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Global digital governance


The digital space has become a new wrestling ground for major-country competition

China, the United States and the European Union, with respective comprehensive strengths and sci-tech capabilities, have become the three poles in the global digital geopolitical landscape.

While China and the EU each has respective strengths, they both have a noticeable gap with the US in overall strength.

In September 2020, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School released the National Cyber Power Index 2020, which measured 30 countries' cyber capabilities. The NCPI 2020's Most Comprehensive Cyber Powers were: the US, China, the United Kingdom, Russia, Netherlands, France, Germany, Canada, Japan and Australia. With regard to the size of the digital economy, the US ranked first ($13.1 trillion), followed by China ($5.2 trillion), Germany ($2.44 trillion), Japan ($2.39 trillion), the UK ($1.7 trillion) and France ($1.17 trillion).

According to a report from the Evergrande Research Institute in 2020 comparing the technological strength of China and the US, China is already a world leader in communications and the smartphone terminal market. The country has made marked progress in the field of semiconductor integrated circuits, but it can hardly shake the monopoly position of the US. It is weakest in fields such as software, the internet and cloud computing. In contrast, the US has absolute dominance in such fields as semiconductor integrated circuits, software, the internet, cloud computing, and the high-end smartphone market. However, Chinese tech giant Huawei is breaking the US monopoly in a number of high-tech fields such as communications and chip designs.

The China-US tech rivalry will remain the principal contradiction in China-US relations for a very long time to come. In the global geopolitical landscape of the digital space, the biggest game-changer is the US containment of Chinese technologies and the direction of bilateral relations. With the Donald Trump administration's crackdown on Huawei and "Clean Network" program as a symbol, the US' policy intent to decouple from China in advanced technology sectors currently centers on supply chain security and data security, but could later expand to more areas of the digital space, including infrastructure, internet services, relevant trade, finance, and people-to-people exchanges.

Since President Joe Biden took office, the new administration has launched strategic competition with China in the technology sphere with a focus on beefing up domestic innovation, building "a small yard with high fences", and forging tech alliances. The China-US competition in the digital space will become more and more complex.

In an aggressive move to enhance Europe's strategic autonomy in the digital field, the EU has rolled out digital sovereignty for Europe, further widening the EU-US divergences of interest in the digital field. The notion of "technological" or "digital sovereignty" has recently emerged in the EU as a means of promoting the notion of European leadership and strategic autonomy in the digital field. It shows that European countries have high hopes for seizing development opportunities in the digital age and reclaiming Europe's position on the global stage.

The essential difference between the US and the EU when it comes to data protection and a digital services tax is that the US focuses on protecting its domestic tech companies' competitiveness without taking full consideration of the interest demands of the EU. The Biden administration has made repairing the relations between the US and its alliances a primary foreign policy objective. However, if such alliances are aimed at engaging in global competition with China regardless of Europe's geopolitical interests, US-EU cooperation in the digital environment will face grave challenges.

Against such a backdrop, China-EU relations have greater strategic importance. The two boast great potential in closer cooperation and development opportunities in the digital environment. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders from China and European countries have held many virtual meetings, expressing their sincere wish to deepen bilateral cooperation in digital technologies and the digital economy.

The EU advocates digital sovereignty and China calls on countries to respect one another's cyber sovereignty. Both emphasize that individual countries should play a larger role in digital governance. Despite differences and competition in a number of fields, China and the EU have great cooperation potential to unlock.

Major-country relations in the digital age are entering a new phase. Centering on science and technology leadership, digital trade rules and cyberspace security codes, major-country competition will become increasingly intense and be bestowed with greater meaning. However, the digital age won't change the geopolitical nature of country, nor will it change the logic of the traditional strength-based power game as stated in international politics. What it changes is the organization and pattern of actions by countries and the content and means of major-country competition. As the power of digital technologies quietly but fiercely shocks existing boundaries and defenses, the reshaping of international rules and order will gradually unfold and proceed on the global stage. Competition between the world's major countries will expand to more areas and get increasingly complex, which requires more refined responses.

The author is a research fellow and head of the national security division of the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn.