HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — The global economic and tech system appears to be breaking in two, one led by the U.S. and the other by China, in an unfolding new world resembling the competing geopolitical spheres of the Cold War.
- One of the eeriest features of this apparent future will be new virtual and legal "borders," a formalization of attempts already afoot by the U.S. and China to bar the other from the sphere they themselves control.
- "We will reborder" to keep unwanted Chinese companies out of U.S.-led parts of the world, Janice Gross Stein, political science professor at the University of Toronto, tells Axios.
- "China is already rebordering," walling off its people from the global internet, Stein said on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Conference, a gathering of military and security officials from the world's democracies.
Why it matters: The main battleground for the future is tech — the race to dominate artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, green energy, electric cars and so on. With the trillions of dollars and military power to be gained through these and other technologies, China is out to build itself up and preserve its closed political system; the U.S. objective is to maintain the global dominance it has enjoyed since World War II.
- In the West, the rebordering, as Stein calls it, will take the form of regulation of technology companies — not to protect consumer privacy, but for national security. Stein sees a change in public and government perception in which advanced technology is seen much more clearly as having dual use — for both consumers and armies.
- We’ve seen this in the government crackdown on foreign investments and in the Commerce Department’s move yesterday toward imposing new export controls on emerging technologies, including AI and robotics.
With the shift in attitudes, regulation will come "in a way that would have been inconceivable five years ago," Stein said.
Some say that Congress itself may not have the mettle to crack down so hard. Nicholas Burns, a former senior U.S. diplomat and now a professor at Harvard, tells Axios that there is a "trust-busting spirit coming out of Europe," but that he is not certain it will spread to the U.S.
But just on privacy concerns, the ground seems to be already fertile for regulation.
- In a poll by SurveyMonkey for "Axios on HBO," 57% of American adults agreed that social media giants are hurting democracy and free speech. And 55% want the government to regulate them.
What's next: Expect tech executives to fight.
- As of now, they say they are only superficially monopolistic — that they fiercely compete among each other for ad dollars, and for the future of AI. Sooner than many people presume, they say, there will be even more savage, direct commercial competition with Chinese Big Tech companies.
- But that is the same dynamic that thinkers like Stein believe will bring the sharp new tech divide, separated into U.S. and Chinese zones.