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20 Oct 2023

Experts warn of geopolitical competition for technological dominance

Experts warn of geopolitical competition for technological dominance
Germany wants to become more internationally competitive with a new digital strategy. Meanwhile, experts warn of a geopolitical competition for technological dominance.

On Wednesday (October 18th), the Bundestag's Digital Committee discussed the international digital strategy in a public hearing together with invited experts. The Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport (BMDV) plans to present the strategy by the end of the year.

The cross-departmental strategy is intended to bring together Germany's key international and digital issues in order to make Germany more internationally competitive. Experts warn that Germany should pay particular attention to shaping international standards more strongly.

“We are in the midst of a geopolitical competition for technological dominance between the US and China. This is a major challenge for Germany and the EU, but also for countries in the global south, which are often the pawns of interests here,” emphasized Geraldine de Bastion, founder of the international network Global Innovation Gathering, to the committee.

In order to counteract political power struggles at the international level, the federal government should advocate for the development of digital technologies “alongside democratic, liberal values ​​and campaign for compliance with human rights in the digital space,” said Julian Ringhof, policy officer at the EU Commission.

Geopolitical confrontation in multilateral forums

The geopolitical disputes between the USA and China represent a major challenge for Germany and the EU. International trade in critical digital technologies is increasingly dominated by the two major powers.

“Authoritarian states use digital technologies to consolidate their power. Some of them, especially China and Russia, combine this with the goal of reshaping the global digital order according to their ideas,” explained Dr. Daniel Völksen, Science and Politics Foundation (SWP), during the hearing.

For several years now, international forums such as the organizations for Internet governance or technical standardization have been the scene of political power struggles, according to Ringhof.

“It is often about the competition between liberal democratic approaches and authoritarian approaches. Of course, all of this has enormous effects on Germany and the EU,” said Ringhof.

For example, some states are trying to reshape the global digital order in a more authoritarian way through the United Nations.

“The United Nations is increasingly blocked and the willingness for global cooperation is extremely low. If you look at this international environment, it becomes even clearer why Germany needs a clear strategic line here,” added Völksen.

“On the one hand, this is about preventing human rights protection mechanisms from being weakened, for example in the context of the current negotiations on the so-called Cybercrime Convention,” says Völksen.

The proposal for a convention to combat cybercrime was proposed by Russia at the end of 2017. The resolution, adopted in November 2019 despite opposition from EU countries, the United States and other democracies, received support from Belarus, Cambodia, China, North Korea, Myanmar, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The April negotiation in particular reflected the conflicts between the two camps. Human rights organizations expressed concern that the Convention would become a free pass for law enforcement agencies to access personal data without independent or judicial oversight and to interfere with the right to privacy through electronic surveillance.

“In the current situation, however, it is actually a matter of first preventing a further strengthening of authoritarian ideas of order and of preserving the institutional prerequisites for more sophisticated forms of cooperation in the medium and longer term,” said Völksen.

European standard setting

The aim of the strategy is, among other things, to establish uniform technical norms and standards.

“We should definitely make sure that we integrate a German international digital policy strategy into the European solutions that are being worked on,” added Klaus-Heiner Röhl from the German Economic Institute.

In addition to Germany, the EU is also trying to counter growing international competition in standard setting with its new standardization strategy .

Nevertheless, the USA and China continue to gain ground in international standard setting. For example, China is trying to set international standards for emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and 5G with the China Standards 2035 plan.

“But it also means, especially from our point of view, providing financial support for SMEs that want to get involved in these standardization committees,” added Christoph Tovar, Bitkom consultant for international affairs and innovation policy.

De Bastion also suggested opening research and innovation programs such as Horizon Europe to collaborations and cooperation with partners from the global south and establishing common data spaces for research and innovation.

If Germany and the EU want to make a clearer commitment to democracy and self-determination, then “German international digital policy should consciously set priorities and incorporate them more strongly at the European level,” advised Dr. Julia Pohle from the Berlin Science Center for Social Research.

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