The COVID-19 pandemic can safely be termed the signal event of the first two decades of the twenty-first century. And, like much else about this century, it is closely tied to China: the SARS-CoV-2 virus was first detected in the country, and it continues to wreak havoc on everyday life in the world’s second-largest economy, at considerable cost to global trade and growth.
The increasingly central role of public health and other emerging issues in China’s relationship with the world is the point of departure for my new book, China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology are Reshaping China’s Rise and the World’s Future. Its central argument is that we must re-envision our thinking about China’s rise and its role in the world in terms of two newer issue areas: sustainability and emerging technology. This is both because China is increasingly indispensable to tackling shared global challenges like climate change, and because ecological and technological challenges are themselves increasingly shaping Beijing’s decision-making in areas like economic development and foreign policy.
My argument is based in large part on personal experience. Soon after finishing graduate school, I had the opportunity to complete a fellowship in the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, where I had a portfolio called “Environment, Science, Technology, and Health.” The focus was on climate change, but I also covered everything from nuclear waste to Ebola response to seismological monitoring. Despite the catch-all nature of these issues, two things tied them together: their increasing importance to the world, and the priority that Beijing attached to them.
“China is increasingly indispensable to tackling shared global challenges like climate change.”
I became convinced that in order to understand where China is headed and how it will affect the rest of the world in the twenty-first century, it would be essential to explore China’s response to tackling shared ecological challenges, especially climate change and public health, and to regulating emerging technologies, especially artificial intelligence and biotechnology.
In the decades ahead, both China and the world will increasingly be shaped largely by developments in sustainability and technology. The book lays out five ways in which sustainability and technology will reshape China’s rise and its role in the world, with major implications for foreign countries, businesses, universities, and other organizations:
- China-linked political and economic risk will intensify. No-regrets supply chain diversification will only make more sense over time for foreign businesses.
- Environmental sustainability will become a bigger and bigger priority in the China market because of growing regulatory and consumer pressure. This is both in direct operations and larger supply chains.
- Data privacy, security, and surveillance will pose growing dilemmas for multi-national companies. Data governance is becoming more fragmented, and compliance and cross-border transfer more difficult. Firms need to prepare for “data de-globalization.”
- China is becoming a more isolated, but still large and important, innovation ecosystem. How to access and leverage this ecosystem, and the talent within it, will become a bigger challenge for foreign companies, universities, and other organizations as China-global research collaborations, student flows, and other connective channels shrink.
- China’s frothy biotech sector is cooling but will still be a major growth driver in the decades ahead. And developments in biotech will disrupt and reshape many sectors and industries via biometrics, biomaterials, and other advancements.
Three strategies for approaching China
In the course of exploring these implications, I also suggest three strategies to help foreign governments, businesses, universities, and other organizations approach China in the decades ahead:
- Ring fencing
This strategy involves identifying core areas of common interest and working to insulate them from tensions in other areas. This is likely to be most effective on highly specific, technical issues like nuclear security.
This approach requires working with allies and partners to establish diverse networks in areas like technological standard-setting that can include and engage China—but prevent it from making the rules on its own terms.
- Prioritizing non-state and sub-national partnerships
For a variety of deep-seated reasons, inter-governmental relations between China and many other nations are likely to continue to worsen. Though no substitute for diplomatic action, the private sector, universities, and other non-governmental actors will have to shoulder much of the burden of working to address shared concerns in the areas of sustainability and technology.
To me, this observation leads to a final, and perhaps the most critical lesson of all from the book: despite the disruption of the past five years, engagement with China is more critical, as well as complex, than ever before.
Featured image by Nuno Alberto via Unsplash, public domain