Economically, China’s plans to boost indigenous innovation through subsidies, protectionism, and the absorption of foreign technology threaten the competitiveness of countries playing by market rules. Politically, Chinese tech firms implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang play leading roles in setting global standards for applications like facial recognition, empowering authoritarianism. In the security sphere, reliance on Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-linked firms for the construction of critical information infrastructure is hardly conducive to any country´s technological autonomy – and brings mounting cybersecurity and strategic risks.
The EU and tech-leading member states – such as Germany, France, and the Netherlands – should join forces with like-minded countries. Together with the United States, Canada, Japan, and South Korea among others, they should spearhead the creation of a new coordination body for multinational technology policy – a technology alliance. This grouping would help preserve competitiveness and security by protecting critical technologies, strengthen collaborative innovation, and anchor emerging technology adoption and governance in democratic values and norms. These three lines of effort would be the foundation for a secure and prosperous Europe.
Europe stands at an inflection point
First, Europe’s long-term economic health is threatened by Beijing’s goals to wean itself off foreign technology in fields like aerospace, semiconductors, and robotics. EU member states should not let this be a fait accompli. This does not mean cutting off China as a trade partner. It does require placing restrictions on certain exports and knowledge transfers to make sure China cannot indigenize the state-of-the-art. Such controls, like for semiconductor manufacturing equipment, must be targeted and multilateral. Multinational coordination is also needed to share information on Chinese state-backed investments, or R&D partnerships with universities.
Second, investments must be made to maintain leadership in key fields. Breakthroughs in areas like 5G, quantum information science, and AI will have far-reaching economic impact, and profound effects on national and international security. Launching joint civilian and defense R&D projects with like-minded partners is one way of securing continued technological advantage. Another is to join forces on expensive efforts to restructure vital supply chains. The pandemic exposed the brittleness of Europe’s position. Countries like Japan, which is subsidizing manufacturers to move away from China, share this plight. Resilience will require joint solutions – and create new opportunities and markets.
Finally, coordinating the deployment and governance of emerging technologies is front and center at protecting the values that unite Europe. China’s proliferation of surveillance technology – used for repression at home and increasingly exported – is a direct threat to democratic values; curbing it will require a coordinated response by the world’s leading democracies. This same group should also reassert themselves in the world’s standards-setting bodies, like the UN´s ITU, that are increasingly targeted by Beijing to influence the make-up of the digital economy.
Europe stands at an inflection point. Decisions its leaders make in coming months will set the course for its post-pandemic future. How they act to secure Europe’s technological viability will determine the continent’s economic, military, and political power for decades. Technological sovereignty will not flow from mimicking Chinese industrial policy. Instead, Europeans should embrace their allies to build a tech future that is dynamic, innovative, and competitive. Cooperation with tech-leading democracies is how to secure European tech sovereignty.
This article was first published on EU Observer on May 29, 2020.