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Opinion Biden’s ambitious plan to push back against techno-autocracies

People have their faces scanned at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai on Aug. 29, 2019. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

The Biden administration is quietly developing an ambitious plan for an alliance of “techno-democracies” to try to prevent dominance of global technology by an authoritarian China.

The policy is still in the discussion phase at the White House and State Department, but it has the strong backing of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan. The goal of the alliance, says a senior State Department official, would be “setting the rules and shaping the norms that govern the use of technology” and pushing back against China and other “techno-autocracies.”

The Chinese have broadcast their hopes for dominating new technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. They already have a string of initiatives, such as the “Made in China 2025” plan and the Digital Silk Road project, both announced in 2015. The Biden administration wants to contest this challenge before it’s too late.

China’s argument is that its system, however anti-democratic, is the most efficient in producing the economic and technological growth the world wants. The Biden team wants to confront that head-on, by showing that democracies aren’t just freer and more open — but also more efficient, innovative and productive.

By defending the economies of the United States and its allies against a rising China, the Biden administration hopes to protect future jobs and prosperity, rather than allow them to leach abroad. In that respect, the plan could be an important component of Biden’s otherwise fuzzy claims to promote a foreign policy for the middle class.

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The initiative, in some respects, represents a broadening of the Trump administration’s efforts to protect key technologies from Chinese competition. Biden would continue to pressure allies against buying Huawei’s 5G telecommunications systems. The United States would also deny Huawei and other Chinese companies access to the West’s most advanced technologies, such as high-end semiconductors.

Biden’s goal is to move beyond protecting against Huawei to promoting alternatives. That might mean investment in cross-border joint ventures with competitors such as Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung. It might mean a common embrace of new technologies such as open radio access networks, or O-RAN, a software-based approach to 5G networks.

The techno-democracy plan could also involve some ideas that were mentioned in a recent, privately circulated paper written by a China strategy group headed by Eric Schmidt, former chief executive of Google, and Jared Cohen, a senior executive at Google. The paper recommends an international technology finance corporation to help countries buy Western products and resist the Digital Silk Road; a new body that would set global standards to frame a safe and open architecture for technology; and “trust zones” that would share research and technology with countries that agree not to buy from Huawei, for example.

Several aspects of the plan are likely to be controversial. In mobilizing investment and global standard-setting for key industries, it carries echoes of what used to be known as “industrial policy.” Critics will argue that such decisions should be left to the free market. And by building a moat around Western technologies, the plan would — quite intentionally — decouple aspects of the U.S. and Chinese economies.

Discussing this idea with administration officials over the past week, I recalled the experience 45 years ago of watching an Asian competitor (in that case, Japan) devour the American steel industry. The response to the Japanese challenge to steel was entirely defensive — protectionist tariffs that would have hurt consumers. The new proposed approach is much more sensible because it would try through investment to foster a more competitive tech sector to maintain dominance. The destruction of Rust Belt jobs by foreign competition is one of the themes that powered Trumpism — a fact that isn’t lost on the Biden team.

The “techno-democracies” concept was first articulated in detail in a November article in Foreign Affairs by Cohen and Richard Fontaine, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and head of the Center for a New American Security. Their article proposed that the initial group, which they dubbed the “T-12,” should include a dozen technologically advanced democracies: Australia, Britain, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, South Korea and Sweden, along with the United States.

The Chinese hear footsteps. A paper circulated this month by a Chinese think tank is titled “Competition Without Catastrophe: A New China-U.S. Cybersecurity Agenda.” It calls for dialogue and new cooperative measures. Biden administration officials see it as part of a charm offensive by Chinese officials who are worried about the new administration’s plans.

The techno-democracies alliance is a big idea that simultaneously tackles what arguably are the two biggest problems for the United States and its allies: eroding economic growth at home that fuels populist anger, and a growing challenge abroad from China.

One nagging fear: History shows that attempts to deny other countries markets and raw materials can sometimes lead to conflict. An alliance of techno-democracies is a creative and sensible plan, but it will need very careful management.

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Michael Abramowitz and Michael Chertoff: The global threat of China’s digital authoritarianism

Michael Morell and David Kris: It’s not a trade war with China. It’s a tech war.