As Washington Tries to Protect Tech, China Could Fight Back

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As the Trump administration moves to take on China over intellectual property, Washington will find it has limited firepower. Beijing has a strong grip on American technology companies, and global trade rules could favor China.

Technology is proving a major battleground for China and the United States, as both sides vie to protect their economic and national security interests.

Beijing has forced a long list of American companies to enter joint ventures or share research with Chinese players, part of a broader push to create its own technology giants. From makers of smartphones to chips to electric cars, American businesses have reluctantly agreed, fearful of losing access to China, which has the second-largest economy in the world.

China’s ambitions have set off alarms in Washington, with concerns on both sides of the aisle. Robert E. Lighthizer, the United States trade representative, is now preparing a trade case accusing China of extensive violations of intellectual property, according to people with detailed knowledge of the case.

But China can play a strong defense. The country has broad latitude, under special rules it negotiated with the World Trade Organization, to maintain restrictions within its market.

“The problem is that U.S. trade negotiators agreed to provisions allowing China to limit market access for U.S. companies unless they engaged in joint ventures,” said Michael R. Wessel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which Congress created to monitor the relationship between the two countries.

“Potential Chinese partners demand the family jewels,” he said. “Companies can say no, but too many give in to Chinese pressure to make a quick buck.”

The current trade frictions trace back to the Clinton administration.

When China was entering the W.T.O. in 1999 and 2000, American negotiators gave Beijing some leeway, a position later supported by the administration of George W. Bush. As a developing country, China was allowed extra protections, such as requirements that companies in critical industries work with Chinese partners. China, in return, promised to shed the extra rules gradually as its economy matured.

But Beijing did not open up, even as China evolved into an economic powerhouse. Quite the opposite has happened under President Xi Jinping, who has pursued a more nationalistic agenda than his reform-minded predecessors.

China now sees the technology sector as a critical piece of its industrial policy — a policy that Beijing is aggressively enlisting American tech giants to support and that the leadership will most likely go all out to protect.

Beijing’s demands have been partly driven by security concerns, particularly after disclosures by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, of electronic spying by the United States on China’s rapid military buildup.

China has also been explicit about its economic motives, seeking to dominate fast-growing global industries that could create millions of well-paid jobs for a generation of increasingly well-educated young Chinese.