The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

China’s tech rise over the past few years has been extraordinary.

As the digital revolution unfolds, geopolitics is being reshaped by the hands of technology. Countries are now realigning their strategic playbooks in response to the transformative power that tech wields over global power dynamics. In the past decade, a series of breakthroughs in emerging technologies has convinced world leaders of a new doctrine: supremacy in AI technology equates to economic and military ascendancy. This revelation has ignited competition among the world’s superpowers, racing to establish dominion over the burgeoning digital empires, with technology poised to maintain its role as a central actor in the theater of future geopolitics.

The debut of China’s Huawei Mate 60 Pro in August 2023, armed with a sophisticated 7 nm semiconductor chip, sent ripples of consternation throughout the globe. This strategic maneuver responded to the Biden administration’s export control measures instituted on October 7, 2022, designed to constrict China’s access to critical semiconductor chips and their manufacturing apparatus. Rewinding to 2019, the Trump administration’s decision to place Huawei on the Entity List started a technological cold war, limiting China’s access to American technology. Yet, American efforts have not significantly hindered China’s tech growth, while China has countered the U.S. export controls with efficacy.

In today’s global market, approximately a quarter of all trade involves semiconductors or semiconductor-dependent products. These minute yet essential components are the lifeblood of a multitude of critical industries, from transportation to telecommunications, and from finance to manufacturing. Thus, the contest for dominance in the global semiconductor landscape has become a geopolitical battleground, with powers vying for supremacy.

The last decade’s intensified struggle over semiconductor control is a reaction, in part, to China’s monumental strides in artificial intelligence, semiconductor innovation, digital technology, telecommunications, and cloud computing. China’s government has earmarked an additional $27 billion for its national semiconductor industry fund and has proclaimed a 10% surge in the science budget. Homegrown entities like HiSilicon and Semiconductor Manufacturing International Cooperation (SMIC) are bolstering China’s pursuit of self-reliance in semiconductor design and production capabilities, fueling the nation’s tech ambitions. Concurrently, the U.S. is channeling billions into constructing domestic chip facilities. The CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 pledges $280 billion to amplify U.S. semiconductor production, stimulating research and development, and forging regional technology hubs.

The burgeoning tech competition between the U.S. and China is disrupting global supply chains, with mounting pressure on strategic players to pledge allegiance. The Netherlands, for example, has imposed restrictions on critical technology exports to China, a move Beijing interprets as part of a U.S.-led campaign to debilitate the Chinese economy. The U.S.-China tech tussle has thus unfolded into a grand stage for global power jockeying.

In the realm of telecommunications, China’s industry has injected nearly $84 billion into erecting its 5G network, catalyzing an economic output of roughly $1.3 trillion in 2023 alone. The U.S., by contrast, trails in the 5G race, with China outpacing in the deployment of 5G base stations. This advancement prompted former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Harvard Professor Graham Allison, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, to implore the U.S. to prioritize 5G, warning that otherwise, “China will own the 5G future.”

Progressing further, China’s Huawei has embarked on 5.5G technology, dubbed “Beyond 5G,” promising a tenfold boost in network performance. This leap forward is set to revolutionize IoT devices, manufacturing, transportation systems, and 3D content creation. China anticipates finalizing 6G technical research and preliminary application scenarios by 2025 and aims to spearhead the setting of international standards by 2030. Huawei’s advancements will likely cement China’s influence in the next wave of technological standards.

Under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is forging new infrastructural frontiers with the Digital Silk Road (DSR), Space Silk Road, and Maritime Silk Road. The DSR, in particular, is propelled by China’s digital and telecommunications innovations, expanding the nation’s economic footprint and bolstering digital connectivity. The China Academy of Information and Communications Technology reports a $4.1 trillion increase in the size of China’s digital economy between 2016 and 2022, with an average annual compound growth rate of 14.2 percent.

The DSR offers cost-effective, accessible technology to Asia and Africa, regions historically dependent on pricier Western alternatives. A case in point is the PEACE cable system’s subsea link connecting Pakistan with Djibouti, poised to be the shortest Internet route between the two continents. The construction of this link, extending to France, is now complete.

However, the DSR and related initiatives present challenges to the West, aligning with China’s “China Standards 2035” ambition to set global technical norms. Backed by President Xi’s “dual circulation” strategy, China aims to maintain export strength while reducing foreign tech dependence. The BRI’s Space Silk Road is another front, expanding space capabilities from satellites to launch services. The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) at its core is extending positioning, navigation, and tracking capacities, serving both civilian and military objectives, and offering an alternative to the U.S.-dominated GPS.

As China ascends technologically, it becomes evident that U.S. attempts to contain China’s geopolitical influence are meeting complex challenges. Amidst intense investment in domestic tech sectors, there emerges a call for international cooperation over rivalry, striving for an equitable distribution of emerging technology benefits. President Xi Jinping posits, “The world is big enough to accommodate both countries, and one country’s success is an opportunity for the other.”