Opinion - Commentary

China wants to create a tech landscape where the US can no longer hurt it

Key Points
  • Global markets have rallied on the re-ignition of trade talks between the U.S. and China.
  • President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping's met at the weekend in Japan.
  • Trump suggested he could ease restrictions on U.S. tech exports to Chinese tech giant Huawei, with caveats.
Chinese President Xi Jinping stands by national flags.
Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images

Global markets have rallied on the re-ignition of trade talks between the U.S. and China after President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping's meeting at the weekend, but analysts say China is already adapting to the changing business landscape and that trade (and particularly, technological) relations will never be the same again.

Meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Japan this weekend, Trump and Xi agreed to reignite stalled trade talks and pledged to hold off on new tariffs on each other's imports. Predictably, and perhaps short-sightedly, financial markets surged on Monday.

Although there was no further detail on a possible trade deal, Trump suggested he could ease restrictions on U.S. tech exports to Chinese tech giant Huawei, with caveats, even though the company had been described as a national security risk. The devil, as ever, is in the detail, analysts noted.

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"Potential partial easing of U.S. restrictions on exports to Huawei represents slightly more de-escalation than expected, though the details remain unclear," Goldman Sachs' economics research team said in a note this week reacting to the Trump-Xi meeting.

Close watchers of the trade war, and particularly its impact on the tech environment, have said that whatever happens in the talks now, business relations between the U.S. and China will change and maybe for the worse.

"Everybody will be happy that negotiations are starting again," Hans-Paul Burkner, chairman of the Boston Consulting Group, told CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Dalian, China on Monday. "But clearly one has to expect that frictions will continue, and business will have to diversify supply chains and will have to rethink how to really spread their portfolio across the world in order to be less vulnerable."

He predicted that we'll see a "significant movement" of production from China to other parts of the world by both Chinese and international companies. He also predicted the possibility of an era of "two tech worlds" if Chinese and U.S. tech firms end an era of mutual supply and custom.

"Ideally, we keep a level playing field and we are able to work with each other and compete with each other around the world. But there is the possibility that we will really have two tech worlds, a Chinese one and a U.S. one, hopefully it will not come to that but it's not impossible."

The 18-month long trade war between the U.S. and China has been widely seen as a battle over tech. Indeed, a defining motive for Trump is what he sees as China's unfair trade practices and theft of American intellectual property. The restrictions placed on U.S. tech sales to Chinese companies ultimately helps China, however, by forcing it to progress its own innovations.

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Henrik Naujoks, partner at the global management consultancy Bain & Company, told CNBC Monday that China is making "tremendous" progress in what he described as a "race between the U.S. and China on technology." Meanwhile, Ben Harburg, a managing partner of MSA Capital, characterized Trump's apparent concession on Huawei as a "reprieve," saying that it would give the tech firm time to develop its own chip capabilities and operating system.

"Huge amounts of capital and talent are going to be thrown at building self-reliance and establishing a kind of parallel technology ecosystem here (in China) without dependence on U.S. chips (and) operating systems," he told CNBC Monday. Ultimately, U.S. companies stood to lose out from this changing world, he said, as Chinese firms would source their components locally, and sell them in China and emerging markets.

"American companies in the hardware space like Apple have priced themselves out of markets like Africa, so if American chips aren't going in there then it's Chinese chips going into the phones that are being sold locally."