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Volume 2, Number 4 in Global TECHtonics: U.S./China Fault-line series

 

The weekend’s big development in the technology arena is Beijing’s eleventh-hour move to alter the timing and trajectory of the sale of TikTok’s U.S. operation.

We touched on the Trump Administration’s August moves against TikTok’s parent Bytedance in the U.S./China De-Coupling: 4 Levels of Risk post two weeks ago.  On August 6th, President Trump signed two executive orders which started a 45-day time-clock involving two Chinese companies with hugely popular social media apps – ByteDance (owner of TikTok) and Tencent (owner of WeChat).  According to those orders, U.S. citizens and businesses would be barred, once the 45-day period expired, from any transaction involving the company and/or its products.  On August 14th, the Trump Administration modified the order as far as it affected TikTok by putting a new order in place, giving TikTok 90-days within which to complete the divestiture of its U.S. operation to an approved U.S. corporate buyer.

The widely-presumed reason for this change being made so shortly after the announcement of the original order is that U.S. potential buyers interested in acquiring the U.S. operations of TikTok had pitched their interest to the White House.  It is not surprising that U.S. potential acquirers would be focused on TikTok and not WeChat.  The number of TikTok users in the U.S. is estimated at 80 million in comparison with 19 million for WeChat.  Its growth rate in global markets is far faster and, critically, its algorithms have nearly ubiquitous applicability whereas WeChat algorithms are more geared to Chinese user behavior and are so less replicable in other world markets.

Two groups of interested buyers have emerged publicly since the August 14th announcement:

  • Microsoft/Walmart: As Instagram and other social networks edge into offering shopping features, Microsoft and Walmart are looking to establish themselves at the strategic center of this opportunity with one bold acquisition  move.   Put simply, Walmart would provide the e-commerce component for TikTok while Microsoft would manage the crucial cloud-computing infrastructure.  The deal offers competitive advantages to both firms – Walmart would become better positioned to compete with Amazon and Microsoft would gain experience with an innovative and cutting-edge set of algorithms and data-sets.
  • Oracle: According to analysis by the New York Times business reporter Mike Isaac, “Oracle could use TikTok’s data about social interactions to benefit its cloud, data and advertising businesses.” Also, like Microsoft and Walmart, Oracle is interested in the opportunity the deal would afford “to offer customers a hyper-personalized experience in both content and commerce.”

Going into the weekend, the expectation was high that Bytedance’s preferred acquisition partner would become known and that negotiations would shift to a new phase of negotiation with only that chosen partner.

So, what was the development over the weekend which changed the trajectory and pace of this deal?  The Chinese government announced late in the day on Friday that any sale of Bytedance’s assets would be subject to a brand-new set of restrictions affecting artificial intelligence exports.  As reported in still-developing coverage in the Wall Street Journal, “the new Chinese restrictions highlight the extent to which TikTok, a breakout social-media hit—especially with younger U.S. users—has been thrust into a geopolitical contest between the U.S. and China over the future of global technology.”

I’ll limit my commentary on this development to three main points – a historical observation, a key point having to do with the present-day competition in advanced technologies between the U.S. and China, and my personal handicapping of where this deal is likely to go in the weeks ahead.

 

Historical Antecedent: The U.S.-Japan Trade War

While observers sometimes invoke the U.S.-Japan Trade War as a template for understanding our current tensions with China, the contrasts between the two are probably more instructive than the similarities.  A future post will return to the broad comparison.  For our purposes here, I will single out one important point of contrast.  The U.S.-Japan Trade war became incandescently hot as a political issue in the lead-up to the 1992 U.S. Presidential election.  But while that was happening, commercial developments on the ground were already in motion to begin lowering the heat.  The industry sector in which the grass-roots transformation took root and started having great effect was the automotive sector.  The seed for that bottom-up transformation was the fact that, post-war, Japan had developed intellectual property in their domestic market  that made them more competitive than the U.S. industry in a number of vital areas of automotive manufacturing (e.g., inventory management, quality control, customer-based innovation, etc). Led by Toyota, the Japanese and U.S. industries started reaching an accommodation even before politicians in the U.S. turned up the volume on their anti-Japan megaphones.  Japan would license out its intellectual property and bring its production closer to its customers in the U.S. by building factories and supplier networks in the U.S.  In return, American companies would gain access to know-how in areas where its competitiveness was lagging and also gained greater access to the restricted Japanese market.  At a political level, investments in new state-of-the-art production facilities in the non-unionized south brought jobs into key congressional districts.  Of equal importance, auto workers, their families and their communities started having the experience of working alongside Japanese managers on U.S. soil.  In the process, real-world people-to-people experiences built on collaboration replaced the one-dimensional caricatures being amplified by politicians and the media.

