What does the US-China AI rivalry mean for Southeast Asia?
What does the US-China AI rivalry mean for Southeast Asia?

What does the US-China AI rivalry mean for Southeast Asia?

The development of artificial intelligence (AI) has become a race among nations, where the winners are expected to have significant power in defining and dominating the future. economic and geopolitical. In this competition, the United States and China are the frontrunners, with both countries drawing on their strengths: the United States has cutting-edge hardware, research and talent, while China has a massive crowd of AI-ready data to accelerate technological development and a strong political will to succeed.

Their dominance in the tech sector undoubtedly has strategic implications for Southeast Asia, which is predominantly dependent on the import and use of AI technology from these two countries. What are the consequences of choosing one country’s technology over another? Will the Southeast Asian countries face problems related to digital colonization and national sovereignty?

Some researchers have described Southeast Asia as one test site and a gateway to China’s expansion as the world’s superpower. In fact, China is increasingly considered the most influential economic power in the region and to a lesser extent the most influential politically and strategically.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a trillion-dollar international infrastructure program spanning nearly 140 countries, is part of its plan to spread its global influence. An important part of BRI is its reach into the digital space through the Digital Silk Road (DSR). DSR’s key components – such as 5G technologies, massive data centers, investment in artificial intelligence and satellite navigation systems – have major implications for data protection, national security and the global governance of cyberspace. has expressed concern about cyber espionage and cyber security, as the Chinese government would have the opportunity to access, analyze and exploit the large datasets from the BRI recipient countries in real time. In addition, think tanks and scientists have warned against China “exporting authoritarianism“export political illiberalism“or press”authoritarian capitalism “globally through the distribution and use of Chinese technologies.

Discussions about the geopolitical risks of China gaining global dominance in artificial intelligence portray the power struggle between the United States and China as a showdown between liberal democracy and digital authoritarianism. But while the United States is often seen as the more benign force, the same concerns about the state’s transgression in the case of China should apply and overlap significantly in the case of American domination.

That 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden, a former U.S. intelligence contractor, revealed the impressive breadth and depth of U.S. global surveillance capabilities and cyber espionage practices. A particularly powerful example is the PRISM program, which enables routine mass collection of data from large, large technology companies. But while these revelations shook the world, privacy concerns regarding AI-enabled automated mass surveillance remain unresolved.

In the discourse on AI geopolitics, some researchers have taken theoretical lens for digital or data colonization to analyze the position of the global south, with a list of ways in which algorithms can be used to suppress, exploit and deprive vulnerable populations.

However, experts and academics in the field of artificial intelligence have interviewed for EngageMedia’s latest study on AI management in Southeast Asia pointed out that the focus on national sovereignty distracts us from seeing the matter holistically as a complex interplay between state and market forces working together and against each other.

While respondents acknowledged that data is predominantly flowing toward China and the United States, and that the region’s reliance on technologies from the two AI superpowers could be to the detriment of Southeast Asian nations, some experts said the data would be exploited with or without involvement. of foreign companies. They noted that since Southeast Asia’s data protection regulations are either weak or non-existent, similar damage from data collection misuse would still occur with local actors.

It is therefore more important to focus on a strong regulatory and political basis locally, so that data protection and technology use do not only depend on the ethics or goodwill of the owners of the technologies – regardless of their origin.

It is also important to recognize that Southeast Asian countries have the agency to choose the technologies they use and to negotiate on favorable terms. Some respondents in the survey referred to this when asked about the implications of the technological rivalry between the United States and China; their position was that the Southeast Asian states would decide what is best for their countries, whether in terms of price, functionality or from a strategic point of view.

Patani Panopticon: biometrics in the deep south of Thailand

The collection of face recognition data to identify separatist rebels in the deep south will only foster distrust of the Thai state.


For example, a case study on Alibaba’s activities in Malaysia (including a digital free trade zone and Alibaba’s City Brain smart city program) claims that Malaysia achieves real economic and infrastructural benefits by working with Alibaba – regardless of geopolitical or privacy concerns. The study concluded that other countries “desperately need to improve the quality of their games in Southeast Asia” and that “railing against Chinese government-dominated initiatives and the DSR is not a sufficient strategy”.

ONE study from ISEAS about 5G adoption in the region shows that countries in Southeast Asia show different levels of trust in China (where Laos and Cambodia have the highest preference for Chinese providers compared to the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore with the lowest). While confidence in China was higher in 2019, telecommunications providers in the region appear to have diversified their range of providers by 2020, after US restrictions on Chinese technologies. Currently, Nokia (Finland) and Ericsson (Sweden) along with Huawei and ZTE (both China) are the biggest players in the 5G landscape in Southeast Asia, where US companies (Altiostar, Cisco and Qualcomm) have no significant presence.

In the short term, rivalry between the United States and China in the region could allow Southeast Asian countries to negotiate better terms than they would otherwise have, and provide more choices to balance their own interests. But in the long run, the split of Chinese and American technologies, standards and norms leads to the decline of multilateralism. This can create disadvantages for weaker countries as they can does not have the bargaining power or enforcement of a block. In addition, international efforts to develop common standards that run down to local laws may be derailed.

Southeast Asian nations must find ways to identify and address some of the inherent weaknesses and challenges that undermine their ability to plan and support the introduction of AI technologies. This will enable them to reap the benefits of AI on their own terms and find their place in the AI ‚Äč‚Äčecosystem dominated by the two superpowers.

Note: A longer version of this article has been released as one two-part series on EngageMedia. This article is part of EngageMedia’s broader work with artificial intelligence and human rights in Southeast Asia.

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