Artificial intelligence (AI) development has become a race among nations, with the winners expected to wield significant power in defining and dominating the future, both economically and geopolitically. In this competition, the United States and China are the front-runners, with both countries surging forward based on their respective competitive advantages: the U.S. has cutting-edge hardware, research, and talent, while China has a massive trove of the AI-ready data that fuels technological development, and a strong political will to succeed.
The dominance of these two countries in the tech sector undoubtedly has strategic implications for Southeast Asia, which predominantly relies on importing and using AI technology from the U.S. and China. What are the implications of choosing the technology of one country over the other? Will Southeast Asian countries face problems related to digital colonization and national sovereignty?
Some scholars have described Southeast Asia as a testing ground and a gateway for China’s expansion as a superpower. Indeed, China is increasingly regarded by Southeast Asians as the most influential economic power in the region and, to a lesser extent, the most influential politically and strategically.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a trillion-dollar international infrastructure program spanning nearly 140 countries, is part of its plan to increase its global influence. An important part of the BRI is its reach into the digital space through the Digital Silk Road (DSR). The DSR’s key components – 5G technologies, massive data centers, investments in AI, and satellite navigation systems – have major implications for data privacy, national security, and the global governance of cyberspace. Observers have expressed concerns about cyber espionage and cybersecurity, as these technological advances would give the Chinese government the ability to access, analyze, and exploit in real-time the large data sets of BRI recipient countries. Additionally, think tanks and scholars have warned of China “exporting authoritarianism,” “exporting political illiberalism,” or pushing “authoritarian capitalism” globally through the distribution of Chinese technologies.
Discussions about the geopolitical risks of China achieving global dominance in AI paint the power struggle between the U.S. and China as a showdown between liberal democracy and digital authoritarianism. However, while the U.S. is often considered as a more benign force, worries about the Chinese state’s overreach apply and overlap significantly in the case of the U.S.
The 2013 revelations of Edward Snowden, a former contractor to the U.S. intelligence agencies, laid bare the impressive breadth and depth of Washington’s global surveillance capabilities and cyber espionage practices. A particularly powerful example is the PRISM program, which enables the routine mass collection of data from major big tech companies. But while these revelations shook the world, privacy concerns regarding AI-enabled automated mass surveillance remain unaddressed.
In the discourse on the geopolitics of AI, some scholars have taken the theoretical lens of digital or data colonization to analyze the position of the Global South, listing the ways in which algorithms can be used to oppress, exploit, and dispossess vulnerable populations.
However, experts and academics in the AI field interviewed for EngageMedia’s recent study on AI governance in Southeast Asia pointed out that focusing on national sovereignty distracts us from seeing the matter holistically, as a complex interplay of state and market forces working together and against each other.
While the respondents acknowledged that data predominantly flows toward China and the U.S., and that Southeast Asia’s dependency on technologies coming from the two AI superpowers may disadvantage the nations of the region, some experts said that the exploitation of data would occur with or without the involvement of foreign companies. They noted that since Southeast Asia’s data protection regulations are either weak or non-existent, similar harms from misusing data collection would arise in any event with local players.
It is therefore more important to focus on creating a strong regulatory and policy foundation locally, so that data protection and technology usage do not merely rely on the ethics or goodwill of the owners of the technologies, whether they be American, Chinese, or from another nation.
It is also important to recognize that Southeast Asian countries have the agency to choose the technologies that they use and to negotiate for favorable terms. Some respondents in the study alluded to this when asked about the implications of the U.S.-China tech rivalry; their position was that Southeast Asian states would decide what is best for their countries, whether in terms of price and functionality, or from a strategic point of view.
For example, a case study on Alibaba’s activities in Malaysia (which includes a Digital Free Trade Zone and Alibaba’s City Brain smart cities program) argues that Malaysia derives real economic and infrastructural benefits from working with Alibaba, geopolitical and privacy concerns notwithstanding. The study concluded that other countries “desperately need to improve the quality of their game in Southeast Asia,” and that “railing against Chinese government-dominated initiatives and the DSR is not an adequate strategy.”
A study from Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on 5G adoption in the region shows that countries in Southeast Asia display different levels of trust toward China, with Laos and Cambodia having the highest preference for Chinese providers, versus the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore with the lowest. While trust toward China was higher in 2019, telecommunications providers in the region appear to have diversified their vendor selection in 2020, following U.S. restrictions on Chinese technologies. At the moment, Nokia (Finland) and Ericsson (Sweden), alongside Huawei and ZTE (both China) are the biggest players in the 5G landscape in Southeast Asia, with U.S. companies (Altiostar, Cisco, and Qualcomm) having no significant presence.
In the short term, the rivalry between the U.S. and China in the region may offer Southeast Asian countries the leverage to negotiate better terms than they would get otherwise and provide more choices to balance their own interests. However, in the longer term, the bifurcation of Chinese and American technologies, standards, and norms will lead to a decline in multilateralism. This can create disadvantages for weaker countries, as they may not have the negotiating power or enforcement capabilities of a bloc. Additionally, international efforts at developing common norms, trickling down to local laws, may be derailed.
Southeast Asian nations must find ways to identify and address some of the inherent weaknesses and challenges that undermine their capacity to plan for and support the adoption of AI technologies. This will enable them to reap the benefits of AI on their own terms and find their place in a future AI ecosystem dominated by the two superpowers.