The Chinese have studied this experience whereby Japan lessened the political tension of the U.S.-Japan Trade War while, simultaneously expanding access to the lucrative U.S. market and affluent U.S. consumers.  For various reasons, they have not been as successful in applying the model.  We’ll examine the broader set of reasons in a future post but, for present purposes, one salient reason is that China, generally speaking, has not developed the portfolio of intellectual property focused in high-value industries (like, for Japan, automotive and consumer electronics) and highly sought after by U.S. companies.  Except, that is, until now as China emerges with competitiveness in advanced technology fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and autonomous vehicles.

 

Looking at Both Sides Now:

The U.S. innovation ecosystem represented by Silicon Valley is, and is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, peerless in many important respects – depth of talent and experience, access to capital, connectivity to leading universities, basic research capability and innovation mindedness.  In three respects, however, emerging tech competitors in China enjoy advantages which U.S. firms can’t match.  First, China has been for years the biggest and fastest growing market in the world and U.S. companies can’t afford to cede that base of users entirely to their Chinese competition to monopolize.  However, the ability of U.S. firms to access those consumers is highly constrained by a whole raft of protections – many non-WTO compliant and others not yet covered by WTO ground-rules — by which the Chinese government limits foreign access to its home market and by which it supports its home-grown champion companies.  Second, China may enjoy a tactical advantage through its laser-focus on market applications (as opposed to research and academically-based innovation). Third, AI firms in China definitely enjoy a leg-up in algorithm development because they have direct access to the world’s largest user-base for smart phones and are less constrained by privacy protections for those users.  These latter two advantages for Chinese tech firms are persuasively presented by the former President of Google China, Kaifu Lee (a Taiwanese national whose computer science PhD thesis at Carnegie Mellon gave birth to the world’s first speaker-independent, continuous speech recognition system) in his book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order.  In Lee’s view, “the United States may have been a first mover in AI but that advantage will not last forever. The AI era will reward the quantity of solid AI engineers over the quality of elite researchers. Strength will come from an army of well-trained engineers and entrepreneurs, and China is training just such an army.”

So, stepping back, there is now for the first time since normalization of U.S.-China relations a strategically-important (emerging) industry where Chinese firms hold important competititve advantages over the U.S.  Unlike democratic Japan, this high-stakes competition is associated with a Communist regime with all that that entails for public attitudes in the U.S.  And there is little in the of way local ties-that-bind being built quickly and effectively on a people-to-people basis.  Nothing that can match the stabilizing experience with Japan investment into the U.S. in the 1990s. Together, these three factors go a long way to illuminating the huge pressures that have been building up under the U.S./China technology faultline on both sides of the U.S. political aisle.

 

Where’s The TikTok Deal Likely to Go?

Despite the fact that practically nothing is known yet about the details of the PRC government restrictions announced on Friday, two things can be safely said.   First, the fact that the PRC government is invoking national security as a basis for governing the commercial activities of its leading artificial intelligence firms is hardly surprising.  The competition between the U.S. and China is, for reasons just examined, acute.  The U.S. and other countries routinely monitor and manage international commercial activity for their technologically-advanced products and services, especially those that are ‘dual-use’ in both commercial and military applications.  The second point is that the timing of the announcement tends to be viewed in the U.S. as so transparently tied to the on-going negotiation involving TikTok that it will be viewed more as a political beanball, than a fair pitch.  This despite the fact, as pointed out by an astute comment (see below), that these new regulations had been proposed prior to Trump’s August 6th announcement and were in a public comment process.

The Chinese government action raises the prospect that key algorithms and other vital data – everything that makes TikTok tick — may be stripped out of the sale by its Chinese parent corporation as a new requirement of Chinese law.  That result would fundamentally change the value proposition for both the Microsoft/Walmart and Oracle bidding teams.  It’s like the difference in value between a top-of-the-line computer and that same computer with all its electronics removed.  At the very least, the PRC government action will force all parties to slow the pace of their negotiations and delay the deal being sealed until there’s greater clarity about what will ultimately be allowed.

