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The Great Decoupling

Shenzhen, China – Photo credit: Denys Nevozhai (Unsplash)

By Nigel Inkster | 28 October 2020

For the past 16 months I’ve been working on a book entitled The Great Decoupling: China, America and the Struggle for Technological Supremacy. The book, published by Hurst, is due out on 17 December 2020. It is in some ways a follow-up to a book I published with the International institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in 2016 entitled China’s Cyber Power. This latter book was written at a time when the topic du jour in relation to China and technology was industrial cyber espionage. China’s Cyber Power, while acknowledging the reality of such espionage and looking in detail at how and why it was happening, sought to emphasise that the real challenge posed by China lay in the use of its growing technology capabilities to reshape the global cyber domain in ways that promoted its strategic interests. This involved diplomacy, espionage, propaganda and the use of China’s technology national champions such as Huawei to create facts on the ground.


Since I wrote China’s Cyber Power the issues it covered have become more complex and more salient as China’s aspirations to become a leading technology power are now front and centre in a contest for geo-political power between the USA as the incumbent and China as the rising power. Whereas China’s Cyber Power was a book aimed at the strategic studies and policy communities, The Great Decoupling is aimed more at a general audience and covers a wider range of topics. Essentially it is a story about how China, long a global technology power, missed the Industrial Revolution and as a consequence suffered a loss of status and identity that it has been struggling to recover ever since. This portion of the book seeks to address what intelligence historian Professor Christopher Andrew called the “historical amnesia” of Western policy-makers – though in the case of China it is less about forgetting than not knowing in the first place. And it seeks to put China’s current behaviours into an appropriate cultural and historical context which I feel is either totally lacking or at best dealt with superficially in much of the current literature on China emanating from the West generally and the Unites States in particular.


What was already a very contemporary cutting-edge topic became even more so in light of the US-China trade war and the COVID-19 epidemic. Taken together these events, both of which occurred as I was writing, sent an already fractious US-China relationship into free-fall, taking the world into uncharted territory. This led to a certain amount of rewriting but didn’t change the basic structure and orientation of the book which looks at how China became a major technology player and at the role technology has played in China’s internal and external security, diplomacy, military capabilities and efforts to exercise global power and influence. Judging where China is technologically relative to the USA is more art than exact science and is further complicated by China’s tendency to oscillate between bouts of “techno-exuberance” and a more sober assessment of its capabilities – in this context a recent speech by Liu Yadong, editor-in-chief of China’s Science and Technology Daily available on YouTube makes for interesting listening. It also doesn’t help that the evolution of the key technologies is not predictable, a case in point being Artificial Intelligence where boundless optimism about what might be possible is now giving way to greater realism.


But the key conclusions are clear enough. China is on the way to becoming a peer competitor with the USA in all aspects of advanced technologies and, given its relentless focus on an all-of-nation effort to seize the commanding heights, could well surpass the USA unless the latter takes urgent steps to stay ahead. And as cooperation between the USA and China gives way to competition, the world faces the Great Decoupling in which the USA and China go their separate ways technologically and the rest of the world is faced with the challenge of manoeuvring between these two behemoths.


This is a subject area in which knowledge is dispersed and expertise relatively limited though there are some excellent Chinese articles in specialist journals and blogs such as Zhishifenzi. I don’t consider myself to be a professional Sinologist though I had an excellent grounding in Chinese studies at Oxford University and spent a large part of my government career dealing with China. Nor am I a technology specialist – though I know just about enough to be dangerous. I was however able to draw on much practical experience derived from involvement in UK-China and Europe-China Track 1.5 diplomacy on cyber security and US-China-Russia Track 2 diplomacy on military cyber security as well as attendance at events such as China’s annual World Internet Conference and some fascinating seminars at China’s National Defence Technical University.


This is a fascinating and rewarding area of study and one in which there is an urgent need for new blood. Young Sinologists looking to make a name for themselves could do worse than think about specialising in some aspects of a large subject where I’m conscious I have only scratched the surface.

Nigel Inkster is Senior Adviser for Cyber Security and China at the IISS and is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. His forthcoming book,  The Great Decoupling: China, America and the Struggle for Technological Supremacy will be published by Hurst in December 2020.


Nigel worked for 31 years in the British Secret Intelligence Service, retiring at the end of 2006 as assistant chief and director of operations and intelligence.


The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.


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