afflictions that affect both U.S. political parties,” as ARPN’s McGroarty has argued in an earlier piece on the U.S. decision to ban Huawei’s 5G network, indicates that Magnuson is on to something.

Magnuson seems to believe that not all is lost, however. He writes:

“5G and rare earth processing are just two battles in a longer war, and ground that was lost during battles can be seized back. The United States — if it had the will to compete — for example, could end China’s rare earth and strategic minerals monopolies. The United States could end up 2-0, but victory is not assured.”

This, however, would require more than mere lip service on the part of our elected officials. Months ago, before the pandemic hit and the presidential elections overshadowed all policy, there were indications that a bipartisan consensus was emerging regarding the need to address our over-reliance on Chinese critical materials, and to counter China’s 5G rollout.

The recent launch of the bipartisan Critical Materials Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives has us hoping for positive impulses, at least on the critical minerals front, going into 2021.

Here’s hoping that once the fog of the presidential elections has lifted, policy makers have the bandwidth (pun intended) to sufficiently devote their attention to the Tech War with China, which, as Magnuson has argued “may one day describe the age we are living in as ‘the Cold War’ did after World War II.”