Tech Sovereignty: National Power Capability to Threat to Humanity

GP Acharya (KATHMANDU, 18 May 2022) – There is no such “end of history”- that is the end of the ‘worldwide ideological struggle’- as predicted by Fancis Fukayama back in 1989. Neither the history has over yet nor are democracy and liberalism dominating the world. Instead, Capitalism is turning into ‘Free-market Fundamentalism’, liberalism is leading to imperialism, and democracy and sovereignty are being constantly challenged, which all are propelling international order towards implicit ‘disorder’. The democracy is fragile in every corner of the world, today. The Russia-Ukraine crisis, Religious Radicalization, refugee crisis, terrorism and challenges of ISIS among others are adding greater threats to humanity, while various transnational issues including COVID-19 pandemic, cyber security, arms race, and nuclear, missile and AI threats are wrecking huge havoc in the world.


Indeed, the history has been (re)made following the fall of Berlin Wall or end of Cold War. Numerous nations gained sovereign status since the end of World War-II. The world marched ahead into the sphere of economic integration, regionalization, multilateralism, and technological innovation since then. Sovereignty, however, is once again in forefront after the universal prominence of globalization, rise of supranational organizations, calibre of digital revolution, and geopolitics of technology.


The geopolitics of technology, following the geo-tech interest of tech powers, have leaded the world towards tech bipolarity, which is not only challenging global technological innovation and digital revolution, but also posing overall threat to security and humanity. Despite prolific national power capability and gamut of intelligence, the state sovereignty of various nations are being constantly challenged today, while technology itself has added greater threats to nation’s security and sovereignty- both physical and digital. Subsequently, technology is likely to tail the world following its ‘democratization’, while liberal democracy has not yet gained global victory as claimed by Fukuyama.


Tech Sovereignty- A National Power Capability

Tech sovereignty is considered as one of the key elements of national power capability. In a broader sense, tech sovereignty can be understood as state’s ability to generate technological and scientific knowledge, and control technology.


The concern of democracy, technology, security and sovereignty are similar in every nation irrespective of their size, economy or power. The epithet of tech sovereignty, however, differs from country to country and can be applied in diverse ways. For resourceful cum powerful countries, tech sovereignty is linked with being independent on technology, innovation, intelligence, and “control and autonomy over digital technologies and contents”. For them, tech sovereignty has been an emerging dynamics of strategic intelligence and policy charter, which is largely focused on digital and green transition and is expected to address the key strategic issues including defense, space, 5G, quantum and edge computing, AI, cyber intelligence, block chain, chip technologies, cloud infrastructure and Internet of Things (IoT). For Europe, tech sovereignty is related with ‘strategic sovereignty’, ‘economic sovereignty’, ‘innovation sovereignty’, ‘regulatory sovereignty, and ‘digital sovereignty’ among others (Intereconomics, Review of European Economic Policy, Vol-56, 2021). Since, technological advancement is integrally related with innovation and economy, technological transformation is scientifically linked to functioning innovations, which leads to economic and innovation sovereignty. To achieve the goal of technological sovereignty, a country needs to be able enough to transform technologies into ‘functioning innovations’, and maintain its ‘economic sovereignty’ and ‘innovation sovereignty’ (Fraunhofer, Institute for Systems and Innovation Research). The economic, social and innovation sovereignty leads to tech sovereignty, which in time leads to state sovereignty.


For tech superpowers like China and the US, tech sovereignty is to achieve greater autonomy on both tech and cyber world on the universal domain. China’s mantra of tech sovereignty lies within its goal of ‘Algorithmic Governance’, ‘Tech Supremacy’ and ‘Global Leadership in AI’. To achieve this objective, China has massively invested in AI, Quantum Computing, information and data security, and economic and military edge. China’s prospect of ‘Digital Silk Road’- that includes expansion of digital capabilities through big data, IoT, and underwater technology- can also be a part in attaining tech sovereignty. China’s prospect of digital sovereignty lies within digital technologies and internet, which are considered as geopolitical assets. Reportedly, China’s data sovereignty is fully controlled by the government and it considers protection of data as a core and strategic assets for the government, while the tasks of data sovereignty is delegated to the private sector in the US.


