By 2020, the United States and China had already begun to decouple—selectively paring back their interdependence in sensitive areas, especially technology—and the coronavirus pandemic will only accelerate the process. With bilateral tensions at a modern high point, Americans and their leaders are less comfortable relying on China for lifesaving medical supplies like masks and gloves and will be even keener to control technology, a vital force in the life of nations.

Decoupling is an appealing metaphor, suggesting the simple disconnection of a cable between the two countries. But the more accurate—and daunting—image is disentanglement. U.S. and Chinese technologies are woven together in enormous, overlapping webs that span the global economy. They can’t be pulled apart without breaking many strands and risking unknowable consequences.

U.S. and Chinese technologies are woven together in enormous, overlapping webs.

Rather than acknowledge the difficult questions involved, U.S. leaders have largely sidestepped them. First, what is the ultimate objective of disentanglement? Maximizing U.S. prosperity and security? Or containing China’s rise? These goals are not the same and, indeed, are often in conflict. For example, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration wants to strangle the Chinese firm Huawei by choking off its supply of semiconductors. But this would also weaken the semiconductor industry in the United States and complicate domestic access to foreign-made chips.

Second, what is the scope of disentanglement? Will the United States impose targeted protections on a handful of the most strategic technologies? Or will it apply sweeping controls across many technology areas? The latter approach could be self-defeating, slowing U.S. innovation or even leading to a total rupture of economic ties with China. Yet a narrower approach may be inadequate to achieve key goals, like preventing the export to China of technologies with both civilian and military uses. Something will have to give.

Third, what is the United States’ domestic strategy? Should it rely on the free market to out-innovate China? Or does government need to actively direct and fund U.S. technological development? If Beijing’s potent blend of state capitalism is set to dominate future industries, the United States may need to adapt its economic system in response. But such a major shift would need significant evidence to justify it and extraordinary political will to implement it; these may simply come too late.

Fourth, how will the United States lead a larger global coalition? Which countries would join a split from China’s technology, and what enticements or concessions would the United States offer these countries? The Trump administration has bullied its closest democratic allies with only modest success. But a multilateral approach comes with its own limits. Some U.S. partners are unwilling to break from China. Others, such as the Gulf states, prefer Beijing’s model of digital authoritarianism to what they see in the United States.

These are just four sets of unresolved questions among many—each of which requires making complex value judgments and testing unproven theories. Yet one answer is clearly wrong: lurching forward without a coherent strategy or even real debate. Ad hoc actions are creating long-term risks for the United States that are barely understood and widely overlooked. Before leaping any further into the unknown, the United States should work toward greater national consensus on the difficult road ahead.

  • Jon Bateman