GEOPOLITICSTipping the Balance Between Global Rivals

By Leda Zimmerman

Published 1 September 2022

Seeking to understand how trade policies fueled China’s rise and continue to determine geopolitical winners and losers.

John David Minnich was under the spell of political philosophy until he took a trip across a bridge in China. The doctoral student in political science vividly recalls this life-changing 2009 journey, undertaken as part of a summer research fellowship program. 

“Driving in from the airport, I was overwhelmed by my first glimpse of the Shanghai skyline — a scene of insane activity,” he says. “I realized I was witnessing the future and that I’d have to understand what was happening here to know where the world was going.” The experience was so powerful, adds Minnich, “that 15 years later, I’m still driven by it.”

In his nearly-complete dissertation, Minnich explores how China’s strategic use of trade and foreign investment policy to bring about large-scale transfers of foreign technology helped power that nation’s rapid economic ascent.

“The U.S. and China are in the midst of a possible power transition,” says Minnich. “I want to understand how old great powers fall, and how new powers rise.”

Minnich’s studies shed light on the mechanics behind these tectonic shifts in global might.

“In the current era, rapid technological change, the globalization of production, capital flows, and technology drive rates of growth,” he says. “Policies to harness these forces, such as those made by China, are crucial to explaining how one country becomes a superpower, while others lag behind.”

Tech Transfer and Trade War
In 2018, Trump administration policies that amounted to a new trade war with China provided an impetus for Minnich’s doctoral research. “This war led to the deterioration of U.S.-China relations and a breakdown of communication, with life-and-death implications,” says Minnich. He was particularly interested in the punitive tariffs the U.S. government levied on specific Chinese industries, justified primarily on the grounds of what the administration called forced technological transfer and intellectual property theft.

“There was clearly an incredible process of China going from technologically backward to being a tech powerhouse, and out-competing us in many critical industries,” says Minnich. “There had been no effort to go out and systematically document how China used technology transfer policies in a strategic way, so that’s what I set out to do.”