Foreign policy expert: China is ‘outstripping us’ in technologies of the future

As former diplomatic officer Tom Hanson put it, it's been a "annus horribilis," Latin for "horrible year", in foreign policy too.

Tom Hanson File photo
Speaking at a Unlimited Learning seminar in August 2019, Tom Hanson is a former foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State, currently serves as a diplomat in residence at the Alworth Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth and has opened embassies abroad, served as director of NATO and European Affairs and worked with the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Foreign policy has been called a slow moving ship because of its ponderous, inherently cautious and generational nature, but 2020 may represent a year of significant change — both in response to natural geopolitical forces at work as well as the coronavirus pandemic.

“The role of technology — both in the economy and in education in our private lives — has been accelerated by what's happening under the pandemic,” Tom Hanson said during the virtual Rosenmeier Forum on Thursday, Nov. 19. “In general terms the pandemic is, I believe, an accelerator for what's happening in the world today.”

The notion geopolitical forces are evolving quickly is particularly evident, Hanson said, especially to someone with his expertise and breadth of experience. Hanson is a former foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State, currently serving as a diplomat in residence at the Alworth Institute at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He opened embassies abroad and served as director for NATO and European Affairs at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. Hanson shared insights Thursday into the 2020 election and U.S. foreign policy in a virtual forum sponsored by the Gordon Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government at Central Lakes College.

Where does the United States stand after four years of President Donald Trump? And, with the coming inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden — himself, an old hand at politics with decades of experience on Capitol Hill and a chief executive who looks to be a continuation of the Obama era in which he had a key role as vice president — what does that mean for the United States’ place in the world going forward?

The short of it? It’s a mixed bag, Hanson said, with some certainties based on Biden’s extensive record and known associates likely to populate his cabinet, while the emergence of China — a strong and aggressive player on the world stage — means the geopolitical landscape is far different, and far more concerning, than it was even three years ago.


Worsening relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States has only intensified during the coronavirus pandemic. Trade wars and Cold War-style confrontations over the South China Sea were common before the advent of COVID-19, Hanson said. Now the pandemic has added new dimensions to the growing conflict — everything from charged propagandistic campaigns on both sides, to brutal negotiations over pandemic supply lines, to accusations of incompetence by leadership in both Washington, D.C., and Beijing.

But while the United States and China have soured in their opinions of each other, the world’s opinion of these two has also proven to be less than desirable. Currently, according to recent polling by Pew Research, the United States is seen as a volatile, unpredictable and incomepetent nation-state with its response to COVID-19. Positive outlooks of the U.S. stand at a paltry 15% globally, while China is barely better at 19%.

Some of this can be blamed on Trump’s unorthodox tenure in office, Hanson said, but more it speaks to the polarized nature of American politics. The world sees the United States as a country seesawing between order and disorder, capable of cooperating with and sabotaging its allies with equal frequency.

“This is independent of any particular president,” Hanson said. “It's rather the oscillation between presidents in the U.S., where a sense of unpredictability is starting to settle in around the world because of our polarization.”

What foreign policy experts are seeing is the world may not be the polar dichotomy between East and West as it largely has been since the end of World War II, but a much more fragmented landscape divided along regional lines. Where once the world was divided into First World, Second World and Third World countries, Hanson noted, now it may be the geopolitical landscape of North America vs. South America, China vs. India, or western Europe pitted against eastern Europe and Russia, so on and so forth.

“The world we created in 1945 depends on us, to a great extent, to back it up,” Hanson said. “Well, if the U.S. pulls back, and China does not step up, you're into a different phase. And books are coming out now about this referring to the situation as a ‘nonpolar world’ or ‘nobody's world,’ or a ‘G minus two.’ And so this is adding to a trend toward regionalization, toward regional actors, including our own allies beginning to take a look at their own interests and beginning to act more independently.”

The key question going forward is whether the United States will be able to counter China’s growing influence in the technological world. Where China has been successful with highly centralized, state-controlled companies like Huawei or ByteDance (TikTok) that’s enabled it to make great strides in 5G or quantum computer technology, the United States has been hamstrung by independent and profit-driven firms like Google or Microsoft.

Does that mean the federal government needs to take a stronger role in the technological field? Maybe so, Hanson said, but it’s widely acknowledged among many of the U.S.’s allies that China, no longer the United States, is the leader in economic development.


“The key aspects of our interaction with China — especially the reason there's tension with China — there are many secondary reasons, but the primary reason is technology,” Hanson said. “There's a bipartisan view in Washington now that China is starting to outstrip us in the key technologies in the future.”

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at or 218-855-5859. Follow at .

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