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HomeAsiaPanel Summary Report: The Digital ‘Great Game’ – the Technological Frontier in U.S.-China Strategic Competition

Panel Summary Report: The Digital ‘Great Game’ – the Technological Frontier in U.S.-China Strategic Competition

By Johnsen Romero

On July 29, 2021 the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy (IPD) hosted ‘Geopolitics of Asia and Chinese Perceptions of Security in the Multipolar World,’ the third panel in its running series on U.S.-China relations. This event’s focus was on the geopolitics of U.S.-China technological competition and the prospects for managing economic interdependence.

Bijan Ahmadi, IPD’s Executive Director, shared opening remarks to begin the discussion. 

The panel convened four distinguished guests, including:

  • Rogier Creemers, Co-founder, DigiChina, New America and Stanford University and Assistant Professor, University of Leiden
  • Paul Triolo, Managing Director, Global Technology Policy, Eurasia Group
  • Steven Weber, Professor, U.C. Berkeley and Faculty Director, Berkeley Center for Long Term Cybersecurity

Rebecca Fannin, founder of Silicon Dragon Ventures, served as moderator.

Rogier Creemers opened the discussion by suggesting that an acute dimension of China’s technological catch-up is its intellectual challenge. Given the West’s post-Cold War victory, Creemers said that policymakers have been mired in hubris over conventions of market- and freedom-driven innovation. This attitude has “created an enormous blindspot.” He argued that liberal democracies have underestimated the policy competency of Beijing. Out of this lack of imagination, Creemers said that the West now has “this boogeyman running up at us from the shadows of the loopholes in our own narratives.”

Given this state of affairs, he suggested that the West is entering a period where the hangover from its rush into technology is now apparent. The inclination to regulate industry monopolies illustrates a backlash to the euphoria of earlier decades. Creemers offered the example of the EU and its self-imagined reputation as a regulatory leader. To this end, he argued that it is China that on many regulatory frontiers is “the only game in town.” This places Beijing in a “powerful position in terms of influencing decision making in other governments” and moreover in “a first-mover position the moment that it comes to global governance on these issues.” In this light, Creemers expressed his belief that the West has ceded the field of regulatory innovation to Beijing.

Speaking from the industry perspective, Paul Triolo shared a similar assessment of ‘regulatory lag’ and the gap between Beijing and Western capitals. He picked up on the theme of a technological Cold War and the acceleration of recent policies to decouple certain supply chains. Triolo said it was important to trace the origin of American alarmism to the outspoken ambitions of Chinese policy initiatives under President Xi. Triolo suggested that US misperceptions of the aspirational nature of these documents were potently mixed with concerns around military-civilian fusion. In his view, these tropes were “memes that have grown to be a part of what people call the Washington consensus” and have remained unquestioned into the Biden administration.

On some policy fronts, attempts under Biden to disentangle interdependencies with China are sheer inertia from the White House under Trump. On other matters, however, Triolo foresaw some of these ‘memes’ as having much greater staying power. He said that narratives about a “long-term struggle for these key technologies” and more fundamentally an exportable “techno-authoritarianism” will likely be taken up by Biden’s successors. Triolo stated that it was undeniable that China had an advantage in absorbing sensitive technologies due to the openness of U.S. markets relative to its own. He cautioned, however, that the U.S. has fallen into a tendency to overreact to Chinese capabilities and their promised trajectories in public planning.

Here, Triolo saw fit to highlight major policy decisions to expand US export controls, particularly over semiconductor technology. In his perspective, these were unprecedented moves in “the weaponization of supply chains” with implications that gave rise to today’s global chip shortages. On the geopolitical level, these actions had the knock-on effect of elevating Taiwan as a key node in technology competition and as a greater risk in the bilateral relationship as a whole. That said, Triolo was certain that Washington had “not really articulated what its China strategy is other than to continue a lot of the policies that were started in the Trump era.” An underlying factor is the deployment of export controls that were originally crafted for clear, Cold War-era security objectives. Triolo argued that neither of the past administrations have treated the definition of those objectives with the same clarity.

Steve Weber entered the discussion and questioned what the terminology of a ‘race’ intended to convey. He suggested that tensions over next-generation telecommunication networks were “a proxy for the competition over the control and use of data.” Framing 5G as a system of control or an enabling infrastructure would generate different policy demands and different assessments of what concern is key to policymakers. On the matter of U.S. strategy, Weber disagreed with Triolo. He suggested that Washington was adopting a “whole-of-government approach” to Chinese companies that is being strategized in “whole-of-society” terms. 

Weber also returned to Creemers and the dogmas of the state-led economy’s relationship to innovation. In his mind, “the last decade has falsified that set of arguments” and presented the West with a “profoundly destabilizing and troubling conclusion.” He suggested that U.S.-China rhetoric on fencing telecom buildouts from one another was myopic. Neglected in this competition was the issue of development and – in particular – Beijing’s role in widening access to cost-effective infrastructure for other emerging economies.

At this point, Rebecca Fannin opened up the conversation to allow back-and-forth discussion and questions from the audience. Triolo disagreed with Weber’s openness to employing a Cold War analogy, stating that decoupling remains an unknown quantity and that inadequate data exists to predict its effects. More substantively, he argued that no one has truly examined whether or not Western markets outside of China have the means to support an alternative technological ecosystem without Beijing. Triolo suggested that it is a matter that “nobody has really asked to run the numbers on.” With the tech competition framed in a zero-sum mentality, Triolo expressed concern that the lack of empirical thinking has fed into a lack of strategy.

Creemers added that the conversation on decoupling had to be based on reality, not “expensive, think tank-approved slogans in the DC Beltway.” He reiterated that many of the hallmarks of American innovation would not have proliferated without interdependency with Chinese production. He noted that much of the talent and background engineering for U.S. technologies are tightly woven into niches undertaken by China. Triolo agreed, but also stated it would be no easy feat for China to accomplish its own wishlist for domestic innovation. Without relationships with Western firms, U.S. strikes on China’s supply chain pose “a real constraint” in the immediate term. 

Weber contended that there was a “demonstrated willingness” on both sides of the Pacific “to unscramble a surprising percentage of the omelet.” Given this picture, he cast doubts on the optimism for cooperation. Triolo echoed this outlook, raising sentiments from China’s diplomats that have stated Beijing’s unwillingness to selectively collaborate if the “rest of the relationship is going to be confrontational.” 

Fannin asked the panelists how technological tension would unfold in the event of greater internationalization of the renminbi. Creemers was of the opinion that Beijing’s commitment to currency control would create complications. Weber, however, observed that China was “looking for ways not so much to confront the dollar” but rather “to root around” it. Both he and Triolo viewed Beijing’s central bank digital currency as a genuine indicator that warranted attention. 

Amid technological friction, much of the panel also agreed on the need to recognize the agency of third countries in the U.S.-China relationship. As China matures as an alternative supplier to emerging economies, so too will it continue to develop viable consumer innovations that will challenge Western competition in their home markets. On this note, all of the speakers warned that mistaken assumptions continued to endanger an accurate gauge of China’s innovation potential.

Johnsen Romero is a Policy Research Assistant for the Asia Program at IPD.

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Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor