Joe Biden’s remarks to the virtual Munich Security Conference on February 19 outline the variables that will be at the center of geopolitics over — at least — the next four years, and the enormous importance technology will play.
It should be no surprise us that technology weighs so heavily in geopolitics: it is already present in all aspects of our lives. The growing influence of China, a giant capable of sticking to very long-term strategies instead of varying them, as the democracies do, with the arrival of each new administration, along with the impact of a trade war that was haphazardly launched by the previous occupant of the White House, have led to a rethink of the global situation.
The fundamental difference between the Biden administration and its predecessor is clearly the pursuit of international cooperation. What Donald Trump, with his pathetic and simplistic “America First”, was unable to propose, is now the goal: an autocratic bloc represented by China, as opposed to democratic countries that must protect themselves from its political expansionism and territorial demands, but above all, from its technological power that is creating growing dependency in the rest of the world.
China not only manufactures most of the world’s consumer electronics, but also controls most of the industry’s value chains, especially in terms of electronic components. At the moment, several U.S. and other automakers have had to close down production lines and have sent their workers home due to the so-called chipaggedon, a shortage of microprocessors caused by production stoppages in Chinese factories in the early part of the pandemic coupled with increased demand for consumer electronics products that the West bought in a hurry to try to accommodate new work-from-home requirements, and it does not look like this problem will be solved until early next year.
China is now the world leader in technology: it invests more in R&D than any other country, 2.4% of its gross domestic product, in 522 laboratories and 350 engineering research centers. It could soon become the world leader in machine learning, the technology with the most significant disruptive potential. It has pioneered the automation of its production centers and the retraining of its workers: its companies have more robots in operation than any other country in the world, which allows them to produce not only more, but also better, with a much lower percentage of errors. In addition, it is the world power with the best technological protection and the greatest internal stability thanks to a Great Electronic Wall it has been building for years. It also has the best and most advanced distribution in the world, while its pioneering electronic currency gives its monetary policy additional degrees of freedom.
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The value chains of most countries are dependent on China, as has been shown by the pandemic, and this is just a taste of what is to come, as Joe Biden knows. Whether we are talking about the war to reduce the thickness of silicon wafers, the efficient manufacture of solar panels or batteries capable of lasting more than a million kilometers, China has a notable advantage. If the country also manages to strengthen its ties with other countries thanks to its New Silk Road, the world will not only have a new leader, but this new leader will have become so by disregarding democracy, ignoring many of the civil rights that the rest of the world considers fundamental, and acting with markedly unequal rules in international relations, as well as closing its domestic market to foreign competitors.
The trade war initiated by Donald Trump left a lot of loose ends: the courts have overruled many of the sanctions on multiple Chinese companies. Now, Joe Biden knows that if he wants to win this war, he cannot behave like a schoolyard bully: he needs allies. It is no longer America First; instead, he seeks the support of the democratic countries to stand up to a hugely ambitious autocracy determined to defend its priorities and its way of doing things. And all this supported by the greatest technological power the world has ever known. Technologically, China is determined to rule the future, but… do we want a future with its rules?
We should not be surprised that technology now decides who rules the world: as I described in my book “Living in the Future”, we’ve been here before countless times over the centuries, with many other technologies, from stone tools to melting ore, to nuclear energy. Now, dominance is established by technologies such as solar panels, batteries, semiconductors and many others. In the new geopolitical scenario, weapons are not the only factor: whoever controls technology sets the rules. Nothing new under the sun.