Digital technologies have influenced geopolitics ever since the internet crossed borders and computer companies tapped global supply lines in the 1990s.
But the current tussles over ZTE platforms that track citizen behaviour in Venezuela, the surveillance of Wall Street Journal offices in Hong Kong, and the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada have all underscored a new more central role that artificial intelligence, quantum computing, advanced semiconductors, and other digital “deep technology” applications play in diplomacy and international relations.
Many of these situations harken back to the tensions between the United States and Russia during the Cold War. However, the now inextricable influence of advanced technologies on global affairs differentiates the contest between superpowers today.
Simply consider the arrest of Meng along with the international expansion by Huawei of next generation telecommunications networks. These are advanced systems that could provide Beijing broad surveillance and intelligence capabilities. China is aggressively pushing outside its borders, with artificial intelligence and the Belt and Road initiative as key drivers of its next development frontier.
With the Belt and Road initiative, Chinese President Xi Jinping has opened new markets for Chinese companies in more than 65 countries, which collectively contribute almost half of global gross domestic product.
This expanding reach has certainly not escaped American scrutiny in technological and political circles, but it is nudging experts toward two often competing perspectives.
Our own conversations in Washington suggest that cooperation with China of the type common in academic, scientific, as well as entrepreneurial circles displays a dangerous naiveté about the intentions of Beijing. They offer Russia, the original Cold War foe, with election interference and social media manipulation, as proof.
This East Coast perspective sees the Belt and Road initiative as a power grab, part of the emergence of China as a world superpower determined to challenge the global order led by the United States in what some have dubbed a “Cold War 2.0.”
In contrast, the West Coast view tempers that notion, suggesting that the Belt and Road initiative expands access for Chinese companies to new markets and could bring closed nations into the global economy. Our meetings in Silicon Valley take a more open mindset toward collaboration and the exchange of ideas and expertise.
Both of these viewpoints, in their purest forms, overlook several critical technological and political nuances that will foster mutual progress and security. Just take artificial intelligence for instance.
While American and Chinese politicians and companies compete to expand their influence and penetrate markets around the world, this is not a race, as it is too often labelled. As in most science, business, and technological pursuits, this kind of competition will not boil down to simple winners and losers.
In fact, while researching our book, “Solomon’s Code,” we discovered several different successful models pursued by countries large and small, collectively seeding a diverse market of intriguing ideas and products. These models often conflict with both American and Chinese approaches and, in some cases, have pushed the boundaries of the prominent two model system. These varied strategies illustrate that the emerging world order is not a bipolar one. It instead increasingly reflects the multipolar and mutative traits of the technological innovation that under-girds it.
Because of this dynamic, we will see intense global negotiations over the development of deep technologies and a cross fertilisation of ideas from all kinds of countries. This will be far more varied than what we saw during the first Cold War, with different political and economic alliances forming and then reforming over time, often around technological capabilities.
We need to define the new American model of engagement with China as one that designs and navigates these key alliances flexibly. We need to maintain both engagement with and vigilance against China in the dozens of worldwide research centres for artificial intelligence and other new advanced technology.
We should train a new guard of “deep technology” diplomats who can safeguard our projects and ensure compliance with guidelines for mutual safety. We also need to upgrade our multilateral institutions to engage with China on its technological development, lest China create its own global regime to compete with that of the West, as it has done with the Asia Infrastructure Development Bank based in Beijing.
To guide each of these important steps, we need a new grand strategy for the cognitive era. It must integrate scientific, commercial, and security dimensions. It should constantly adjust and readjust between the vigilant East Coast perspective and the cooperative West Coast stance. Indeed, the countries that smartly foster this model of “vigilant agile cooperation” will beat the rest and become the true superpowers of the 21st century.