China holds more than 50 percent of global lithium ion production capacity, dominates nearly 93 percent of EU’s magnesium consumption, and controls more than 55 percent of global rare-earth mining (The Wall Street Journal). The rare-earth elements are, reportedly, used in various crucial technologies including manufacturing components in touch screens of smart phone, missile-defense systems, electric cars (and batteries), and renewable energy equipment. For China, ‘outer space and cyber space have become new commanding heights of strategic competition’ between states, reads China’s Military Strategy- 2015. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) report 2019, cyber capabilities are essential in strategic risk calculation and strategic investment decisions that can greatly contribute in enhancing national power, while cyber policies are at the center stage in security- both domestic and international.


China and the US together hold for about 75 percent (China alone 50 percent) of all patents related to blockchain technologies, more than 50 percent of global spending on IoT, 75 percent of cloud capacity and 90 percent of market capitalization value of the world’s 70 largest digital platforms. China and the US are likely to gain most from AI, while they together with Japan hold for 78 percent of all AI patent fillings globally, states UNCTAD, Digital Economy Report- 2019. Both the countries are highly active in surveillance space, while China is major driver cum leader in surveillance globally. The US and China have most influencing internet platforms such as Google, Facebook (Meta), Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, which have hundreds of millions users from Asia, Europe and America. These tech and e-commerce giants are tailing and controlling every global information including the user’s personal data and information, which is posing critical threat to these countries’ digital sovereignty along with user’s personal sovereign dignity.


Tech Sovereignty- A Threat to Humanity

Russia invaded Ukraine blaming that Ukraine did not address it’s genuine security concern and threatened its sovereignty under the influence of the US, EU and NATO. Russian tech capability, perhaps, is the main forte of invading Ukraine despite massive support to Ukraine from them. Russia and North Korea recently conducted a missile test that, reportedly, used technologically advanced and stronger ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) system. As North Korea often claims that its sovereignty is constantly under threat, it is, reportedly, planning to launch satellite that is expected to provide real-time information regarding the US military actions against it in the region. North Korea paraded, Hwasong-17 ICBM, modern and most advanced solid fueled missiles, which can be concealed from enemies and can be equipped for launch more quickly, on 90th anniversary of the founding of North Korean Army, reported KCNA, North Korea’s official news agency. For North Korea, missile and defense technology are the only instrument of protecting its national dignity and sovereignty, and “nuclear forces are the symbol of national power”, says its supreme leader. North Korean tech sovereignty, however, is terrifying the entire world.


As part of developing ‘cutting edge military technology’, China conducted a hypersonic anti-ship missile test from a cruiser, which is reportedly five times faster than the speed of sound. Russia and China are the only countries in contemporary world that, reportedly, have hypersonic missiles with nuclear capable platforms. Both the countries are highly strong in cyber forces, and are believed to be far ahead in cyber and information warfare technology and tools. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence expressed grave concern over Russian activities and intentions in US Elections 2016, which shows the vulnerability in US cyber security on the one hand, and exploitation of Russian tech capability on the other. White House issued an “Executive Order on Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain” in 2019 under the Presidency of Donald Trump that was clearly a tech war signified with China. Trump announced a national emergency in cyber space in 2020, which again shows the susceptibility in US tech security.


The powerful countries like the US and China are intimidating each other because of their respective tech capability, abundance of resources, gamut of intelligence and strong defense capability; Russia is challenging the US, NATO and entire EU because of its technological strengths and national power capability; while North Korea is bullying the US because of its advanced missile and defense technology; which all are posturing crucial threats to intact humanity.


Primarily, the powerful countries have been extremely exploiting technology, while the tech superpowers themselves are not fortified with absolute tech sovereignty. Tech sovereignty could be a key in determining national power capability only when there is a sense of intelligence, morality, resilience, sustainability, and rationality in policy framework, else it would be just an avenue in tailing ‘tech propaganda’ and posturing threat to human civilization under the sway of naïve technological self-sufficiency, an idiotic missile technology or an irrational tech supremacy.


(This article first appeared in Republica.)



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