By Joseph Dunford, Frances F. Townsend, and Michael Morell
Imagine a world where every click, every search and every text is monitored and censored by a repressive government. Where global technology standards are not set by democratic governments, but by authoritarian regimes that prioritize repression and control over freedom.
Unfortunately, such a scenario is neither far-fetched nor far off: That’s the world’s digital future if the United States and its allies do not win the high-stakes tech competition with China.
After five months of iron-hot tensions between Washington and Beijing, policymakers have re-opened high-level diplomatic channels, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visiting China in June and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s visit in early July. While maintaining open lines of communication is an important step toward avoiding conflict, the fundamental difference in values that originally pitted the United States and China against each other endures. Especially in the realm of technology, these disparities become starkly apparent: The U.S. values the free flow of information, privacy and individual liberty, while China prioritizes censorship, surveillance and state control. These contrasting beliefs shape their respective approaches to tech development, regulation and deployment, leading to differing visions for the role of technology in society.
Beijing is tirelessly executing a three-part plan to win the international tech race: investing heavily in its technological capabilities, stealing U.S. intellectual property and seeking to make the world increasingly dependent on its technology. That includes exporting China’s domestic practices of using artificial intelligence and big data to surveil, censor and manipulate public opinion. As People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping makes diplomatic overtures to U.S. officials visiting China, Americans must not lose sight of the long game: We still face the struggle of our lifetimes to guarantee the world of tomorrow remains open and free.
To prevent China from winning the tech race and disproportionately influencing the future, the United States and its allies must rally around an affirmative tech agenda that ensures tomorrow’s technologies are embedded with globally beneficial democratic values – especially those nations that share our common beliefs and are committed to promoting fair economic competition. Success here requires that we give a seat at the policy table to America’s private sector companies.
Even after U.S. tech leaders played such an influential role securing technological advantages for Ukraine following the Russian invasion, there’s a prevailing sentiment among Western officials that for-profit entities are incapable of serving the public good. This leads them to sideline American companies in tech policy discussions, resulting in the EU, South Korea and even neighboring Canada favoring regulatory policies that unfairly disadvantage U.S. tech firms while largely sparing their Chinese counterparts. A case in point is the recent U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council discussions in Sweden, where only two American AI companies, Microsoft and Anthropic, were invited to discuss pivotal regulation issues on the topic.
However, the view that tech companies are solely profit-oriented ignores their potential to serve public interests. Tech companies not only aim for profit but are also driven by a commitment to public good, fueled by a mix of enlightened self-interest and democratic values.
Ironically, the ultimate benefactor of this adversarial stance toward Western tech companies is actually China. A debilitated and embattled U.S. tech sector creates a void that Beijing-backed companies will eagerly try to fill. To remedy this, a fully cooperative relationship between tech creators and policymakers – a true public-private partnership – would ensure that policies are shaped by those who understand both the challenges and opportunities of the technologies, all while upholding democratic principles. There’s movement in this direction: Just last month at the White House, the leading AI firms agreed to voluntary AI development standards which will allow for continued accelerated development in a safe, transparent manner that maintains America’s global competitiveness.
As a guidepost on how to win the tech race against China, Western officials should look to AEP’s recently released national security policy framework. It provides a roadmap for ensuring the United States maintains its technological edge over China and other techno-autocracies. The framework stresses that Washington’s greatest advantage over Beijing is its long-lasting network of like-minded partners and provides recommendations for how policymakers can use this network to set standards around digital freedoms and drive private sector innovation in areas like cloud computing, semiconductors, supply-chain resiliency and other key competition areas with China.
It matters greatly which country builds the future. As China plows ahead on regulation that tightens government control over its technology companies, U.S. policymakers must bring private sector voices into the policymaking process, including through standard-setting bodies that can expedite agreement on tech guidelines that serve democratic interests. Failure to support innovators who integrate democratic values into technology today threatens the United States’ ability to maintain global digital freedoms tomorrow. That is not a bet we can afford to make.