Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order severely restricting the ability of U.S. companies to invest in the “semiconductors and microelectronics, quantum information technologies, and artificial intelligence sectors” of certain “countries of concern.” Though never mentioned in the body of the executive order, the target of the restrictions is made explicitly clear by the very brief annex specifying who those countries of concern are: China and its special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
This is just the latest measure the Biden administration has taken to limit China’s access to the cutting-edge, next-generation technologies that will “win” the 21st century. Starting last August, the administration began restricting China’s ability to import the machines that produce computer chips, undercutting Beijing’s ability to produce the electronic devices on which modern commerce, but also military power, rely. In December, it banned the use of communications equipment made by Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE in new infrastructure projects. But the effort isn’t limited to technology. Biden also maintained the broad range of tariffs imposed on China by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.
Such policies carry the potential to end economic globalization as we know it. They also raise a fundamental question: Why is the United States under Trump and now Biden imposing trade restrictions on China? There are three possible explanations.