The world’s powers are engaged in a fierce technological race. This is the balance of forces | International
Huge investments, sanctions, protectionism, espionage, new regulatory frameworks, international alliances, threats: the world’s major powers are battling in an increasingly fierce technological race that encompasses key sectors such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnologies, clean energy, aerospace and telecommunications, and which is becoming the main area of strategic competition of our time.
The month of March has offered significant glimpses of the scope and characteristics of this battle with far-reaching consequences for the global balance of power, in which the United States is struggling to maintain its supremacy, China is advancing strongly, while multiple signs indicate that the European Union is lagging behind. “Western democracies are losing out in the global technology competition,” concluded a study published on 2 February by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), highlighting China’s rise in the research segment in technology sectors of particular interest.
That same day, Joe Biden’s Administration added a new handful of Chinese companies to the black list of entities subject to limits on the export of sensitive technology, among them units of the genetic sector giant BGI, in a new step in the escalation of restrictive measures that Washington has been applying against Beijing, while at the same time promoting huge subsidies to develop national capabilities.
On the 6th, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed the Asian power’s irritation with this policy with a very striking accusation, as it consisted of an explicit statement that was alien to the leader’s style: “Western countries, led by the United States, are implementing a containment, encirclement and total suppression of China”. The next day, his new foreign minister, Qin Gang, made it even clearer: “If the United States does not step on the brakes and continues to accelerate on the wrong track, there will not be enough guardrails to prevent the derailment, which will turn into conflict and confrontation”.
On the 9th, the European Commission announced a new relaxation of state aid rules to respond to Washington’s subsidies and compete with them. And on the 10th, US President Joe Biden and EU Chief Executive Ursula von der Leyen met in Washington to address the friction between the partners over protectionist aspects of their national green technology promotion plans. Hours earlier, in Beijing, the Communist Party (CCP) announced a major reorganization of the Ministry of Science and Technology and the establishment of a National Data Office.
These recent anecdotes clearly trace the contours of a pivotal career. Technological progress is the essential foundation for the economic prosperity and military might of societies, as it is for political stability in the face of external subversive attempts. Historically, therefore, it has been a decisive factor in determining the balance of power between nations, and today it is more so than ever, in view of the dizzying pace, breadth and significance of innovation in strategic sectors.
The following is a look at the current balance of power and how the battle for the future is being fought.
Current balance of powers
Studies and pronouncements by industry experts outline an area of consensus that can be summarized as follows: The United States comes from decades of total supremacy and retains a dominant position in key sectors; however, the Chinese boom is extremely strong, has been closing the gap at a great pace, in some cases overtaking Washington and in others already positioning itself as a competitor on a par; the European Union has significant assets, but barring a major change in dynamics, it will be substantially left behind.
“The US still has an advantage in some mature technologies. It pioneered the digital revolution and that still carries weight today. Its massive and prolonged push in the defense industry means that it remains a leader in military technology,” says Pannier.
The world’s leading power has leading companies not only in the digital and defense sectors, but also in biotechnology and other areas. It also has universities and laboratories with global appeal, high levels of investment, a market environment conducive to innovation and a wide network of international alliances.
But many indicators point to a very strong Beijing boom. “Looking at the big picture, I think the US and China are in a similar position in terms of capabilities,” says Raquel Jorge Ricart, a researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute specializing in the technology and digital agenda. “Each technological area has its balance. But I believe that they are currently in a situation of a tie and that the trend, if not reversed along the way, leads to the technological supremacy of China and that the EU could be left far behind,” the expert thinks.
“China has been able to rise to levels of global relevance in multiple sectors. It is a leader in surveillance and the use of artificial intelligence in public spaces. In the digital environment it has also made a huge leap, and is now a competitor that threatens the primacy of the United States,” says Pannier.
Beijing’s list of strengths is long. For example, it is clearly ahead of the United States in the deployment of 5G – with two European companies, Ericsson and Nokia, as its main competitors, which, says Jorge Ricart, “need more public support”.
Ben Cahill, senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies, an expert on energy security, highlights how China “dominates parts of the supply chain for wind, solar and batteries.” “They have been building their pole position over decades, and it won’t be possible to cancel Western dependence all at once. It will take a prolonged effort,” he adds.
Cahill points to another key segment where China has a dominant position: “Critical minerals are a fundamental issue,” he says during a conversation this week in Madrid. “The problem is not so much where they are found, because they are found in many places, but the processing and refining capabilities that make them useful, and that is where China has a dominant position. This is not going to change suddenly. It is a long-term project. It will require a prolonged effort of decades.”
A report from Harvard University’s Belfer Center concludes that China has already overtaken the United States in quantum communication, and has rapidly reduced the US lead in quantum computing.
Even in the critical defense sector there are some specific areas, such as hypersonic weapons, where China has the edge, US leaders acknowledge.
