GG or Geek Geopolitics (I)

21.05.2021

A word we seem to hear a lot lately is “geek”, which refers to someone who has a passion or even an obsession for various technological innovations.

Technology plays a crucial role in geopolitics, although this fact is often overlooked. The development of marine technology led to a dichotomy between maritime and land power, and dominance in the air and space was added to these in the 20th century. The 21st century has witnessed the appearance of a new dimension – cyberspace – which is completely artificial and constantly being improved. It therefore has a fickle and fluid nature, but it is also extremely important for communications and information technology.

The historical example of the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 and America’s creation of ARPA (later renamed DARPA) in response in 1958, in the bosom of which the internet was born, shows the importance of technology in geopolitics – not so much in theory as in practical simulation.

Meanwhile, access to technologies, the results of which can be bought and sold, is not as important as complete control, the autarky of the entire technology chain, and the entrepreneurial assertiveness that prevents competitors from gaining parity or pulling ahead.

It is for this reason that the US derailed China’s purchase of the Ukrainian aerospace company Motor Sich, which would have allowed Beijing to create aircraft engines. This was fairly easy for Washington, given the level of influence that the White House has over Kyiv. America’s entire intelligence and political apparatus is keeping a close eye on the world to ensure that such deals do not affect the current monopolies of US companies.

At the same time, however, these monopolies pose a risk to other countries, even when it involves critical technologies. On 14 December 2020, for example, various Google apps around the world were unavailable for an hour or so. Considering the large number of people throughout the world who use Google services, the incident must have caused a great deal of inconvenience. Since a number of Western IT companies are simply becoming toxic to certain countries, homegrown alternatives and protectionism are essential from the point of view of national security.

Digging deeper, it is possible to see other reasons, too. Cecilia Rikap points out that “[i]ntellectual monopolies are not only – nor mainly – a result of giant corporations’ in-house R&D. Their knowledge monopoly is based on appropriating and monetizing knowledge results from their multiple innovation networks organized as modularized knowledge steps in charge of different organizations (from start-ups to public research organizations and universities)… The persistently uneven distribution of innovation in the world is a structural truth worsened by intellectual monopoly capitalism. Intellectual monopolies originate in core countries, in particular in the United States, but their effects are spread all over the world… Moreover, peripheral countries must set their own agenda to battle against intellectual monopolies, which should include limiting all forms of extractivism (data, knowledge, and also natural goods, some of them essential for digital value chains).”

The problem is that while these peripheral countries are thinking about and discussing the consequences of such monopolies, the US is already making efforts to achieve full autarky and assertiveness.

special report on the great power competition prepared for US Congress and dated 4 March 2021 repeatedly refers to the importance of different technologies – not only in the field of armaments, but also network technologies, quantum technologies, biotechnologies, applied technologies, and so on. This is all in the context of America’s geopolitical confrontation with Russia and China.

It is for this reason that Joe Biden issued an executive order in April 2021 to review the supply chains used by four key US industries – defence, public health, transportation and IT – to avoid shortages in medical equipment, semiconductors, and various other goods.

The risks here could be manifold. The South Korean company SK Innovation, which supplied batteries to Ford and Volkswagen in the US, was blacklisted due to intellectual property theft. As a result, the supply of products from South Korea to the US was blocked. China is considered by the US to be a troublesome import partner in a variety of ways. Even certain partners, such as Canada and the EU, could create problems for the US if they found that trade and economic deals were unequal and accused Washington of trying to cheat (for which they would have solid justification).

Supply chains are vital for dual-use technologies and the defence industry. Aware of this, DARPA and the Intel Corporation announced a three-year partnership in March 2021 to develop and domestically manufacture application platforms for defence and commercial aviation electronics systems.

A similar problem is also worrying the EU, since its dependence on imports from various countries has increased dramatically in recent years. For example, the EU has a relatively high dependence on Russia for nickel (72.5%), while more than 30% of the EU’s automatic data processing machines, telecommunications equipment and electric power machinery is imported from China. The US supplies more than 50% of the EU’s engines and non-electric motors, and it has a high dependence on US imports of electrodiagnostic and radiological equipment, optical instruments, medical instruments and aerospace products. Iron ore and copper are supplied to the EU from Brazil, Canada, Chile and Ukraine.

It is significant that both the EU and the US are concerned about sovereignty in the area of critical technologies, especially microelectronics, and the reason for this is the same – the deindustrialisation of the past few decades and the attempt to use globalisation to exploit those countries to where production was moved.

Global instability is also raising questions about reliable partners – will fragile states honour their commitments if their political or economic situations worsen.

There are also other risks. Sanctions can have a long-term effect on third countries, since, as a rule, they are imposed against those sectors of the economy that have a direct impact on economic competition and a country’s defence capabilities. In an effort to damage the Russian economy, the US blacklisted defence enterprises, research institutes and commodity sectors. Due to restrictions, other states are unable to purchase essential products and services. For example, Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system led to sanctions that, in turn, disrupted supplies from Canada and… the components required for Turkish UAVs.

Some believe that even the climate crisis could threaten access to essential products and technological innovations.

The EU has reached the following conclusions regarding the geopolitics of supply chains:

– there are significant risks associated with trade diversification because of state fragility, economic coercion, and climate vulnerability;

– a strategy of diversification will most probably apply to raw materials or components rather than to high-tech areas such as data processors, telecommunications or supercomputing, which need greater investment for self-sufficiency; and

– the EU’s existing trade partners are a good foundation for diversification.

Lessons learned by the EU from past experiences show that technology and innovation projects need to be taken more seriously rather than left to chance.

The Minitel project, launched in the 1980s as France’s attempt to create its own internet and, through special terminals, provide free access to bank accounts, the yellow pages and other services, failed.

The Galileo space project, announced in 1999 as the EU’s endeavour to create its own GPS system, also ended in failure a few years later. It was not until 2011 that the EU managed to launch its first satellites, and they only became fully operational in 2019. As a result, the project ran years behind schedule, was three times over budget, and provided no new innovations or technologies.

There was also the attempt to create the GAIA-X cloud storage ecosystem that was launched in 2020 as part of an attempt to reinforce Europe’s digital sovereignty. Twenty-two companies invested in the project initially, but it has so far led to nothing. The goal of the GAIA-X project is clear, of course – to reduce dependence on the cloud storage servers of US companies Amazon and Microsoft. The EU is also introducing special tariffs and restrictive measures in the hope that it will gain a competitive advantage. However, Microsoft is one of the companies involved in GAIA-X.

To be continued