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Cloud Colonialism: How the U.S. and China are “dual-using” the Cloud for Geopolitical Competition

Nov 20, 2020
  • Jianyin Roachell

    Transatlantic Digital Debate Fellow and Co-founder of


In 2017, Xinhuareported that the Ministry of Information and Industrial Technology (MIIT) “expects that two to three Chinese cloud computing companies will lead the global market within three years.” In the same year, while aiming topush one million new companies to “go cloud,”  China signed anagreement with Egypt, Laos, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Turkey, and UAE “to extend their cooperation in the digital economy in order to build an interconnectedDigital Silk Road.” Today, three years later,Baidu,Alibaba, andTencent (BAT) – the trifecta gauntlet China threw down to contest with the U.S.’s Google, Amazon, and Facebook – is increasingly challenging the U.S.’s tech dominance. Business Insiderreported that Alibaba’s recent boost of $28 billion USD investment into next-generation cloud infrastructure will increase global competition with U.S. tech giants outside China.

As more cloud enterprises expand globally and U.S.-China relations intensify, cloud platforms are more willing to be weaponized, an idea which derived from the argument of dual-use tech policy. Although this concept of instrumentalizing technology for national defense while fueling the private sector is not new, the application of dual-use to cloud platforms to advance geopolitical interests overseas has been largely overlooked.

Cloud ecosystems are by nature geopolitical. In general, tech companies investing in cloud infrastructure must acquire land to facilitate large data centers and servers for supporting distributed computing units. Amazon’s Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the global leader currently with77 availability zones in 24 geographical data regions, with market shares mostly in North America, Western Europe, and Australia. But Alibaba Cloud is quickly gaining ground, with63 availability zones in 21 geographical data centers around the globe, with market shares mostly in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Serving the government is, without a doubt, a profitable business. But recently, the fear of accusations for not supporting homeland security interests has influenced American tech firms to embrace New Cold War nationalism, as China’s technological rise has raised the prospect of big American tech firms aiding China’s military build-up. Google CEO Sundar Pichai himself reassured U.S. Republicans that Google was in fact “proud to support the U.S. government” through its latest cloud technologies, while Microsoft and Amazon followed suit in competing for huge government cloud projects. 

On the American side, dual-use tech strategy is now being applied to strengthen military defense applications. Back in 2017, Amazon announced a new cloud service, the so-called “Secret Region” which is a cloud storage system designed to handle classified information for U.S. spy agencies. The recent public-privatecollaboration between Google Cloud and the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit confirms the ‘weaponization’ of cloud technology for national defense. In January 2020,Amazon’s battle against Microsoft over a U.S. military cloud deal further substantiates the militarization of cloud technologies. Under theJedi project, Microsoft’s cloud ecosystem hopes to give the military better access to data and the cloud from battlefields, digitally revamping more than 5,000 American military bases, 600 of which are overseas. This will allow the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), a branch of the Department of Defense, to leverage more detailed geographical data of the host country to gain geo-military insights overseas in real-time. 

Evidence suggests that China’s dual-use of cloud technologies is also not a new story; not only is China militarizing the cloud, but it’s also politicizing it. China’s first move to weaponize cloud technologies appeared when the People’s Liberation Army University of Technology created the “Synchronization Secret Disk”(“同步密盘”) for military applications in 2015. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Defense highlights that the PLA will most likely apply cloud computing to provide reliable, automated platforms for process optimization, as they are growing in global military presence along the BRI-associated countries.

Aside from the militarization of cloud solutions, another function of the cloud appears to complement the exportation of China’s cyber governance model in Beijing’s greater diplomatic strategy. As Huawei and Alibaba Cloud produce turnkey smart city products like the ‘City Brain,’ Beijing is writing the instruction manual for smart social governance for developing countries.Kenya,Mauritius,Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Latin American countries– such asEcuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela– are already testing the China model. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has increased the attractiveness of Alibaba’s Epidemic Prediction Technology and positively influenced nations like Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia. These developing nations could become potential data colonies – or mere victims of a “land grab” on the digital frontiers.

Researcherspredict that these “types of heavily interconnected [cloud] enterprises will drive the global economy in the next decade.” As tensions between the U.S. and China continue to fray, the possibility of weaponizing the interconnectedness of cloud infrastructure for national interests is likely, given that the two superpowers are already weaponizing global trade networks. In particular, the prospect of pressuring allies to purchase or ban certain cloud providers– such as the U.S. did with the U.K. in relations to Huawei’s 5G networks– could also be likely.

The decoupling process of U.S.-China relations could impact how Alibaba sources its cloud hardware – core components like processors, server boards, networking switches, and routers. Because major cloud providers are depending heavily on core component supply chains similar to that of 5G, U.S.-based cloud providers have the upper hand in the race to build data centers and “availability zones” in critical regions such as Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. 

One of the tech myths is that cloud technology does not influence the shape of the internet. Debunked by an Atlantic report, this myth highlights another significant vulnerability – regional internet traffic distortion. The sheer size of cloud traffic is growing exponentially, and is projected to represent 95% of global data center traffic by 2021, according to one study. The prospect of Alibaba facilitating autocracies to implement internet sovereignty policies is probable. Nations like Iran– asresearch suggest– are pursuing a “self-sustaining national Internet with controlled borders, setting up an Intranet to facilitate censorship through restricting data routing of the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), and leveraging of connectivity as a tool of regional influence.” Likewise, as China advocates for a vision of cyber sovereignty, Alibaba Cloud’s trafficking gateway, at the host country’s request, could be distorted to block certain websites deemed inappropriate to the host country.

The United Nations Internet Governance Forum, EU Commission, and other foreign diplomacy actors should ask this essential but timely question: should we regulate the dual-usage of cloud technologies in securing geopolitical interests for superpowers? Where should the line be drawn? The implications of not acknowledging the dual-use technology argument could indirectly threaten other countries’ national security and economic interests when caught in between a U.S.-China’s tech-struggle. As the U.S. and China increasingly set global data policy standards, the U.N. and the EU Commission, already in distress picking sides, should audit whether U.S.-based and China-based cloud technologies are currently serving their national interests abroad. If countries caught in the middle want to protect any vestiges of digital sovereignty, the more critical challenge at hand is to build a united regime to detect the unscrupulous application of dual-use cloud technologies and prevent a “land grab” on the digital front. 

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