When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he claimed there was a dangerous “missile gap” between Russia’s arsenal and that of the United States. But once he took office in 1961, Kennedy learned that the imbalance was the opposite of what he had argued. Instead of the 200 or more Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles that scaremongers had predicted, the Russians had just four.

Something similar may be happening now with the Trump administration’s claims that China poses a military and economic threat to the United States that’s so severe, Washington should begin “decoupling” its economic relationship with Beijing, especially in high-tech products.

President Trump amplified the China scare talk in remarks to reporters on Monday. “They’re building up a powerful military, and it’s very lucky that I’ve been building ours up because otherwise we’d be dwarfed right now by China,” he said. “If Joe Biden becomes president, China will own the United States.”

Trump called decoupling “an interesting word,” and implied he would pursue it in a second term: “Under my administration, we will make America into the manufacturing superpower of the world and we’ll end our reliance on China, once and for all, whether it’s decoupling or putting in massive tariffs.”

China certainly has made big advances in technology and military weapons over the past decade. But some leading experts say the claim that China is ahead on key technologies, such as artificial intelligence, is flat wrong. And they warn that policies that seek a radical break between the U.S. and Chinese economies, as Trump implies, could backfire.

“China is closing the gap in technology, but the U.S. can widen its lead if it adopts the right policies,” argues Jason Matheny, a former director of IARPA, the intelligence community’s in-house think tank. Matheny is director of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University and contributed to a recent review of technology issues for the Working Group on Science and Technology in U.S.-China Relations, sponsored by the University of California at San Diego and the Asia Society.

Peter Cowhey, a UCSD dean who chairs this working group, summarized its findings at an online meeting of the UCSD China Forum last week: “The U.S. is in much better shape than the pessimists think,” and it should protect the openness and dynamism that have made the United States the world’s technology superpower. But at the same time, Cowhey cautioned, Washington should continue to restrict access to certain key technologies, such as the manufacture of semiconductors, where the United States has a decisive competitive advantage.

Studies from around the world document the U.S. advantage over China in artificial intelligence, perhaps the most important of the emerging technologies.

A study published in August 2019 by the Center for Data Innovation, a research institute based in Washington and Brussels, found that “despite China’s bold AI initiative, the United States still leads in absolute terms.” The United States scored first in four of the study’s six key metrics: talent, research, development and hardware. China led in the other two, adoption of AI technology and access to data that feeds it.

Similarly, an AI index published last December by the global think tank Tortoise ranked the United States first overall, and the leader in talent, infrastructure, research and commercial activity. A study published in 2018 by Oxford University researcher Jeffrey Ding measured countries’ AI capabilities. China’s score was about half that of the United States.

The United States leads the race because it’s the place where the brightest minds want to study, work and live. A report published in June by the Paulson Institute found that the United States “has a substantial lead over all other countries in top-tier AI researchers,” with nearly 60 percent working for American companies and universities. China is the biggest source of these top-tier engineers, but more than half of them remain in the United States.

Even in areas where China appears to be leading the United States, such as publication of AI papers and registration of patents, experts are skeptical. “China’s academic system incentivizes researchers to produce both papers and patent applications in large volumes, even when the quality is low,” Matheny argued in an interview.

Richard J. Danzig, a former Navy secretary who’s leading a study of U.S.-China technology decoupling for the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, argues in a forthcoming paper with co-author Lorand Laskai that the United States must protect its dominance in making semiconductor chips, but that Beijing has “no prospect” of reaching its goal of 70 percent self-sufficiency by 2025.

The United States and China have an increasingly competitive relationship, but they need each other, too, like conjoined twins. Hasty attempts at separation could harm them both. Open research made U.S. technology great; making it more difficult for the best brains to live and work here would be folly.

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