What is the United States’ Interest?
No one disputes that the rise of China and India as technological powers with huge populations and internal markets, more highly educated scientists and engineers than any other country in the world, and sophisticated military forces will profoundly affect American interests. But exactly how? What U.S. interests are at stake? How do national interests diverge from those of U.S.-headquartered global companies? Questions such as these must be addressed before we can consider how the United States should respond to the growing challenge from these countries.
Norman Neuriter, former State Department science adviser, co-chair of the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum, and scholar with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, moderated a conference session devoted to these questions. Other contributors to the discussion included Tony Hey, chief of Microsoft Research, Kent Hughes of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Da Hsuan Feng of the University of Texas at Dallas and the National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan.
Tony Hey described Microsoft’s investment in research in Central and South Asia, first in China in November 1998 then India in January 2005. The Microsoft unit in China has seen 50 percent growth, hiring 120+ staff members in FY 2006 and creating links with universities, including nine joint laboratories. Total employment of locals with technical qualifications is more than 300. Although smaller,—employing 50 full-time staff and 100 interns—the company’s Indian operation builds on that country’s tradition of education and set of research challenges. Both operations have become integral parts of the company’s worldwide research and development activities.
Kent Hughes compared the challenge of China and India to the Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite, 50 years to the week earlier. Sputnik was seen as a challenge to U.S. technological dominance, particularly in the military sphere. It helped spur investment in science and engineering education and private sector innovation. Will the challenge of China and India’s growing economic strength and technological capacity prompt a similar U.S. response? “Innovation has gone global,” said Hughes, forcing the United States to change its role to one of adapter as well as lead innovator.
Hughes observed that the United States has long enjoyed a pool of domestic technical talent and an inflow of foreign talent. The emergence of a global skilled labor pool able to cooperate and compete at a distance as well as migrate from one location to another have benefited the United States and other countries enormously. They also present a conundrum, however, as low salaries in India and China bring competition. In this context, India and China could define wage rates for professionals everywhere, creating disincentives for native-born students to pursue careers in science and engineering.
The global talent pool represents a particular challenge for U.S. national security agencies, which are restricted in their ability to engage world talent. In recent years, growing difficulties in getting U.S. visas for scientists from abroad to attend conferences have driven some U.S. growth abroad. The United States should consider the emergence of a global talent pool as a positive competitive challenge and catalyst. Fifty years after Sputnik, are we meeting our next Sputnik challenge? In Hughes’ view, emerging capacity in China and India underscore a need to reevaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our innovation system anew.
Da Hsuan Feng, University of Texas at Dallas and Senior Executive Vice President for Research at the National Cheng Kung University at Tainan, Taiwan, outlined a future scenario based not on triadic competition among China, India, and the United States but rather envisioning a political and economic convergence of China and India. In his talk, “Googling My Late Father,” he described his long connection to India, having been born in New Delhi in the 1940s to a journalist based there. Many years later, he came across a published interview between India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his father, in which Nehru voiced his hope that India and China would move forward together. The rift between the two countries in the 1950s was a great disappointment to Nehru. Now, the increase in international commercial activity and the growing middle class in both countries will drive demand for better health care, environmental quality, and quality of life.
A European Union was scarcely imaginable amid the ruins after World War II, said Feng. In the same way we may be surprised by a convergence of interests in Asia. He posited a future train ride from Seoul to Mumbai that would not require passport checks, just as Europeans now travel from Helsinki to Rome, the result of increasingly shared interests.