We Need an Innovation War, Not a Trade War

In a letter to Secretaries Clinton, Geithner, and Locke, Attorney General Holder, and US Trade Representative Kirk, 19 business groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers, argue that new “indigenous innovation” programs are designed by the Chinese government to find “national champions” of industry that can be advantaged in a variety of sectors, including green technology, and create "barriers to competition."  The Hillicon Valley technology blog over at The Hill notes that this concern comes in the context of rising trade conflicts between the United States and China. 

This attention comes on the heels of increasing concern over China’s leadership in clean energy technology. As noted in this weekend’s New York Times piece on the subject, the country has become the world’s largest manufacturer of wind and solar generation equipment.  Through industrial policy, China is trying to take advantage of the growing export market for power sector equipment of all types, especially clean energy.

We should have expected that China would be a strong competitor in the clean energy sector.  Regardless of the outcome of continuing international climate negotiations, countries from Europe to most U.S. states to China itself have already made unilateral policy choices to increase the use of clean energy technology in the coming decades for a multitude of reasons.  The demand will be tremendous for the manufacture of clean energy technologies, and there is potential for fortunes to be made in their export.

What should the appropriate policy response be?  As the authors of the letter suggest, the US should promote fair access for American goods and services in foreign markets.  Protectionist responses and trade wars have never helped any country grow its economy and create jobs.

But reducing protectionism is not enough to regain the American lead in the clean energy sector.  The US needs to have a policy of its own that encourages innovation and gives the right incentives for US companies to compete globally.  America is a land of innovation, and we should be the ones taking advantage of these new and growing markets, not ceding them to competitors.  Part of the answer is for the US to put a price on carbon. Doing so would encourage innovation in the private sector and provide regulatory certainty for companies to make investments here in clean energy technologies.  American ingenuity is second to none, and Congress needs to work on a climate and energy bill that provides the right framework for our businesses to flourish.

Michael Tubman is a Congressional Affairs Fellow