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Will Data and Technology Settle the Struggles for Supremacy Between China and the US?

May 29, 2019

In 1950, The US National Security Council policy paper (NCS-68) presented President Truman proposed military expenditures that the rest of the world could not rival. The lasting intention of NSC-68 was to develop a “healthy international community” favorable to US interests. Establishing a US-centric international stem through massive military spending became a central “fixture of US policy” still relevant today. In 2007, political scientist Benjamin O. Fordham argued in his chapter of Andrew J. Bacevich’s book, “The Long War,” that a US military-centric approach to global stability may never end. While wholly convincing in 2007, this assertion only holds if the US adequately responds to China’s revolutionary innovations in artificial intelligence (AI), cyber conflict, genetics, health services, and surveillance.

In 2003, the US military budget was five times that of China’s, and in 2018, it was only two and a half times the size. While US military power still overshadows the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), how Beijing and Washington invest in and embrace new AI technologies will undoubtedly determine the leader of the 21st century. In truth, a conventional US approach mirroring NCS-68 is underequipped. The dependency on conventional military means will decrease as technology automates conflict, just as strategic nuclear weapons diminished the importance of regular armies during periods of the Cold War and onward.

While China aggressively develops tech industries to satisfy both consumer and military needs, the US must develop and implement cutting-edge technology broadly to improve both military and civilian life. The US should match Beijing’s national and long-term plans for AI and national intelligence with competitive responses in resource allocation and incorporation of revolutionary technologies if it is to remain a global economic and political leader.

As the use of AI-driven tools proliferates, states must identify a proper balance between national ambitions and global regulation. These tools will change how countries wage war, develop economies, cure diseases, control domestic residents, store records, give birth, and surveil not just their citizens, but people all across the globe. These technologies will determine the 21st-century escalations in the geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States.

Who Spent What?

A Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report concluded that last year’s global military expenditures reached the highest levels since the end of the Cold War, and the United States and China, respectively, topped the list of global military spenders. In 2018, countries spent $1.82 trillion on militaries; a 2.6 percent increase from the previous year. China and the US accounted for half of the world’s military budget. The US increased military spending by 4.6 percent to $649 billion, while the Chinese spent $250 billion, 5% more than the previous year.

However, while US supremacy dominates the sphere of conventional weaponry and defense, Beijing’s developments in data collection, AI, and cyber capabilities are a growing concern. A Pentagon report issued in early May described Beijing as the most skilled global player in military intelligence and commercial cyber operations, “seeking to degrade core U.S. operational and technological advantages.” In many instances, Beijing’s cyber development relies on stealing foreign technology and adapting it to specific needs.

Also, the data troves available to Beijing through China’s population of almost 1.4 billion, data collection is central to China’s rise to AI leader in the coming decades. Data will fuel military developments just as the discovery and acquisition of steel, coal, or oil did in the past. The world’s most superior AI-driven military systems will rely on large and diverse data sets to evolve.

Technological Thievery

Twenty-first-century technological developments require geopolitical powers to improve their AI, cyber, and surveillance arsenals with the same, if not greater, caution as that of conventional weapons. States must remain cognizant of the vulnerabilities associated with developing 21st-century weapons. For example, after Beijing identified National Security Agency (NSA) efforts to infiltrate Chinese systems in 2016, Chinese intelligence seized the source code and used it in an attack against American allies and private companies in both Europe and Asia. Therefore, as cyber conflict spreads with little international regulation, states must assess the risks of losing deployed tech to alert adversaries.

Some analysts claim that China is not just capitalizing on American cyber sloppiness, but is actively stealing US tech through centralized directives. Back in January, a senior fellow with the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology Mark Cohen suggested that Huawei rewards employees for stealing intellectual property. Yi-Zheng Lian, the former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, referenced China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law (NIL) and suggested that Beijing demands that “relevant organs, organizations, and citizens provide the necessary support, assistance, and cooperation” in achieving national intelligence goals. Lian argues that the NIL requires citizens and corporation to spy on behalf of the state. The NIL also promises to give “commendations and rewards to individuals and organizations that make major contributions to national intelligence efforts.” Unlike in the United States, the NIL presents geopolitical competition within the framework of national intelligence as a countrywide effort in which citizens can, and should, partake. When confronted by Chinese centralization, the narrower and short-term goals of US military leaders are disadvantaged. In 2017, the Chinese State Council issued a Next Generation Artificial Development Plan that outlined Beijing’s path to AI global leader by 2030. The strategy incorporated a robust military-civil approach to protect the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and reinforce state security and national defense systems. Cooperation between the CCP and private Chinese tech firms, and their inclusions of civilian efforts to fuel developments in AI, cybersecurity, data collection, and surveillance, further buttress Beijing’s forward-looking strategy to dominate revolutionary technologies.

Exporting Big Brother

However, Chinese involvement is not just limited to domestic mobilization for an AI and the machine-learning arms race. Beijing is also exporting its surveillance technologies to struggling democracies or illiberal polities where leaders hope to digitize their domestic populations. In developing and implementing a successful surveillance network, Chinese firms can sell data collection hardware and software to countries in Africa, Latin America, and Central and Eastern Europe. The Chinese intelligence community first presented their surveillance systems to foreign delegations at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Since, Chinese firms helped build similar networks for Angola, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. In Central and Eastern Europe, countries turn to impressive and affordable 5G infrastructure built by Huawei despite US warnings of privacy concerns. Chinese innovation lures traditional US allies to its side with affordable and advanced hardware and software.

The Days of Guns, Germs, and Steel Are Over

In addition to exporting surveillance systems, the CCP tests their real-word efficacy and application at home. The development of massive genetic surveillance and collection programs already exists in China for creating comprehensive and detailed databases of the citizenry. Between 2016 and 2017, nearly 36 million participated in a program called “Physicals for All” in the Uighur-dominated northwestern region of Xinjiang. In addition to a regular checkup, physicians allegedly recorded and stored the biometrics of patients. While the international community understandably reacted with humanitarian concerns for Xinjiang’s Muslim population, one wonders how DNA collection will further the advance AI development. Gene-sequencing technology will undoubtedly revolutionize segments of both civilian and military life. In China, it already plays a central role in general surveillance and social monitoring.

Therefore, while state power once projected via the development and expansion of conventional armies, the AI revolution will allow states to innovate all aspects of life. Whereas human resources, oil, and steel once dictated global politics, data and its utilization will likely become the key determinant of economic and political supremacy. Innovations in artificial intelligence, cyber conflict, genetics, health services, and surveillance will manifest in both the civilian and military sectors of society. Ultimately, technology will dictate the direction of the geopolitical rivalry between China and the US. The days of guns, germs, and steel are over –data, surveillance, and databases reign. 

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