With Friday’s move, it’s likely that the Chinese government will be satisfied with slowing the deal and changing the trajectory of its fall-out for global technology competition.  Scuppering the deal entirely would risk dramatically escalating the issue with Trump and his Administration.  That would go against China’s temporary strategy of muted response to the Trump Administration’s recent, pre-election flurry of jabs.  The idea in Zhongnanhai in the run-up to November 3rd is to give its wolf-warriors and nationalistic netizens enough to appease their appetites but not enough to risk fanning Washington-Beijing flames out of control.

So, with the clock ticking down to 64 days before the U.S. election and with 78 days before the Trump Executive Order 90-day deadline expires on November 12th, the endgame of this global chess match is now ruled by the time-clock.

TikTok, TikTok, TikTok …

 

Philadelphia was selected today to join an economic development network created by the Global Cities Initiative (GCI) , a five-year joint project of the Brookings Institution and JPMorgan Chase.  Philadelphia’s application to, and participation in, the Global Cities Initiative is being co-led by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia.

GCI Logo & Philly Pic

Launched in 2012, the Global Cities Initiative helps business and civic leaders grow their metropolitan economies by strengthening international connections and competitiveness. GCI activities include producing data and research to guide decisions, fostering practice and policy innovations, and facilitating a peer learning network. This network, the Global Cities Initiative’s Exchange, assists metropolitan areas as they develop plans to achieve sustainable growth through increased exports and foreign direct investment.

Philadelphia is one of eight metro areas accepted to the GCI Exchange’s 2015 group, the final cohort of the full 28-metro-area network. The Brookings Institution selected metro areas for the Exchange through a competitive process based on their readiness and commitment to pursue the Exchange’s global competitiveness principles.

In addition to Philadelphia, the other 7 members of the new and final cohort include Baltimore; Fresno, Calif.; Houston; Kansas City, Mo.; Salt Lake City; Seattle; and St. Louis.

The 2015 cohort joins participating municipal regions selected during  the three previous years – 4 in 2012; 8 in 2013; and 8 in 2014.  Those previous participating municipal regions include:  Atlanta; Charleston, S.C.; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa;Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Fla.; Los Angeles; Louisville-Lexington, Ky.; Minneapolis-Saint Paul; Milwaukee;Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Antonio; San Diego; Syracuse, N.Y.; Tampa Bay, Fla.; Upstate S.C. representing the Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson CSA; and Wichita, Kansas.

For more information on the Global Cities Initiative please visit:

www.brookings.edu/about/projects/global-cities/exchange

www.brookings.edu/projects/global-cities.aspx

www.jpmorganchase.com/globalcities 

Happy Year of the Snake!

I have some major catching up to do so let me begin here with a link to my book which the Wilson Center launched on September 24, 2012.  (Note: if you want to download the PDF of the book, just right-click and use the Save As option).

Book Cover

More 2012/3 updates to follow in rapid sequence.

Thanks for hanging in there,

This is the second in the 2012 series  of  Cooketop News commentaries and news recaps.

By reviewing the previous week’s top stories involving — broadly speaking —  U.S./China clean energy, the commentary section isolates one trend/dynamic which points forward and can help illuminate news-in-the-making for the week(s) ahead.  Following the commentary is a summary of the week’s top stories.

This week? We look at the headline  (Cooketop News, Friday, January 13th) that, after four years, the U.S. re-took the lead from China as the front-runner in global clean energy investment.

     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

From 2008-10, the U.S. visibly lost pace – and, in some instances, lead position – to China as the world’s top investor in clean energy.  In 2010, China – then just over one-third the size of the U.S. economy – invested twice the absolute amount in clean energy as the U.S.  Yet, in 2011, the U.S. bounced back, reclaiming top-spot for the first time in four years:  U.S. investment increased 33% to US$56 billion while Chinese investment remained flat at $47 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.  What does it mean? Less than the headlines might suggest.

Here are three key points to keep in mind while tracking current results – and handicapping future results – in the global clean energy arena:

(1) It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.  The bragging-rights prize will ultimately go to the economy which manages the best combination of technological innovation, political support, and financial sustainability over many years.  Germany and Spain have seen political support for their heavily subsidized systems erode with the euro.  The U.S. is in near political grid-lock over how to set that balance.  China’s position looks strong on the surface but is hobbled by lack of technology innovation, political accountability and financial transparency.

(2) How high’s the bounce?  The U.S. resurgence is due to short-term programs due to expire soon, such as biofuel support programs and energy efficiency measures.  Absent a broad national consensus, there is no strong reason to expect the U.S. “bounce” to remain strong throughout 2012, an election year.

