Conflict is not war, but it has become more challenging to separate the ideas when it comes to the Chinese Communist Party and the U.S.
Under the Biden administration, the U.S. has taken a stricter stance on the CCP’s economic and political activities. From executive orders limiting trade on semiconductors to sanctions on foreign companies with military ties to the CCP’s Military-Civil Fusion initiatives to strengthening regional alliances within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
One of the propellants for this hawkish security approach is the development of artificial intelligence. Unsurprisingly, many critics believe the world is in a tech cold war with the Chinese leading. Although this competition is, by all accounts, only getting started, the U.S. should work to develop safety practices for AI regardless of the pace of the race.
In 2017, the CCP announced the A New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan. The elaborate program sought to expand the Party’s investment in AI research and development, train talent, and construct a world-leading AI ecosystem within China. This strategic effort intends to place China as a major technological superpower and overtake the US in certain sectors. Washington rightfully sees this as a realignment in the global order and a national security threat that minimizes competition and increases potential conflict.
The Chinese state-directed economic model repositioned the country as an economic juggernaut and global influencer in emerging technology development. China has become the world’s second-largest economy while maintaining a large state sector, accounting for forty percent of its economy. Furthermore, it has changed the global balance between the public and private sectors. The Chinese financial industry is central to the operations of state capitalism, and the channels of state influence over the private sector are multiplying.
China has managed to create an ecosystem conducive to developing cutting-edge AI capabilities faster than what may have otherwise been possible under purely free market conditions. Whether these same tactics will pay off long term remains unclear; however, if current trends continue, there is no doubt that this type of economic example will be considered a model to emulate among other non-democratic nations seeking rapid technological advancement.
The competition over access markets is a larger area of worry for the U.S., which is increasingly concerned about Chinese companies gaining market share in critical sectors like semiconductors through unfair trade practices. China exploits state subsidies and manipulates currency exchange rates to gain leverage over American firms competing abroad. Similarly, Beijing worries that Washington will continue to use its economic power by blocking Chinese investments into sensitive industries like telecommunications or defense-related tech development within the US. President Biden has signed multiple executive orders limiting foreign investment in US companies, banned the sale of sensitive semiconductors to China by NVIDIA and AMD, and forged stronger alliances with Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.
Conflicting geopolitical interests embroil the relationship between the U.S. and China. With China vying for power and influence on the global stage, competition has also extended beyond economics into geopolitics. The U.S. is wary of Chinese expansion in the Asia-Pacific region, its potential blockade of the South China Sea, and the possibility of a Taiwan invasion. At the same time, Beijing feels encircled by America with a permanent military presence in South Korea and Japan and bilateral training agreements like those with Mongolia, Japan, and Taiwan. Air and sea collisions have historically ensnared the two countries in tension. These escalating issues lead to tense standoffs with freedom of navigation through the South China Sea—potentially leading to armed conflict only adds to the list of issues.
Prelude to war?
As AI technology develops, its potential implications on U.S.-China tensions are immense. China’s growing presence within global technology innovation will threaten American dominance in certain areas, particularly when developing new AI technology applications that are being used militarily. The CCP’s control of data structures plays a major role in the AI race. Training models on large datasets is easier when the state can leverage its citizens and private industry to develop dual-use tech and share its data.
The U.S. government, however, is legally and morally restricted from unjustly imposing its will on its citizens or forcing companies to surrender data to a competitor. This makes it more difficult to acquire large datasets, thus making the training of AI more challenging. The U.S. will need to do more with private industry to find creative ways to compete in this field with China.
As both countries continue to invest heavily in the R&D of emerging technologies, there is an increased risk that one country might gain control of crucial IP-related assets before the other, creating even more significant economic disparities that could lead to heightened geopolitical issues down the line. Additionally, if either nation could leverage their respective technological advantages against each other through espionage activities (e.g., stealing trade secrets), we would likely see an escalation in current U.S.-China tensions due solely to developments surrounding AI technology alone.
The Chinese government has recognized AI as a critical priority in its national development plan. It invests heavily in AI research, development, and deployment to achieve economic and technological advancement, with social stability and control remaining a vital aspect of its development. The rush to adopt AI by companies worldwide and the absence of standard AI safety regulations will result in unintended consequences that developers should have anticipated had the pressure of competition not created a proverbial ‘Black Box’ of issues.
We have already seen the consequence of the lack of regulation regarding cybersecurity which led to globally impacting security breaches and malicious attacks. Most neural networks for machine learning are opaque and difficult to understand, making identifying and addressing potential safety concerns challenging. This belief parallels the idea that many people use their cars without understanding how they function. So long as it gets them where they need to go, the condition under the hood is left to the experts.
This lack of transparency can erode public trust in AI and limit its adoption. If an AI system is compromised, it could be used to spread misinformation or launch cyberattacks. Therefore, it is crucial to develop standard AI safety regulations and policies to mitigate the risks associated with AI use.
On the other hand, policymakers should only impart restrictions with an understanding of the consequences. Too many governmental barriers can hinder innovation in emerging technologies and AI. By breaking down these barriers, it may become possible to combine different perspectives and areas of expertise, leading to new insights and solutions to complex problems. In some cases, collaboration with Chinese developers could build better understanding of AI challenges.
Instead of conflict, cross-pollination of ideas between the two nations could result in novel approaches and applications that have the potential to benefit a more significant number of people than either group could achieve individually. By fostering collaboration and sharing knowledge, both countries could better equip themselves to meet the challenges posed by emerging technologies and AI.
Maj. Nicholas Dockery is a Downing Scholar at Yale University’s Jackson School of Global Affairs and an active-duty Special Forces Officer.
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