How Europe Sees Engagement with China on Technology

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One of the biggest questions that this project is seeking to answer is the dilemma of what needs to be prioritised in the long list of issues that come under the technological, digital and cyber banner. With our lives becoming increasingly intertwined with technology, and in turn this technology having a connection to China (as well as many other places around the world), it is almost impossible to find an area of policy which is not touched. But to try to sweep this all into one will be impossible. Some prioritisation is necessary. Problematically, however, there is no clear sense of agreement within Europe, let alone at a transatlantic level.

This first post draws on a discussion amongst European experts that was held online which sought to try to think through questions of prioritisation from a European perspective. One of the key issues that came up was the concern that there was a lack of clear understanding around exactly what the problems were, how they could be handled and a complete lack of prioritisation at a government level amongst the many issues at hand. Some raised questions about whether proper consideration was being given to issues – like banning TikTok – as genuine security concerns which needed to be handled at a national security level, or whether they should be focused on in some other way (through data protection laws). More worrying was the habit for single issues – like Huawei and 5G – to dominate the conversation, drowning out coherent discussions about wider problems.

The need for better prioritisation in this topic was something that affected the wider policy conversation, as there is a habit to try to possibly capture too many different technologies under one banner with a single policy answer. There is clearly no single response to policymaking in this space, and the structure of how to shape policy is something which needs to be understood from two different levels. First – it is important to appreciate there are different phases to technology development: research and development; market penetration; and utilisation. At each stage there is a different interplay with standards, about where the funding for research is coming from, and what therefore the policy approach towards it should or can be. In addition, it is important to realise which technologies are genuinely foundational in their impact versus ones which might be more ephemeral – and this might change as time goes on. This should in turn shape policy prioritisation, which should focus on foundational technologies. All of this presents a situation where single or uniform policy answers are impossible.

A major issue to emerge from the discussion was a lack of accurate information and a need for greater research. In particular, participants reported that there was a lack of understanding about the state of technology development within China, with exaggerated media reporting tending to dominate the actual technical capability that China had. At the same time, however, others reported how in some niche capabilities, China had developed vast start up industries where lots of money was being spent to try to develop indigenous capacity. However, there was little clear understanding of exactly what the impact of this had been.

Further research is also needed within Europe, where there is no clear understanding of how much actual investment has been done by Chinese firms or entities into Europe, and what relationships actually existed. While capitals would often push out policy statements, it was not clear that this reflected what was actually going on at company or regional levels within individual European countries. This created a number of problems, from the fact that countries did not know the true extent of their relationship with China, but also in trying to keep track of possible dual use military technology. This was not only important in terms of understanding what industrial relationships might exist, but also in terms of ensuring that technology transfer legislation is keeping up to date with technological developments. Finally, there is a need to better understand and think through supply chain security questions.

A key lesson to emerge from a survey of the current European relationship with China is that there is not uniform perspective across the Union. This is true at a member state level, but also at a company level. Recent EU Chamber of Commerce in China work has shown how a number of member companies are in fact doubling down on China rather than pulling back. This includes in the technology space, with Chinese investment still going forwards in some sectors, while European firms are still keen to enter the Chinese market.

At a member state level, however, there are deep divisions in perspectives towards Chinese technology. Baltic countries in particular have been at the forefront of pushing back on Chinese investment and have responded positively and loudly to American calls to reject Huawei. In Lithuania this has gone further towards banning Chinese technology provider Nuctech from key national contracts. For these countries, and others in Central Europe, the view is shaped by the fact that they see a strategic threat from Russia as more dominant and something they need American support to defend themselves against. This makes them staunch defenders of the transatlantic alliance and keen to respond to American entreaties as they see the US as a stronger security partner than Brussels.

All of this makes creating a coalition challenging, not only within Europe and across the Atlantic, but also more widely globally. The idea of a D10 that has been advanced is likely more complicated to deliver than is being considered, but the key should be a focus on collective values. While market forces are a major part of what is going to determine this conflict, how to marshal these effectively is going to be challenging. Company interests will not always coincide with national interests. Furthermore, the question will be seen as very different in member states where they do not have much of a tech industry. And even more so amongst ones which have had substantial volumes of Chinese investment in their technology industries or infrastructure.

There is also residual uncertainty about the United States as a reliable actor in some capitals. Discussion of strategic sovereignty in Europe are in part based around concerns about Washington, though as was highlighted earlier, these are not shared across the continent. There is also a realisation that things between the US and Europe will likely not always run together. For example, there is little appetite in Europe for a hard decoupling from China that is sometimes advocated by Washington. There are also the complicating efforts by Europe to try to push back on American technology companies at the same time.

One area where there was greater commonality was in terms of the standard making bodies and the need to ensure greater coordination and efforts to secure roles in the global institutions that are increasingly defining the standards by which technologies are being developed. This struck as a point of potential common engagement at a transatlantic level which did not encounter much opposition.

Finally, there is a clear need to manage and control the Chinese push for influence and norms. This was something that was significant within Europe and the United States, but also around the developing world where nations were absorbing and using Chinese technology and standards. These were regions where transatlantic attention had often faltered.

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Associate Fellow, RUSI

Article category: Digital Technology and R&D


Raffaello Pantucci

Senior Associate Fellow

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