International Relations scholars have long recognized that technology plays a critical role in power transitions, but the field lacks a framework to understand how technology and innovation strategies generate rivalry between dominant and rising states. With an empirical focus on contemporary United States–China relations, this paper addresses that gap. We identify the ‘innovation imperative’ that drives rising states to pursue technological modernity, and highlight two ways in which this pursuit can challenge the strategic interests of the dominant state. First, the dominant state experiences a significant impairment of its security environment: negative security externalities. Second, the dominant state experiences a threat to its preferred international order: negative order externalities. We further explain how the dominant state responds to the negative externalities generated by the rising state’s pursuit of innovation. By theorizing the technological rivalry between rising and dominant states, we move beyond the traditional focus on military conflict in power transitions and offer new insight into the current dynamics in US–China relations.