Technological prowess has created superpowers; it has pulled nations out of poverty and empowered them; it has also enabled nations to protect themselves from their unrelenting enemies.
The US and China rose to the top because of their ability to innovate and build a variety of gadgets, goods, and software that have famously changed the way we live. Tiny nations such as South Korea and Taiwan escaped the scourge of poverty and became conspicuous on the world map because of the cutting-edge electronic gadgets they produce and export. Another tiny nation like Israel, in a hostile surrounding, has banked upon technology all along to fend off attacks by rival countries and survive.
Given its game changing power, it’s not surprising that technology has emerged as a powerful geopolitical weapon these days, replacing the deadly nukes and missiles.
Examples abound in recent times that go on to show how technology can shift dynamics in international and bilateral relations and can be a make or break for nations.
The tech Cold War between the US and China that has almost split the world into two camps – pro-Huawei and anti-Huawei – is a classic case in point.
As nations gear up to roll out the 5G technology for cellular networks, many have decided not to source 5G equipment from Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant. The UK has very recently banned it, while the US, Australia and Japan have already done so. Many others such as New Zealand and Canada are mulling over it.
The bold decision is a result of the growing suspicion that the telecom equipment maker plays a role in China’s external espionage. Worries have been compounded by the fact that 5G is crucial enabler of Internet of things (IoT) which forms the foundation of the futuristic smart cities, robotics, autonomous vehicles, and hence is a veritable treasure trove of data. China with a history of cyber-attacks could easily misuse the crucial scientific, business and personal data it gains access to through Huawei as the latter builds 5G ecosystems in various nations.
This anti-Huawei sentiment is being further stoked by China’s recent expansionary moves, its actions in Hong Kong and the COVID-19 that emerged out of it. Operators in many countries are seriously considering rival companies, and this could impact Huawei’s dominant position in wireless technology, which is in large part due to the cheap financing from Chinese state-owned banks that has allowed it to provide quality equipment at knockdown rates.
China, not known to take things lying down, has already vowed to take necessary measures to safeguard its business interests after UK’s ban. But it may not help much for the distrust of Chinese technology is growing by the day.
Tik Tok, the wildly popular video sharing app, is another Chinese product caught in the geopolitical cross current for the same reasons.
A month back when the Chinese soldiers attacked and killed 20 Indian army personnel at the Himalayan border of Galwan, some 14, 000 feet above sea level, India did not retaliate physically. Pitted against a mighty opponent, it could only mean more bloodshed.
Instead, India simply banned Tik Tok along with 58 other Chinese apps claiming a possibility of misuse of the personal data being collected by them.
Of course, it wasn’t too difficult to see that security concerns weren’t everything. The ban hit China where it hurts most – it’s flourishing consumer internet firms, an important contributor to the nation’s economy, trying hard to gain a solid foothold in the lucrative Indian market.
With around 200 million users in India, cutting off access to its market, would mean millions of dollars in lost revenue for Tik Tok.
Thousands of miles away the US hailed the bold move and is now said to be considering something similar. As per the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the short-form video app meant for users outside mainland China and owned by Beijing-headquartered ByteDance, serves as appendage of the Chinese Communist Party's surveillance state.
To save face, Tik Tok, now run by former Walt Disney executive Kevin Mayer, announced halting of operations in Hong Kong, where China has imposed a new security law that is sweeping its scope and has thus raised serious concerns about data privacy.
US tech giants, namely Twitter, Facebook and Google have already said they would stop entertaining requests for user data by the Hong Kong government while they assess the new law.
Such is the power of technology! And, now more than ever, it’s calling the shots, playing a crucial role in shaping the economic and political fortunes of nations.
At this rate, one day, not too far away, technology could very well become a byword for power-mongering.