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Biden science adviser Arati Prabhakar on new hard line on China

Early in her career, Arati Prabhakar led the development of a self-piloted ship for a secret U.S. military research agency. She is now the White House’s top technology official — the first to come from a defense background since the Cold War and a representative of Washington’s new hardline consensus on China.

For three decades, the United States has plunged headlong into globalization, strong in the belief that if the rising tide lifted all boats, the American ship would be the one that rose the highest. China’s technological rise has shaken this confidence and caused a vast policy reversal.

“We had for a long time, for several decades, an overly simplistic model,” Prabhakar said in an interview with The Washington Post. “This simplistic model was that markets and globalization would solve all problems. »

Prabhakar’s first specialty was semiconductor research, a rare background among high-level policymakers. This technical knowledge was put to use as it helped the Biden administration craft the largest industrial policy initiative in decades, aiming to help the United States maintain its technological lead over China. Semiconductors, the brains of computers, are the centerpiece of the program.

“This is the largest industrial policy initiative in the United States since World War II,” said Gary Hufbauer, a former deputy Treasury secretary and now a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The only comparable thing the United States did was the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.”

Kevin Wolf, former assistant secretary of commerce for the Export Administration, said the Biden administration has adopted the strictest technology export controls against China in recent memory, taking the policy position that China having the ability to produce advanced computer systems locally is “national in itself”. security threat” to the United States.

This radical change of direction is reflected in the appointment of Prabhakar, 65, as science and technology adviser to the president in 2022. His recent predecessors were all academics from civilian fields like biology and meteorology.

In contrast, Prabhakar previously oversaw the Pentagon’s futuristic technology research agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). His team at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is now tasked with thorny questions: how to accelerate American innovation in technologies with military applications – semiconductors, telecommunications and quantum computing – while limiting the ties of American research with China without turning towards China? racial profiling.

Many of these projects will take far longer than a four-year presidential term, a recognition that technological rivalry with China can last decades, as did the Cold War.

His team is already maneuvering to challenge allied countries’ commitments to support U.S. rather than Chinese wireless technologies for the 6G generation, which won’t be rolled out until around 2030. U.S. officials were caught off guard with 5G, with China off to a good start. on the research and development of 5G as well as the faster deployment of its networks.

“This is a good time to start aligning everyone,” Prabhakar said of building a 6G coalition around the U.S. position.

His office is in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds, down a black-and-white checkered hallway like a chessboard. Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics “Meet me in a land of Hope and Dreams” are written on the wall.

After immigrating to the United States from India with her parents as a child, Prabhakar earned a doctorate in applied physics at Caltech, then moved away from the academic career path. She was working at DARPA in 1986, at the end of the Cold War.

“The Soviet Union ended when I was at DARPA, and so I saw first-hand what a huge shift had begun in the way we thought about national security,” she said.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of her colleagues went to brief General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the submarines, only for Powell to remark that they did not were more concerned about submarines. Washington reduced its military strength and embraced globalization, consolidating its position as undisputed world leader.

“We were on the right track,” said Rob Atkinson, founder of the Foundation for Information Technology and Innovation. “We were at the center of the Internet and the IT economy. China was nothing. …We assumed this would continue in perpetuity.

China’s unexpected emergence as a serious technological rival has sparked a return to a Cold War climate. President Donald Trump initiated change by launching a trade war against China. Since arriving in the Oval Office, President Biden – who initially criticized these policies – has surprised many by doubling down on Trump’s tariffs and export controls, but with more measured rhetoric and emphasis. on multilateral cooperation.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced in September 2022 that the United States could no longer simply maintain a “relative” technological lead over its rivals and “must maintain as large a lead as possible.” Shortly thereafter, the Commerce Department, led by Gina Raimondo, launched a barrage of technology export controls against China.

Prabhakar’s team has been working on a longer-term research and development strategy, including leading research projects on quantum computing and cancer treatment, and trying to convince several agencies to cooperate in order to harnessing more radio spectrum for emerging technologies in an effort to make a leap. on 6G in competition against China.

The Biden administration has also leaned heavily on industrial policy in key technology sectors like chips and telecommunications equipment, with the help of $52 billion in funding from the bipartisan Chip and Chip Act. Science.

Ken Zita, a telecommunications expert who advised the Biden administration on industrial policies, said Washington was moving from “not having an industrial policy” to “having one” after many years in which industrial planning by the federal government was deeply out of date.

“They had to take everything into account and say, ‘What can we do?’ Where can we act?’ “Zita said.

One of the key challenges for the Biden administration has been how to pursue this policy shift without stoking anti-China sentiment.

Prabhakar’s team is currently drafting research security guidelines for the country’s universities on how they should limit and monitor research relationships with China and other countries considered adversaries. This task was inherited from the Trump administration.

Prabhakar said his team was now “pretty close” to a final version of the rules, although she did not say when they might be released. She said that after releasing a draft of the rules for comment last year, feedback from the research community gave her pause, including that the requirements on universities were too onerous.

“It’s possible to implement so many processes that you make the problem worse,” she said. The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology questioned Prabhakar in February about delays in producing a final version of the rules. She told the committee that drafting the regulations had proven more complex than expected.

“Doing this in a way that respects each individual, their rights as an individual and their dignity, I think, is critically important,” she said. “Not exacerbating anti-Asian bias in the environment we find ourselves in – absolutely essential. »

The draft guidelines released by his office for comment call for training programs at research institutes to include teaching on “the importance of non-discrimination as a guiding principle,” although it is unclear exactly what this would look like in practice.

More generally, the Biden administration’s approach to China has its share of skeptics. Some foreign governments suspect that export controls are more about trade protectionism than national security needs.

“When I travel – and by overseas I mean Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, you know, allied countries – almost everyone doesn’t really understand what the national security objective is. the U.S. government is trying to accomplish all of these new controls,” said Wolf, the former deputy commerce secretary.

Some, like Atkinson, believe that subsidies intended to build new American technology hubs have been distributed too diffusely.

“The point of all this is we can’t have 50 spots,” he said. “There is not enough money. There isn’t enough technology to go around.

Prabhakar defended these measures as part of a carefully considered long-term plan to ensure U.S. competitiveness.

“It is important to say that this is a carefully calibrated strategy. It’s not about saying, “We’re going to drive the sidewalks and never do business with anyone else in the world.” » She is very engaged globally and working with our allies and partners.


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