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Open source of trouble: China's efforts to decouple from foreign IT technologies

Chinese tech companies are turning to European suppliers and collaborative projects to cut their reliance on US suppliers. Caroline Meinhardt says Europe faces some tough choices.

merics.org, Mar. 18, 2020 – 

When the United States and China signed their "phase one" trade agreement in January, many hoped it signaled a thaw in the US-China trade relationship. But having experienced the devastating effect of US export controls, Chinese companies are now more determined than ever to end their dependency on American technology. Huawei's Mate 30 is one shiny example: Unveiled four months after the Chinese telecoms giant landed on the US' "Entity List," the smartphone producer replaced US audio chips and power amplifiers with Dutch and Chinese-made alternatives.

Open-source research collaborations could make up for export controls

Ideally, of course, Beijing would like to decouple completely from foreign technology. So, while European companies are benefitting for now as China turns its back on US suppliers, this advantage will likely be short-lived. European interests are also at stake in the global open-source projects that China sees as an opportunity to move towards technological self-sufficiency. As China's decoupling accelerates, Europe will have to assess its position within the triangle it forms with the US and China and find a way to evaluate commercial and academic technology relationships with China.

Open-source research collaborations, in particular, are seen by China's tech industry as a promising way to make up for US export controls. Open-source projects are communities in which hardware design or software code are made freely available for anyone to use, modify and redistribute – an alternative to commercial licenses sold by large technology companies. Amid fears that the US might permanently bar Chinese companies from access to its hard- and software, Chinese IT-industry officials think open-source projects will give them secure access to technologies because they are not controlled by any one foreign country.

One example is the open-source chip project RISC-V...

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