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US elections 2020

Silicon Valley backs Biden to mend Trump's US-China tech rift

Democratic candidate secures lion's share of Big Tech's campaign donations

Many tech companies and employees are hoping that a Biden presidency would help bring some geopolitical stability back to the sector. (Nikkei montage/AP)

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- Just a few days out from the U.S. presidential election, many in the global technology sector are pinning their hopes on a Democratic victory to reverse the American-China "tech decoupling" and bring some long-missed stability to their businesses.

Between Republican President Donald Trump and his opponent former Vice President Joe Biden, campaign finance records show the Democratic candidate as the clear favorite in Silicon Valley, with Big Tech companies and their employees among the top donors to Biden's campaign.

Google's parent Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Facebook make up five out of the top seven contributors to Biden's campaign committee in 2020, according to federal data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that analyzed donations made by employees and political action committees at each company.

U.S. law requires individuals who contribute $200 or more to a presidential campaign to disclose their employers.

Meanwhile, none of Trump's top presidential campaign contributors are from the tech sector. The president is heavily backed by employees at government agencies, airline and defense industries, the Center for Responsive Politics found.

Alphabet's employees and political action committee, for example, have donated a total of $3.7 million to Joe Biden's campaign committee this year, making them the largest financial backer of the Democratic party candidate. Meanwhile, staff at the search engine giant donated less than $69,000 to Trump's campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

While there are various reasons Silicon Valley might be keen to see Biden in the White House, a major factor is the hope that he will reverse the damage caused by the technology decoupling of China and the U.S. pushed by the Trump administration.

"A lot of the tech companies have not liked the approach of Trump when it comes to China," said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, or ITIF, a Washington-based public policy think tank.

Since the U.S. added Huawei Technologies to its trade blacklist last year, American suppliers to the Chinese tech giant have lost billions of dollars in revenue. This year, the Trump administration's broader crackdown on Chinese tech companies including TikTok has threatened to take an even bigger toll on America's tech industry as tensions between the two superpowers escalated.

"The Trump administration has made it harder [for U.S. technology companies] to deal with China and to sell to China and produce in China. ...There has been some retaliation against American tech companies because of Trump's China policies," said Atkinson.

Multiple U.S. companies, including Apple, reportedly warned the White House that its planned ban on Tencent-owned messaging app WeChat could cripple their entire Chinese businesses, which in the iPhone maker's case accounts for about 15% of its total revenue.

Meanwhile, the U.S. semiconductor sector has already lost billions from the Huawei ban. Mobile chipmaker Broadcom, for example, which has 5% revenue exposure to Huawei, said the loss of that one business cost it $2 billion in 2019. The industry is facing a potential $49 billion revenue loss if the U.S.-China supply chain decoupling continues, Nikkei Asia previously reported.

Moreover, Beijing recently passed a new law controlling the export of sensitive goods, services, and technologies to counter escalating restrictions on Chinese technology companies by Washington, a move that will make it more difficult for tech companies to conduct cross-border business and possibly lead to even more revenue losses.

"The U.S. tech companies are looking for greater stability and predictability than what they've had with Trump," said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

Many Silicon Valley tech giants have global operations and are active in a lot of different countries, and Trump's foreign policies in the past four years have "just been very chaotic for them," West said.

"Trump's problem is that he's too impulsive and so he'll wake up one day and say 'Let's ban TikTok', and there was no thought process that led to that particular decision," he added.

But while many in Silicon Valley believe a Biden presidency would in some way reverse the U.S.-China tech decoupling and bring back stability, some Chinese tech industry participants are less optimistic.

"The decoupling trend is unstoppable as China's economic power rises and threatens U.S. global leadership," said a Shenzhen-based venture investor, who asked not to be named as the matter is sensitive. "It's not likely the two countries will be fully decoupled from each other, but the interdependent tech ecosystem has already been disrupted by Trump and is not going to be restored to where it was anytime soon."

"The ideology differences between China and the U.S. have led to misunderstanding and mistrust. Chinese technologies and companies will always be presumed to have links to Beijing and stigmatized, and not fully embraced in the U.S., no matter who is the president," he added.

A Chinese entrepreneur who operates businesses in both California and Beijing told Nikkei Asia that she is "cautiously optimistic" about a Biden presidency as the former vice president has more experience in dealing with China.

"Biden is not likely to be more friendly to China, but at least his decision-making would be more logical," the entrepreneur said.

The relative lack of optimism about a thaw in U.S.-China relations under Biden is not without reason, according to West at Brookings.

"Biden will still be tough on China, just because the country as a whole has moved towards wanting a tougher stance. I think he will create more of a process for addressing those issues."

Biden has pledged to invest heavily in new technologies under his "Buy American" economic agenda. The plan 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.

"Biden will have more of a process," West added. "It'll be more bureaucratic, it'll be more multinational in nature, in a sense that he will engage our European allies to forge a common front against China."

But while U.S.-China tech competition is set to intensify no matter who wins on Tuesday, Atkinson at ITIF sees at least a glimmer of hope if the Democrat prevails.

"I don't think that you will see an acceleration of decoupling under a Biden presidency," said Atkinson.

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