Visitors experience facial recognition technology during the China Public Security Expo in Shenzhen. China has made big advances in areas such as facial recognition as it aims to end the lead of the west in artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies
China has made big advances in areas such as facial recognition as it aims to end the lead of the west in artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies © Bobby Yip/Reuters

The writer is co-founder and principal of Rice, Hadley, Gates & Manuel LLC, a consulting firm

Roman roads, Chinese gunpowder, British steamships, repeating firearms: great power competition has always been defined by technological edge. Today China, Russia, Iran and others recognise that technology can nullify the military and economic supremacy that the UK, US and their allies have long enjoyed.

China is singularly focused on catching up. It does so legally by investing billions in key technologies; fomenting science, technology, engineering and maths education; and by mining open-source databases. It also does so illicitly via cybertheft and industrial espionage.

How the world reacts will decide whether the west continues to lead and reap the benefits of technological innovation. Europe and the US have been unable so far to shape China’s behaviour. But the time for complacency is over. We need a strategy to remain competitive. Crucially, this requires deeper mutual engagement. 

After the second world war, Europe and the US created an international order. They established norms for peaceful economic relations, and international standards governing everything from telecommunications to satellites and safe flight paths. This enormous effort paid off. It is now time to do the same for tech development: a proposal I call the “Technology 10”.

This would build on a recent UK initiative to create a “Democracy 10” that aims to group G7 countries with South Korea, India and Australia to co-ordinate on global 5G standards, and secure supply chains. So far, no country has engaged meaningfully. The UK and US must double down on the effort.

If Joe Biden is elected US president in November, UK prime minister Boris Johnson will have a real partner in such an endeavour. Mr Biden has said he would “build a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behaviour” in stealing “technology and intellectual property”; confront its “high-tech authoritarianism”; and build a safe 5G infrastructure and the “rules, norms and institutions” to govern the global use of new technologies.

How the initiative is organised is important. Creating a new, standing organisation would be a mistake. Such government-led institutions are slow and bureaucratic. Far better is a flexible, informal structure of working groups.

These would convene senior officials, technology leaders and academics in closed-door meetings to drive concrete outcomes. Engaging industry from the start would also help it see why “business as usual” with China may be infeasible.

A flexible structure is also key to accommodate allies who view China’s threat differently, and may lead in one technology but not another. A working group on semiconductors might, for example, involve the US, UK, South Korea, Japan, the Netherlands and Taiwan. A working group on AI standards might instead emphasise the UK, US, Canada, Israel and India.

The Tech 10 should begin with a few narrow issues and then create additional groups as needed. Topics might include: ensuring that Tech 10 countries maintain their lead in semiconductor design and production; co-ordinating on investment screening and export controls; regaining the lead in fintech innovation; and defining norms to govern safe uses of AI and other advanced technologies. Future groups might co-ordinate resources for research on advanced biotechnology and quantum computing.

Coordinating among allies is the most effective way to counterbalance China. Initiatives such as Made in China 2025 and China Standards 2035 aim to end the technological lead of the west and its allies by dominating market share, controlling international standards, and hollowing out industrial capacity. It is time for like-minded nations to unite. It is time for a Tech 10.

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