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In the last decade, U.S. policy discourse around the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) technology has largely been framed in the context of great power competition with China. However, for most of the rest of the world, AI technology is better understood as an issue of economic development determining a country’s relative standing in the global technology race rather than as a geopolitical or ideological preference. What democratic countries must understand is that developing countries value affordability and accessibility over an AI provider’s ideology. Whether the technology comes from China rather than Europe or the United States matters very little if Western technology is prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, if the United States and Europe want to overtake China as the world’s leading provider of AI technologies and spearhead a more democratic global AI movement, they have to structure this technology provision as part of a more inclusive and imaginative global economic model that provides tangible and realistic developmental goals in addition to liberal norms.

There seems to be a mismatch between the level of concern about Chinese technology partnerships and existing research into why democracies adopt AI technology from authoritarian sources. On the one hand, it is well established that China has successfully expanded its influence by cooperating with democratic countries and spearheading AI partnerships through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In 2019, a Lowy Institute report indicated that 126 countries and twenty-nine international organizations had signed more than 3,000 high-technology cooperation agreements under the BRI framework. What is less understood, however, is why established democracies like Austria, Ireland, and the Netherlands have joined more authoritarian countries in partnering with China, and whether the United States or EU could provide similar high-technology partnerships with developing nations. In order to answer these questions, democratic nations need to understand the variegated factors that cause a country to purchase Chinese AI technologies over Western alternatives.

Akin Unver
Akin Unver is an associate professor of international relations at Özyeğin University in Istanbul.

China’s success in proliferating advanced technology is premised on supplying affordable products. For instance, a country’s adoption of AI technology is dependent on first acquiring expensive hardware, such as large networked storage clusters and advanced processing units. What is more, if China can provide such hardware at an affordable price, this can affect the behavior of the purchasing state’s allies and rivals. Its allies, for instance, may inform each other about low-cost sources from which to secure technologies to achieve shared military or economic objectives. Less obviously, its rivals may also turn to the same suppliers of affordable technology in order to swiftly acquire competing capabilities and resolve their security dilemma. In other words, if a state sees its rival acquiring affordable AI components, it will perceive the disparity between them as a relative capabilities issue and will seek to acquire similar low-cost technologies from the same source. This dynamic reflects the fact that first adopters of new and affordable technology tend to drive the technology’s adoption by other states in the same region.

These tensions over the security dilemma and relative capabilities issues of AI adoption mean that concerns about relying upon Chinese “authoritarian tech” are less relevant. This will remain true as long as the sources of democratic norms—Western nations—are unable to provide digital infrastructure to developing nations at a reasonable cost. This in turn could reinforce the bureaucratic consolidation of authoritarian technology adoption, meaning that authoritarian suppliers may monopolize the diffusion of AI technologies to all but the most liberal democratic countries. Such an imbalance could limit regional norm-building for future AI technology development and usage.

Western nations also risk charges of hypocrisy for denouncing sales of Chinese AI technology even while wealthy European countries have announced plans to purchase high-tech Chinese infrastructure. According to a February 2021 Council on Foreign Relations report, while Poland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have formally banned Huawei from involvement in their 5G networks, Belgium and France are allowing the use of Huawei equipment with certain conditions. Meanwhile, Austria, Hungary, Ireland, and the Netherlands intend to acquire Chinese 5G networks and infrastructure. These divergences significantly hamper the EU’s ability to serve as a “norm superpower” that touts its legal and ethical standards-defining edge over the United States and China.

The United States and the EU have announced the formation of a joint Trade and Technology Council, building on momentum from June’s G7 summit. This partnership could work to emphasize norm building in quantum computing, AI, and 5G networks. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan may boost the United States’ capacity to challenge China’s trade power if passed. However, it appears unlikely that a U.S.-led or EU-led global movement can successfully counteract China’s dominant position in selling AI technology to countries with lower technological bases unless they can offer credible, realistic, and affordable alternatives. In the near term, global scholarship should explore how developing countries can build transnational economic infrastructure systems that incentivize the development of ethical AI and the adoption of algorithmic best practices, while addressing affordability concerns.