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CES 2021

Biden to counter China tech by urging investment in US: adviser

Brian Deese says focus will be on alliance revitalization and multilateralism

“It's clear that China is our most serious global competitor," says Brian Deese, pictured here in 2015. "And this competition is going to be one of the central challenges of this century.”   © Reuters

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- Brian Deese, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's choice to head the National Economic Council, says the new administration will fight for tech supremacy by rebuilding its core strengths rather than slapping restrictions on China.

Deese was speaking at the first all-digital CES, the world's biggest consumer electronics and technology expo, where tech executives and experts from around the globe were discussing how the administration of President-elect Biden might approach technology and trade issues.

During the past four years, President Donald Trump's administration has injected uncertainty into the tech sector by rolling out a series of orders limiting U.S. tech companies' dealings with China and pushing for a de facto "tech decoupling."

Last week, Trump introduced a last-minute ban on Chinese apps, including several Alibaba- and Tencent-owned applications, aggravating U.S.-China tensions that had already taken a toll on America's tech sector, including in the form of billions of dollars in lost revenue.

"The business community is looking towards a little more steadiness and predictability rather than waking up and reading a Twitter feed and seeing how your business life is gonna change and your business has to re-source and move," said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association.

Shapiro was speaking during a CES panel discussion with Deese, who served as a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama and will be advising Biden on domestic and international economic policy.

Biden will be inaugurated as U.S. president on Wednesday.

While promising the tech industry that the Biden administration will "restore science to our basic decision-making," Deese said the U.S.-China rivalry will continue.

"I think it's clear that China is our most serious global competitor," Deese said. "And this competition is going to be one of the central challenges of this century."

Instead of undermining Chinese companies by introducing tariffs and export bans, however, the Biden administration will prioritize domestic investment in the technology sector. During his campaign, Biden introduced a "Buy American" agenda, which includes $300 billion for new technologies ranging from electric vehicles and lightweight materials to 5G and artificial intelligence -- areas where China is rapidly gaining cachet.

"One of the most important elements of the president-elect's vision for how to approach this competition is that we need to rebuild our core areas of strength in the United States," Deese said.

"One of the things you're going to see early on [in Biden's presidency] is a focus on investing domestically in our people, in our economy, in our democracy," he added.

Deese added that collaborations with U.S. allies will be another key to fending off China's rising tech and economic power.

"The second thing is to really revitalize our alliances and our partnerships around the world," he said. "The other thing you've heard very clearly from the president-elect is that we will take a multilateral approach."

Deese did not provide details on how the Biden administration would deal with privacy concerns, Big Tech's antitrust practices and other issues but said the new president will work with Congress to identify where "our regulatory architecture doesn't capture the needs of the economy" as soon as he takes office.

American tech companies -- especially Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon -- have been facing regulatory headwinds in recent years, including a federal probe into their anti-competitive practices.

Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have been open critics of the tech sector, and have called for more regulations, especially for social media giants like Facebook. It is expected that Biden will carry through in this regard.

"I think the Biden administration is going to have a lot on its plate," said Keith Enright, chief privacy officer at Google, during a CES panel discussion with executives from Twitter and Amazon. "I expect privacy and data protection will be one thing on a very long list and extremely important work that they'll be taking on early in the year."

Meanwhile, Big Tech is already familiar with Harris. The vice president-elect is a former attorney general of California, where most U.S. tech giants are headquartered, and many Silicon Valley executives are on her campaign donors' list.

Harris's time in California might prove useful as the Biden administration carries out its tech agenda.

"Vice President-elect Harris was very involved in the issue of privacy, so I absolutely expect that they will be moving on this [privacy issue]," said Anne Toth, director of Alexa Trust at Amazon. "Hopefully, her experience [in California] will come into play as they think through the administration's approach."

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