By Doug Kelly, CEO of the American Edge Project

In an attempt to accelerate the spread of “digital authoritarianism” across the globe, China’s government is funding a $500 million undersea fiber optic network that will directly connect the Communist state with Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and potentially dozens more countries. This speed-of-light network, scheduled for completion in 2025, could permanently split the world’s internet infrastructure, preventing the free flow of data and information that is so vital to freedom and the advancement of democratic values. 

China’s new undersea superhighway will rival one that the United States is currently building to similar locations. While many countries are included on the new U.S. fiber network, China had to be removed due to Washington’s concerns that Beijing could use this access for large-scale eavesdropping and stealing sensitive internet data.

Across the globe, there are more than 400 cables running along the seafloor, carrying over 95 percent of all international internet traffic. These data conduits transmit everything from emails and banking transactions to military secrets and are vulnerable to sabotage attacks and espionage, according to U.S. government officials and security analysts. 

The construction of parallel U.S.- and Chinese-backed cables between Asia and Europe is unprecedented, according to Reuters, and shows that the global internet infrastructure could become divided over the next decade. This will mean countries will be forced to choose between using Chinese-approved internet equipment or U.S.-backed networks. 

This matters because the United States and China have two very different versions of the Internet. The U.S. version is free, open, and accessible to all, while China’s internet is closed, censored, and controlling. Our version supports the free flow of information and ideas, while China suppresses free speech and expression. This choice between “digital freedom” and “digital authoritarianism” is stark, and it will shape the way societies interact with information with each other as well. 

The undersea cable race and the Internet are but just two of the many theaters of action between the United States and China in the larger battle for global tech supremacy. Each side is investing trillions in advanced technologies – artificial intelligence, quantum computing, 5/6G connectivity, and more. The winner will achieve a decades-long advantage in military strength, reap untold trillions in economic benefits, and have a profound impact on the values that shape the world order.

China has a three-part plan to win the tech race. First, it is rapidly building up its domestic capabilities, especially strategic technologies. Second, it steals up to $500 billion each year in American technology and intellectual property to accelerate its efforts. Third, it aims to make the world increasingly dependent on China’s technology and supply chains, giving it economic and political leverage over the West. They are making great progress, surging ahead of America in 37 of 44 categories of critical technologies, according to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

To win, American policymakers must make our technology competition with China the central organizing principle for U.S. economic and technology policy. Just like in sports, winning requires a good offense (increasing our private sector’s ability to innovate, strengthening our supply chain, and extending our version of the Internet more widely), a strong defense (preventing China’s acquisition and/or theft of sensitive technologies and slowing the spread of digital authoritarianism), and avoiding unforced errors (short-sighted bills or regulations that undermine the U.S. technology industry while unintentionally benefiting China).

The stakes are high in the competition between China and the United States; because technology isn’t just another sector – it’s the very backbone of our national security, our economic prosperity, and our values. It matters greatly which country builds the future and the world is counting on America to get it right.