With the US-Sino trade war ricocheting across global economies and injecting a distinctly acrid tone to international relations, it’s worth having a look at how and whether this dynamic might play out and amplify in the years to come.
The trade war itself, while undoubtedly significant in its impacts, are nonetheless a symptom of a long-developing confrontation between today’s great powers — a clash that could usher in a world of decoupled economies, with the West’s ideologies on one, and the other with China and its allies.
The fear, though, isn’t about a new, literal Berlin wall. It’s a digital and technological divide with two sets of ethical and scientific standards, two ecosystems competing for the same (-ish) goals.
Up for grabs, of course, are technologies to define the new frontiers of tomorrow’s economy: AI, gene editing, IoT, smart cities, autonomous vehicles, quantum computing, to name a few.
This clash is viewed by some as an inevitable meeting in a crowded arena for technological dominance. China, for its part, has enjoyed decades of meteoric growth. From its ‘Century of Humiliation’ which included confrontations which saw territories like Hong Kong and Macau handed over to foreign powers, and immense economic mismanagement by its Communist bosses which caused the death of millions — the Middle Kingdom, now the second biggest economy in the world, became THE great comeback story.
The US, long the global hegemon, carried out a kind of ‘leave-and-let-be’ policy, under the assumption that as the Chinese economic policies liberalized and opened its vast markets for capitalistic ideas, so too will its social policies. So, for decades, uncomfortable headlines about the Party’s human rights abuses like its relationship with Tibet and Hong Kong, and awkward trade practices such as forced technology transfers and restricting market access to foreign firms — were largely ignored in hopes that it’d get better in time.
However, China’s visions of grandeur, manifesting in forms such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Made In China 2025, have over the years raised increasing alarm in Washington and similar circles; despite opposition to Trump, there is largely bipartisan support for a more aggressive approach to dealing with China.
So in this techno-ideological clash, will we see the world split into walled gardens?
One might say bollocks: The supply chains and networks formed between the two countries, and the many nations interweaved into the global trading system we see today, are so complex and deeply entangled that a complete severance seems impossible. Besides, open systems can be far more conducive to innovation, if one of two competitors have an open commons type approach, and the other locked behind a firewall — the former will get further ahead faster.
But, this decoupling has already happened, and has been the case since China came into the international scene: there are already two different internets, one being the heavily censored version in China and elsewhere like Iran and Russia, the other being the lightly censored alternative in the west. Internet companies exist as digital twins within China and the rest. Google and Amazon in the US, Baidu and Alibaba in China. So the question isn’t whether this divide exists, but whether it will extend beyond the social media and e-commerce firms, and into every other industry from automotive to biomedical.