Artificial intelligence has transformed the world in the political, economic, military and social spheres. Generally, AI is defined as “machines that respond to stimulation consistent with traditional responses from humans, given the human capacity for contemplation, judgment, and intention.” These machines would facilitate decision-making processes “which normally require [a] human level of expertise” and help people to deal with problems.

It will influence global power transitions and the future of the international order, which are crucial factors for the superpowers and emerging powers in the international system.

Both the US and China are cognizant of the importance of technology in increasing their relative power and thereby enhancing their position in the world affairs. China seeks to become the world’s leader in AI by 2030. This would offer China an opportunity to modernize its military power and enhance its economy and global influence. Such ambitious goals really concern the US and are motivating it to retain an edge in artificial intelligence. So we have witnessed a new technological race between US and China.

Some scholars believe that China will overtake the US in the AI research sphere. They further note that the quality of Chinese research in this area is high and getting higher.

Currently both the US and China consider AI an integral part of their national security and are going to great lengths to expand AI development. Recently, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order that aims to increase investment in AI. However, his initiative is vague and fails to address the need to attract global talent, which plays a significant role in developing AI.

Similarly, in July 2017, China’s State Council issued the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (AIDP), which highlighted the importance of AI in China’s national security:

“AI has become a new focus of international competition. AI is a strategic technology that will lead in the future; the world’s major developed countries are taking the development of AI as a major strategy to enhance national competitiveness and protect national security.”

Digital cold war

AI is paving the way for a technological race. The US and China are involved in a fierce rivalry over 5G (fifth generation) telecommunications, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence. The roots of this rivalry trace back to Trump’s National Security Strategy released in 2017,  which depicted China as a revisionist power that sought to “shift regional balances of power in its favor” through using technology and information and thereby outmaneuvering the US in the political, economic and military spheres.

The report also criticized China for its attempts to influence the global economy in a negative way and monitor information and data flows to suppress its society. Later on, Trump waged a trade war with China that targeted Beijing’s economy and technology. Furthermore, Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei’s fonder and a top executive of the company, was arrested in Canada on America’s request, for violating US sanctions against Iran, and Huawei became a victim of Trump’s paranoid mentality of a China threat.

Considering the escalation of such tensions in the technological sphere, some scholars contend that the US and China are heading toward a “Cold War 2.0,” or digital cold war, one fought for technological, rather than nuclear or ideological, dominance. In response, China has proposed limiting the export of rare-earth elements to the US, which are used in military, energy and electronic technologies. This is the first time that China has sought to put pressure on US by resorting to its dominant position in rare earths as geopolitical leverage.

Time for second thoughts

The problem with the US and China is that they have not adopted serious measures for reducing the strategic mistrust between them. As long as they have such lurking distrust in their minds, they will not be able to establish constructive and long-lasting relations. Pursuing a cold-war mentality would merely lead to getting stuck in a fierce rivalry.

The US and China need each other for future development of AI, since it has the potential to enhance the world economy and establish peace, stability and prosperity. Collaboration on the development of AI could offer China and the US, as the world leaders in science and technology, an opportunity to promote mutual trust and allay the existent strategic mistrust that has been ubiquitous in Sino-US relations for decades.