Biden’s science adviser Aarti Prabhakar talks about new tough stance towards China

Early in her career, Aarti Prabhakar led the development of a self-propelled ship for a secretive US military research agency. Now she is the White House’s top technology official – the first to come from a defense background since the Cold War and a representative of Washington’s new tough consensus on China.

For three decades, the United States threw itself into globalization, confident that when the tide rises all boats, America’s ship would rise first. China’s technological rise has shaken that confidence and prompted a sweeping policy reversal.

“We’ve had an overly simplistic model for a long time, for many decades,” Prabhakar said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That overly simplistic model was that markets and globalization would solve all problems.”

Prabhakar’s early expertise was semiconductor research, a rare background among senior policymakers. That technical knowledge has come in handy as he has helped the Biden administration craft the biggest industrial policy push in decades to help the United States maintain its technological edge over China. Semiconductors — the brains of computers — are the centerpiece of the program.

“This is the biggest industrial policy initiative in the U.S. since World War II,” said Gary Hufbauer, a former Treasury deputy assistant secretary and now a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The only thing the U.S. did that was comparable to this was the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.”

Former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration Kevin Wolf says the Biden administration has imposed the strictest technology export controls against China in recent times, adopting the policy position that China having the capability to indigenously produce advanced computing systems poses a “counter-national security threat” to the United States.

This drastic change is reflected in the appointment of 65-year-old Prabhakar as the president’s science and technology adviser in 2022. His recent predecessors were all scholars in civilian fields such as biology and meteorology.

In contrast, Prabhakar previously oversaw the Pentagon’s future technology research agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). His team at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy now faces the challenge of how to speed up American innovation in technologies with military applications – semiconductors, telecommunications and quantum computing – while simultaneously curbing American research ties with China without engaging in racial profiling.

Many of these projects will take longer to complete than the president’s four-year term, confirming that the technological rivalry with China could last for decades, as it did during the Cold War.

His team is already working to secure commitments from allies to support U.S. wireless technologies over China’s for the 6G generation, which won’t come into effect until around 2030. U.S. officials have been confused about 5G, as China has rapidly rolled out its network while accelerating 5G research and development.

“This is the right time to bring everyone together,” Prabhakar said of building a 6G coalition around the US position.

His office is in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds, in a corridor checkered in black and white like a chessboard. On the wall is the Bruce Springsteen song “Meet Me in a Land of Hope and Dreams.”

After immigrating to the United States from India with her parents as a child, Prabhakar earned a PhD in applied physics from Caltech, then strayed from an academic career. She ended up working at DARPA in 1986, during the final stages of the Cold War.

“When I was at DARPA, the Soviet Union collapsed, and I saw how drastically that changed the way we thought about national security,” she said.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a colleague briefed General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on submarines, but Powell remarked that he did not care about submarines anymore. Washington reduced the size of its military and embraced globalization, becoming confident of its position as the undisputed world leader.

“We were way ahead of the curve,” said Rob Atkinson, founder of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “We were the center of the Internet and IT economy. China was nothing. … We assumed this would continue forever.”

China’s unexpected emergence as a serious tech rival has led to a return to a Cold War-like chill that President Donald Trump started by launching a trade war against China. Since coming into the Oval Office, President Biden — who previously criticized those policies — has surprised many by doubling down on Trump’s tariffs and export controls, while employing more balanced rhetoric and a focus on multilateral cooperation.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan declared in September 2022 that the United States could no longer maintain a mere “relative” technological edge over rivals and “must maintain as large a lead as possible.” Soon after, the Commerce Department, led by Gina Raimondo, unleashed a slew of technology export controls on China.

Prabhakar’s team is working on a long-term research and development strategy, which includes directing research projects in quantum computing and cancer treatment, and persuading various agencies to collaborate to acquire more radio spectrum for emerging technologies in an effort to gain an edge on 6G in the competition with China.

The Biden administration has also pushed industrial policy in key tech sectors such as chips and telecom gear, with the help of $52 billion in funding from the bipartisan Chips and Science Act.

Ken Zita, a telecom expert who advised the Biden administration on industrial policies, said Washington was making the leap from “no industrial policy” to “having one” after several years in which industrial planning by the federal government was completely out of fashion.

“They had to fully understand the issue and say, ‘What can we do? Where can we take action?'” Zita said.

A major challenge for the Biden administration has been how to pursue this policy shift without fueling anti-China sentiment.

Prabhakar’s team is drafting research security guidelines for universities across the country on how they should limit and monitor research ties with China and other countries it considers hostile, a task inherited from the Trump administration.

Prabhakar said his team is now “very close” to a final version of the rules, though he did not say when they might be released. He said that after releasing a draft version of the rules for comment last year, feedback from the research community forced him to pause, including that the requirements for universities were too onerous.

“It is possible to have so many processes that you actually end up making the problem worse,” he said. The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology questioned Prabhakar in February about the delay in preparing the final version of the rules. He told the committee that drafting the rules had turned out to be much more complicated than expected.

“To do this in a way that respects every individual, their rights and their dignity as a person, I think, is extremely important,” he said. “Not promoting anti-Asian bias in the environment that we’re in — that’s absolutely critical.”

Draft guidelines released by his office for comment call for research institutions to include instructions on “the importance of non-discrimination as a guiding principle” in their training programmes, though it is not entirely clear what this would look like in practice.

More broadly, there are also skeptics of the Biden administration’s approach to China. Some foreign governments suspect that export controls are more about trade protectionism than a national security necessity.

“When I travel — and by overseas I mean Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K., you know, allied countries — almost everybody doesn’t really understand what the national security objective is that the U.S. government is trying to accomplish with all of these new controls,” said Wolf, a former assistant commerce secretary.

Some, like Atkinson, say the distribution of grants to create new U.S. technology centers is too scattered.

“The bottom line is you can’t have 50 sites. There’s not enough money for it. There’s not enough technology for it,” he said.

Prabhakar defended these measures, saying they were part of a carefully considered long-term plan to ensure America’s competitiveness.

“It’s important to say that this is really a carefully calibrated strategy. It’s not saying, ‘We’re going to close the sidewalks and not do business with anybody else around the world.’ It’s very globally connected, working with our allies and partners.”


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