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Por He Jun, director do Centro de Investigación de Macroeconomía de China e investigador principal de Anbound, un think tank independente con sede en Pequín.

In the ongoing geopolitical competition between the United States and China, the former has employed diverse strategies to contain the latter’s technological advancements. One such strategy is the “small yard, high fence” approach. This strategy aims to curb China’s high-tech projects and suppress China’s technological advancements.

The concept of the “small yard” denotes specific technologies and research areas deemed critical for U.S. national security, while the “high fence” signifies the strategic boundaries delineated around these domains. Within the “small yard,” stricter containment measures are proposed to safeguard core technologies, while outside this perimeter, there may be potential for engagement with China. This strategy is generally considered to be primarily targeting China’s high-tech development rather than advocating for broad decoupling and severance of economic ties with China.

Since 2018, the U.S. has rigorously pursued the “small yard, high fence” strategy, entailing comprehensive measures including the crackdowns on companies such as Huawei, systematic restrictions on China’s semiconductor industry development, and collaborative actions with allied nations to restrict the export of advanced lithography machines to China. Additionally, there has been a continuous escalation of restrictions and pressure on Chinese firms across various technological sectors, such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence (AI), and biopharmaceuticals, through listings on the U.S. Entity List. Furthermore, legislative measures like the CHIPS Act have been introduced to guide chip companies to invest in the U.S. while concurrently aiming to restrain the development of China’s chip industry.

However, China is the world’s second-largest economy, with a GDP of USD 17.89 trillion in 2023. At the same time, it is also one of the world’s largest trading nations. In 2023, its total trade volume reached USD 5.94 trillion, including USD 3.38 trillion in exports, accounting for 14.2% of the global market share, maintaining its position as the world’s top exporter for 15 consecutive years. China has maintained substantial trade relations with multiple countries and regions, including the U.S., the EU, and ASEAN. For such a vast economy, attempting to significantly restrict its development through the “small yard, high fence” strategy is extremely challenging. From recent breakthroughs in China’s semiconductor industry, it is evident that when China mobilises its national system to overcome technological bottlenecks, the resulting momentum is remarkable.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. is beginning to adjust its strategy for containing China. The strategy is shifting from the previous “small yard, high fence” approach, which focused on restricting China’s development in high-tech fields, to a broader “large yard, high fence” approach, imposing restrictions in a wider range of areas. In contrast to the “small yard, high fence” strategy, the “large yard, high fence” strategy exhibits the following characteristics:

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Firstly, the scope of sanctions has broadened. While the “small yard, high fence” strategy targeted select core and pivotal technological areas, the “large yard, high fence” strategy extends its prohibition and restriction scope across a wider spectrum. This expansion encompasses not only high-tech domains but also non-technological economic and trade sectors. The determination of which areas fall within the purview of prohibition and restriction is contingent upon the specific requirements and objectives of the American government.

Secondly, while the “small yard, high fence” strategy limited its targets, it also took international trade rules into account to some extent, seeking to balance restrictions on China while safeguarding American economic interests. Essentially, its objective was to manage China’s technological development while leveraging economic opportunities in the Chinese market. However, the focus of the “large yard, high fence” strategy has evolved. It no longer aims for equilibrium but rather emphasizes the broad containment of China.

Thirdly, the implementation of the “small yard, high fence” strategy primarily involves the U.S. imposing sanctions, often with the involvement of its allies, targeting specific core areas related to China. Given the narrower scope of sanctions, the allies are more likely to endorse and participate, facilitating the formation of a cohesive coalition for sanctions. Conversely, the “large yard, high fence” strategy extends its reach, resulting in a broader impact on commercial interests. While the U.S. seeks increased allied participation for the effectiveness of its sanctions, these countries may pause due to their own commercial interests and adherence to international rules, potentially leading to disagreement with American initiatives.

Finally, the “small yard, high fence” strategy attempts to confine the impact to the technology field, similar to controlled nuclear fusion. It does not aim to spread the impact to the broader economic and trade areas, nor to trigger a widespread “decoupling” between the U.S. and China. However, the “large yard, high fence” strategy is different. Once this strategy is implemented, its subsequent effects may become uncontrollable, turning what was originally intended to contain China’s technological development into a widespread “decoupling” between the two countries. This is similar to uncontrolled nuclear fusion, which may ultimately evolve into an economic and trade sector nuclear explosion.

Finally, the “small yard, high fence” strategy confines its impact to the technologyand avoids spreading effects to broader economic and trade areas or triggering widespread “decoupling” between the U.S. and China. Conversely, the “large yard, high fence” strategy carries the risk of uncontrollable consequences. It could inadvertently escalate into a broad “decoupling” between the two countries.

He Jun é director do Centro de Investigación de Macroeconomía de China e investigador sénior en Anbound, un think tank independente con sede en Pequín, especializado en investigación de políticas públicas que abarca xeopolítica e relacións internacionais, desenvolvemento urbano e social, cuestións industriais e macroeconomía.

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