The recently published ASPI report – funded by the US State Department – focuses on a very important parameter, the publication of influential studies in 44 critical technology sectors, considering in each of them the decile of most referenced publications. The result is that China has the lead in 37 of the 44 sections, with the United States dominating the other seven. Among the European countries, the United Kingdom, Germany and, to a lesser extent, Italy and France stand out. Among the Asian countries, India, Japan and South Korea. But all of them are a long way behind the two titans.
Of course, the interest of published research is not synonymous with technological power. For that, the translation to real life is essential. But it is clear that research is the basis on which this power is built, that the most referenced publications are those that tend to give rise to patents, and that patents usually lead to industrial manufacturing. The report also studies the flow of researchers and concludes that Chinese centers attract a significant number of people from other countries.
There are many indicators that corroborate China’s powerful rise, such as investment in R&D – in which, according to OECD comparisons, it has already surpassed the EU – or the strength of the group of companies with the greatest research vitality. According to a count by the European Commission, 27% of the 2,500 companies with the highest investment in R&D are Chinese, almost double that of the EU. In absolute values, investment is similar. The United States retains supremacy on these indicators. But the trend in China’s favor seems inexorable.
An estimate published by the US Foundation for Innovation and Information Technology also reflects the enormous Chinese rise, concluding that in absolute values, China already has a greater innovative potential than the US, using as parameters investment in R&D, venture capital, human capital and patents.
In this scenario, the EU is emerging as a second-tier player. “Europe has remarkable capabilities in some niches. For example in semiconductor design machines, 5G equipment or in some areas of software design,” says Pannier. There are other areas where Europe has players that compete superbly on a global scale.
“But, in an overall look, you can’t compare with the two giants, it’s a bit painful,” Pannier concludes.
There are of course other significant players. Countries such as Japan or South Korea have significant technological strengths. But, as Jorge Ricart points out, their sectoral capabilities have no prospect of translating into systemic competitiveness due to their lack of size. India is beginning to have significant capabilities. It has the dimensions to become a systemic player in the future. The United States’ suspicion of China may help it, for example, by attracting Western technology companies to set up in its territory to strengthen its manufacturing and local labor capabilities. However, it still has a long way to go to compete on a par with the major players at the same level.
How the battle is fought
Faced with this ratio of strength in capabilities, the powers are engaged in a great competition to position themselves well for the future. This has different axes.
“One of the key trends is the major public push for industrialization in sensitive areas with the activation of huge subsidies,” says Jorge Ricart. The renewed activism in this sector in most Western democracies is undoubtedly a central defining feature.
While China has long been developing – and especially since 2015, with the launch of the Made in China 2025 plan – powerful public policies aimed at developing its technological strength, Western countries had largely left this work in the hands of private companies and institutions, limiting themselves to taking care of conducive research and market frameworks. However, several factors have spurred a radical shift.
The realization of China’s rise prompted the United States to react to preserve its advantageous position more than a decade ago, with the pivot to Asia promoted by then President Barack Obama. “But then other elements made what was a bilateral rivalry centered on technology relevant to military and economic ascendancy assume a more global relevance,” Pannier says.
“In the past decade China has greatly developed its technology sector, with digital, surveillance, artificial intelligence capabilities that have astonished the world, while, in parallel, it was becoming an increasingly authoritarian regime. This spurs a reflection on China’s dependence. A key moment in this new global phase is when, prior to the pandemic, the United States acted to halt the deployment of Huawei’s 5G technology, pointing out possible security risks,” continues the expert.
“Then the pandemic itself highlighted the risk of supply chain disruption, which can have political or natural reasons, and this helps to convince many of the need to reindustrialize so as not to be so dependent,” notes Pannier. This chain of events leads to a Western reaction, very strong in the case of the United States, but also notable in the case of the EU.
The EU has also been active in this investment race. A significant part of the pandemic funds financed by joint borrowing are earmarked for green and digital investments, while Brussels has launched a microchip initiative and is developing others in the green technology sector. Certain US provisions of a markedly protectionist nature, which threaten to discriminate against European products, have led to serious tensions between Washington and Brussels.
Other major economies, of course, are also moving with increasing intensity to support the development of national technological capabilities.
Hand in hand with the domestic drive goes another major line of action. “A second key trend is the reorganization of global supply chains,” observes Jorge Ricart. Among other things, this involves relocating the manufacture of sensitive products and components as well as consolidating the supply routes for the raw materials needed for technological developments. It is a big game that involves reformulating relations with relevant countries from a mining or manufacturing point of view.
The Biden Administration is vigorously pushing for a broad disengagement from China, although a complete disengagement is unfeasible, while in the EU, for the time being, the majority consensus opts for the more prudent concept of risk reduction. Both have been active in reducing China’s dependence on raw materials, and Biden and Von der Leyen announced after their meeting that the two sides will work on a free trade agreement limited to this sector that aims, among other things, to reduce European anger at US protectionist measures.