(3) The bottom-line is this is a race is against time, not a Sputnik-type competition.  For either nation’s efforts to pay off, investment will need to be scaled to a global level by investors, public and private.  That won’t happen unless there is a clear middle-way between the extremes which tend to bedevil U.S.-China relations – zero-sum, highly-nationalistic competition on the one hand vs. unrealistic and unsustainable ideas of cooperation on the other.

While the metric of renewed investment vigor in the U.S. is encouraging, the real challenge for the future will be to define and align complementary ‘skill-sets’ in both the U.S. and China so that capital can be attracted and deployed on a global scale through these two massive markets accounting for 40% of the global GHG emissions problem.  We’ll need a discerning eye for the different strengths which our two countries can bring as complementary partners in this effort as well as a realistic understanding of our enduringly different systems and values.   Regardless of who has the momentary lead in investment level, we need to recognize that there is no path to a sustainable future for either country without  clear-eyed, realistically-based and sustained cooperation between the two.

                                              Monday, January 9, 2012

Africa & China: How it all Began

China to Tax Carbon Emissions by 2015

China Vows Backing for Firms Abroad

China Spring Festival Migration Begins

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hottest Solar Markets in Early 2012

12 Challenges for China in 2012

China’s Reform Irresolutions

DoE Heads Off Cleantech Materials Shortages

Wednesday, January 12, 2012

China’s Export Engine Downshifts

China Pumps In $10bn to Water Project

The Case Against Big Dams

Brand Make-Over for Philly Energy Hub

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Does the U.S. Prefer a Ma Victory in Taiwan?

The Perils of Cleantech Investing

China’s Cyber Deterrence

China Braces for Turbulent Year

                                            Friday, January 13, 2011

China’s Forex Reserves Decline

China Cedes Lead to U.S. in Cleantech Investment

China Idling New Aluminum Smelting Capacity

In the spirit of sharing news while it’s fresh, I’m copying verbatim a report on the gold nugget in the pile of dross that has passed for this year’s national budget process.

 For those of you who took in (in person or digitally) the Philadelphia’s 21st Century Energy Opportunity event I convened with the Academy of Natural Sciences and the T.C. Chan Center for Building Simulation & Energy Studies on October 11th,  the win is obvious — for the City and the region, for the national effort for cleaner energy jobs and investment, and for our global engagement.  For U.S./China clean energy cooperation, this budget victory also solidifies the framework of U.S./China Clean Energy Research Centers CERC) in building energy efficiency (Lawrence Berkeley Lab), electric vehicles (University of Michigan) and clean coal (University of West Virginia).

Kudos to Mark Muro and Bruce Katz for their success in keeping this ball moving down the field.  Here’s the report from late yesterday afternoon.

Mark Muro and Devashree Saha
December 19, 2011 | 4:10 pm

Notwithstanding the bleak outlook surrounding federal clean energy policy detailed in our recent report “Sizing the Clean Economy,” the FY 2012 omnibus spending compromise hammered out last week actually contains several reassuring affirmations of the value of recent institutional experiments.

One winner is the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, perhaps the Department of Energy’s most popular program.

Although the program is funded at just $275 million–about half the level President Obama had requested–many will probably be relieved that the program has now survived, which hasn’t always seemed a certainty. Moreover, the deal improved on earlier bills that have circulated, suggesting that the cause of the government fomenting disruptive innovation using “outside-the-box” investments in venturesome technology ideas may be gaining traction. That’s good news.

So is another happy surprise in the deal: the authorization of two new DOE Energy Innovation Hubs, one specializing in rare earths and energy-critical materials and one for energy storage technologies. To be sure, the Obama administration had originally asked for eight of these hubs, and settled for three before this year requesting funds for three more in 2012. However, congressional appropriators weren’t convinced that there was a need for a hub focused on smart grid technologies, as reported Darius Dixon in Politico, and so the nation now has two more of them, for a total of five of these special purpose-driven, multidisciplinary centers for accelerated collaboration between corporations, universities, and government labs.

Yet we’ll take it. Having long argued that the nation has been making do with an obsolete energy research paradigm excessively oriented toward individual academic investigators, on the one hand, and the siloed and bureaucratic efforts of the DOE’s energy laboratories, on the other, it is gratifying to watch the slow but continuing rollout of a true network of well-funded, multi-sector regional innovation centers. Congress is doing the right thing by creating–hub by hub–a set of sizable new institutes charged with “winning the future” in energy technology.

