The World Around Us
August 11, 2020
Geopolitics goes digital

We often think of geopolitics exactly as the term suggests – the interplay between geographic factors and politics and how these define the relationships between and among countries. The geographical factors ordinarily identified include the location of countries, the nature of their borders and their resources. The common thread in most understandings of geopolitics is that the term is generally seen as commonly constituting physical factors. However, in the age of digitisation, like many other phenomena, geopolitics has also gone digital and this is a reality that hardly any country can expect to get away from.

Deng Xiaoping, former Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China, once said “if you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” Over the years, President Deng’s statement has been associated with China’s internet censorship, commonly referred to as its Great Firewall, which blocks several American and Western technological platforms such as Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), Twitter, Snapchat and Google from operating in China. These platforms, along with the internet, which is closely monitored in China, represent President Deng’s proverbial window, while the Western ideology and influence which they
carry are the flies which China is seeking to keep at bay.

In the United States (US), its politicians, including many in the current Trump Administration (and the President himself), have long been sceptical of Chinese technology companies out of concerns that they could be unduly influenced by the state machinery for nefarious activities such as spying and sabotage. These concerns have influenced the US government’s attitude towards Chinese companies such as Huawei, the world’s largest provider of telecommunication equipment, which is now under American sanctions.

On August 6, President Trump issued a pair of executive orders banning US transactions with Chinese technology companies such as WeChat and Tafter 20 September 20, 2020. These developments are intensifying US-China rivalry in the technology sphere on issues such as artificial intelligence, 5G mobile networks and other technologies.

The United Kingdom (UK) recently got caught up in this Digital Cold War between China and the US. As America upped the ante on Huawei, the UK decided to completely remove the company from its 5G networks by the end of 2027.

India has also become embroiled in tensions with China in the aftermath of border skirmishes between the two countries and these tensions have spilled over into the technology domain. Recently, India decided to place a blanket ban on about 59 Chinese mobile apps, including TikTok.

These geopolitical tensions in the digital sphere have real implications from which Caribbean countries are not immune. First, will Caribbean countries find themselves in a situation where they are required to choose between Chinese and American technology? Second, and related to the first question, in a context where many Caribbean countries are trying to bridge the digital divide by creating more expansive and cheaper access to information and communication technologies, what are the consequences of being forced to choose between Chinese and American technologies? Third, should the US cast its net wider and apply sanctions to countries doing business with Huawei and other Chinese technology companies under US sanctions, how would Caribbean countries navigate this?

There is also the wider systemic issue surrounding the future of the internet as we know it. For decades, the internet has been a space which has facilitated the free flow of information and aided in the collective advancement of the world. However, there is now a real possibility of the internet branching off into separate Chinese and American variants which could force the rest of us to choose.

The tensions highlighted above are also part of a broader and troubling trend of global fragmentation which is also evident in areas such as trade and global healthcare, including the response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The problem for Caribbean countries is that they could easily become victims of collateral damage when larger powers do battle. This is why the region has to use its collective voice to urge calm and promote diplomacy as global tensions rise. The tensions that we see today and the fragmentation which is evident in the conduct of global affairs will produce no real winners and as often happens, the biggest losers are likely to be the smallest and most vulnerable countries.