China, AI and the World: Conversation with Author Daniel Wagner

Daniel Wagner’s new book, China Vision, is out now.

Should the US counter China’s cyber-warfare by engaging in cyber-warfare itself?

That is already happening. There is much going on behind the scenes that is not widely discussed to address attacks on the US government, businesses, and individuals on the part of the US government. As former President Obama famously said, “anything they can do to us, we can do better.” The US is giving any country, or actor that can be identified, a retaliatory response when the act is deemed to have been serious enough to warrant such a response.

The wars of the future will be cyber wars and conflicts that incorporate AI on the battlefield. The wars of the future may not involve humans on the battlefield at all, but rather, drones, autonomous weapons, and generals behind keyboards. Space has already been declared the “next frontier” for warfare, with China, Russia, and the US already devoting substantial resources to making that a reality.

It’s easy to bash China for IP theft, but shouldn’t the US be passing laws to prevent domestic companies from sharing data with Chinese companies, as well as enforcing strict encryption standards nationwide?

US lawmakers are way behind the curve when it comes to enacting laws that get to the heart of cybersecurity and IP theft. Immediately following the cyberattack on the US Office of Personnel Management in 2014, which was attributed to the Chinese government, several attempts were made to pass legislation that would prevent such an attack from happening again by virtue of more appropriate laws and protocols for ensuring cybersecurity in federal institutions. Sadly, they were not passed at the time. Some limited progress has since been made since then, but if in a moment of crisis, US lawmakers could not be persuaded to get with the program, is there any reason to believe they will be now? A big part of the problem is how legislation is crafted, and opposed by special interests. That flaw is not going to disappear any time soon.

Any country’s cybersecurity hygiene will only be as good as its laws enable it to be. On that score, the US has failed. During the Obama administration, the US had its first Chief Information Security Officer. The Trump administration did not renew that position for 18 months. Although Trump has now demonstrated some awareness of the problem, that does not mean that the US has a coherent and achievable national strategy for cybersecurity. We are a long way from that. Also, that nature of our laws and the distinct division between the public and private sectors ensures that there can only be so much collaboration between the two. That means that our best and brightest minds in either sector do not comingle in a manner that would be more conducive to arriving at the best solutions to the many challenges in the cybersecurity arena.

For US companies that do not already have the common sense and orientation toward self-preservation not to share sensitive information with companies and the governments of other countries, there should be laws in place to prevent them from doing so, but that is not realistic. Not only would lobbyists in Washington be working overtime to prevent such laws from being passed, but in countries such as China, where the 2017 National Security Law enables the government to demand virtually anything from foreign companies in the name of national security, US firms would not be able to operate there if they did not hand over the keys to their respective kingdoms. Why any US firm would agree to do so boggles my mind, but many of them do just that in the pursuit of profit.

Do you think India, bogged down by bureaucracy and underdevelopment, will ever catch up to China in economic, military or diplomatic clout?

While the short answer is that that would appear to be unlikely, Indian capabilities are often underestimated. The premise of your question is that because of its infamous bureaucratic inertia and underdevelopment, India has lagged so far behind that it could never catch up. However, if the Indian government and Indian businesses were to devote substantial resources toward clearly defined goals, with an implementable roadmap that went beyond election cycles, much more could be achieved than most people might care to admit. That said, China is so far ahead of India in so many arenas that it would take decades of sustained efforts to even call it a legitimate race.

Do you think the future will be shaped by a cold war between India and China?

I rather doubt it. The cold war of the future will more likely be defined as between China and the US. The declining superpower will gradually yield ground to the rising superpower. I suspect that what we will see is an ongoing give and take, depending on the subject and time frame. China will become the world’s largest economy and leading AI power in the next decade. It already has the world’s largest navy. It is a question of time until Beijing has the ability to project its power anywhere in the world. That could also come as soon as the next decade. That said, I do not believe this will result in a Thucydides Trap, wherein war between the two is inevitable. The stakes are simply too high – for both sides – for that to occur, and they both know it.

How likely is Xi to invade Taiwan?

Despite all the bluster coming from Xi, I do not believe his government is any more likely to invade Taiwan than any previous Chinese government in the post-War era. The two economies are more intertwined than ever before. Here again, the stakes are extremely high. No such invasion has occurred in the past 70 years, despite periods of high tension, and I do not foresee one any time in the near or medium term.

China owns ports in locales as diverse as Kenya, Djibouti, and Belgium. Do you fear that this could be the start of a new British or Dutch East India Company, i.e. naval-backed colonialism?

I would argue that Beijing is already in the process of imposing a form of neo-colonialism on much of the developing world, the result of debt trap diplomacy wherein much-needed capital and infrastructure is being provided by the Chinese government and Chinese companies at a cost of tens of billions of dollars to countries that have no hope of ever repaying it. The result is semi-permanent indebtedness that can only be repaid over decades via trade and investment agreements that naturally favor the Chinese. Some highly indebted poor countries have thus become more indebted today than they ever were before – some after having lifted themselves out of their previous indebtedness.

In Europe, the Chinese have been on a buying spree vis-à-vis high profile ports, which represent the end of the geographical line for the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing has been methodical in acquiring such ports, creating what is, in essence, a huge commercial and military intelligence gathering capability. I include military here because the US and other foreign ships utilize many of these ports and the Chinese are acquiring sensitive information about ship movements and communications that they would not have otherwise have had access to by virtue of their ownership of some of these ports.

I’m surprised your book didn’t bring up the Chinese scientist who manipulated a pair of twin babies’ genes so that they would be resistant to HIV. What are your thoughts on China’s ambitions for gene editing?

China Vision’s scope was focused on the impact of Beijing’s actions on individual countries and international relations. In my mind, the baby gene manipulation story is clear evidence (as if any were needed) that China has vast capabilities in an array of scientific applications, gene-editing being among them. Chinese scientists and their research have already become prominent internationally. That will only grow going forward, given the substantial resources Beijing is devoting toward becoming prominent in the scientific arena. Soon enough, China will become a leader in a range of scientific endeavors.

China’s Social Credit System sounds libertarian, in the sense that algorithms can potentially reduce bureaucracy (judges, investigators, etc.). Do you think ceding this kind of power to AI sets humanity on the road to a total loss of autonomy?

It is important to distinguish between the shades of grey that permeate the subject of personal privacy. What might be considered litigious activity in America is considered just another day at the office to most Chinese citizens, who have become accustomed to having the government intrude in various aspects of their lives. They do so because, in part, they have no choice, but also because of the tacit agreement Chinese citizens have with their government: the government provides citizens with the opportunity to live a better life than their parents did, and in return, citizens agree to be compliant to the government. That works fine as long as both sides are delivering their part of the bargain.

The social credit system is all about social control and invasion of privacy. The flip side is that “bad actors” can be more easily identified by the government, apprehended, and prosecuted. This, of course, goes well beyond merely being able to identify a bad dude in a stadium full of people via facial recognition software. It is about rewarding individuals the government deems acceptable while severely punishing those who it does not. At risk is not only individual autonomy, but liberty and freedom of action. For many Chinese, it is a question of checks and balances, and net pluses versus net minuses.

Beijing has already exported the technology it is using to roll out the social credit system to other authoritarian governments. That is the greater risk.