More Articles On: Department of Energy

I was asked today what accounts for China’s outsized role in solar PV , amounting currently to roughly 50% of global share of production despite having a Lilliputian share of global consumption.  It comes down to three inconvenient truths.   That said, the degree of inconvenience of each truth varies with the point of view (e.g., ‘panda hugger’ vs ‘dragon slayer’ in the U.S. vs  ‘patriotic netizen’ in China) of who you happen to be talking with :

(1) Post-WWII, Asia (and notably China since 1982) has had clear advantages of cheaper land, cheaper labor and cheaper facilities relative to manufacturers in higher per capita income markets in the West. Since solar panel production has some basic similarities to the manufacturing process for computer memory chips (which in the 1990s were the basic ‘rice’ commodity of the IT boom in Asia), solar manufacturing has benefited from the natural ‘cluster effect’ of decades of chip manufacturing know-how of Chinese, Taiwanese and other investors on the mainland.

(2) The barriers to entry for solar manufacturers are lower than the earlier tech waves of integrated circuits and bio-technologies so national and local
government in China has seized on it to bootstrap their economies to a higher rung of the global value chain. This has meant various government subsidies (on the producer side) to the point of a casino mentality — more than 100 solar manufacturers in the single town of Dezhou in Shandong Province. (The Chinese government also rounded up and ramped up polysilicon supply when that key input for solar PV production tightened in 2010/11);

(3) There’s not yet an established market for solar products in China so almost everything is exported to Western markets — especially to those national
markets like Germany and Spain and state markets in the U.S. such as New Jersey that have been subsidizing the industry (on the consumer side). [Note: World Trade Organization rules tend to allow/encourage consumer-side subsidies and to sanction producer-side subsidies, hence the recent trade action by the 7 Western solar firms against China. However, these actions take time to work their way through the ‘python’ of WTO process).

As a wrote almost a year ago ( click here for link ), there’s a global boom/bust going on in PV solar and China is in the thick of it.

Premise

The Fukushima disaster in March has prompted all major nuclear powers to pause and reexamine their nuclear development programs. Germany and Italy reached decisions to phase out their nuclear programs.  In the U.S., stirrings of interest in a nuclear revival were silenced.  In China, however, all indications are that a national program to establish China as a global leader in nuclear power remains on track.

 Discussion

The first commercial nuclear power plant in the U. S. was installed in 1958. Today, 104 commercial reactors produce almost 20% of the nation’s total electric generation. By comparison, China’s first nuclear plant, Qinshan, near Shanghai, became operational in 1991. Today, 13 plants are in operation supplying just over 1% of China’s total electricity. However, this freeze frame comparison misses the contrast in momentum for the nuclear industry in the two countries. Of the 52 nuclear power plants that were either under construction or in advanced planning in America and China in late 2010, months before the Fukushima disaster, 50 of those plants were being planned and built for the Chinese market.

source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

As the above chart from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows, nuclear generation has plateaued  in the U.S. and Europe but is rapidly growing  in China, India and the rest of the developing world. While active plants in the U.S. are approaching the end of their licensed lifetime without planned replacement,  new nuclear installations in China are set to increase roughly ten-fold over the next ten years.

Following 1979’s Three Mile Island incident, the experience for the U.S. nuclear industry has been new order cancellation, new construction abandonment, premature shutdown of plants or extension without plans for replacement. Although improved design and technology advances have brought about significantly improved safety performance, public opposition to nuclear power — periodically galvanized by highly publicized international incidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima and persistently bedeviled by the nuclear waste disposal problem– has kept the U.S. market virtually off-limits to new nuclear installations for three decades. China, by contrast, is the world’s most active site for new plant installations. National planning calls for nuclear power to provide 6% of China’s total electrical generation by 2020. This will require a net increase in installed capacity of 60-70 GW, comparable to the entire 63GW of currently installed nuclear capacity in France, one of the world’s most active users. By 2030, China plans to match the nuclear output currently provided by all 104 U.S. installations.

The bottom line:  Chinese authorities clearly know how to throttle back a prestige industrial development project, as shown after July’s high-speed train collision in Zhejiang Province.  After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, however, no such bureaucratic braking of China’s nuclear program has been apparent.  Additional safety reviews have been instituted, but the scale and speed of China’s nuclear program remains essentially unchanged.

 

(This piece has been reprinted from G+ Insights, a publication series of the Gerson Lehrman Group at www.gplus.com.  The G+ piece, in turn, has been adapted from Sustaining U.S.-China Cooperation in Clean Energy,  a book publication authored by Terry Cooke forthcoming from the Kissinger Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Institute in November 2011).

 

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