There is also a third, and most controversial, area of contention, namely the restrictions on China’s access to key technologies being promoted by Washington. The operation has focused mainly on the microchip sector, essential for progress in many of the strategic areas identified, and is conveniently designed to prevent exports to China even by foreign companies when the product in question has a US material or intellectual component, as is often the case in advanced microchips.
Washington maintains that these measures are intended to “protect national security and prevent sensitive technologies with military applications from being obtained by China’s security, intelligence and military services,” according to US Deputy Secretary of Commerce Alan Estevez, on the occasion of the approval of the restrictions on microchip exports.
“China is investing heavily to develop supercomputing capabilities and become a world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. It uses these capabilities to monitor its own citizenry and drive its military modernization. Our actions will protect national security, foreign policy interests, while sending a clear message that US technological leadership is about values as well as innovation,” said Thea D. Rozman Kendler, also a senior Commerce Department official.
The White House is also pushing for allied countries with high technological capacity to join its maneuver to multiply efficiency, and for example, the Netherlands and Japan, states with key companies in the sector, have indicated their willingness to support the restrictive policy.
In the face of Washington’s arguments, as Xi Jinping himself states, Beijing sees only an indiscriminate attempt to contain its country’s rise. In these circumstances, the CCP is reinforcing an increasingly centralized technological and industrial policy response. Among the decisions announced Friday is a reconfiguration of the Ministry of Science and Technology to boost its scope and focus it on high-tech issues. A science and technology committee under party control will be instituted in the ministry, and a National Data Office will also be instituted. Public support for increasing autonomy in microchip matters is absolute.
In addition to these three very muscular and obvious axes, there are others, such as the drive to favorably shape international norms and standards in sensitive areas, to achieve the cooperation of as many countries as possible throughout the sensitive chain in the face of adversaries, and to attract talent.
The outcome of this competition will fundamentally shape the 21st century.
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Boris Johnson says ‘partygate’ untruths were an honest mistake | International
Former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged Tuesday that he misled Parliament about rule-breaking government parties during the coronavirus pandemic — but insisted he never intentionally lied. Johnson said it never occurred to him that the gatherings — which variously included cake, wine, cheese and a “secret Santa” festive gift exchange — broke the restrictions his own government had imposed on the country.
Britain’s boisterous former leader is set to be grilled by lawmakers on Wednesday over whether he lied when he denied there had been parties in his Downing Street offices in violation of Covid-19 lockdown rules that barred socializing. If found to have lied deliberately, he could be suspended or even lose his seat in Parliament.
In a dossier of written evidence to the House of Commons Committee of Privileges, Johnson acknowledged that “my statements to Parliament that the Rules and Guidance had been followed at all times did not turn out to be correct.”
But he said his statements “were made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time. I did not intentionally or recklessly mislead the House.”
The committee will quiz Johnson in person on Wednesday afternoon about “partygate,” the scandal over a string of gatherings in government offices in 2020 and 2021. Police eventually issued 126 fines over the late-night soirees, boozy parties and “wine time Fridays,” including one to Johnson, and the scandal helped hasten the end of his three years in office.
Revelations about the gatherings sparked anger among Britons who had followed rules imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, unable to visit friends and family or even say goodbye to dying relatives in hospitals.
Becky Kummer, spokesperson for the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said Johnson’s claim to have acted in good faith was “sickening.”
“He isn’t fit for public office,” Kummer said.
When reports of the parties first emerged in late 2021, Johnson initially said that no rules had been broken. He later apologized and said there had been “misjudgments.”
But in the 52-page dossier he said he “honestly believed” the five events he attended, including a sendoff for a staffer and his own surprise birthday party, were “lawful work gatherings.”
“No cake was eaten, and no one even sang ‘Happy Birthday,’” he said of the June 19, 2020, celebration, for which he received a police fine. “The primary topic of conversation was the response to Covid-19.”
Johnson said suggestions that people in government considered themselves to be “in a guidance-free bubble where the requirements we imposed on the rest of the country did not apply” could not be further from the truth.
“Drinking wine or exchanging gifts at work and whilst working did not, in my view, turn an otherwise lawful workplace gathering into an unlawful one,” he said.
Johnson said he was assured by “trusted advisers” that no rules had been broken — assurances that turned out to be wrong. He said he was later “genuinely shocked” by the rule-breaking uncovered by police and by senior civil servant Sue Gray, who led an investigation into partygate.
Johnson and his supporters have also questioned the impartiality of Gray because she has now accepted a job as chief of staff to the leader of the opposition Labour Party.
If the committee finds Johnson in contempt, it could recommend punishments ranging from an oral apology to suspension or even expulsion from Parliament, or it could recommend no sanction at all. Any punishment would have to be approved by the House of Commons.
Johnson was forced to resign in July after a slew of scandals over money and ethics finally proved too much for Conservative colleagues, dozens of whom quit the government.
For Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Wednesday’s televised hearing will be an unwelcome reminder of the turmoil that engulfed the Conservative government under Johnson — just as the party’s poll ratings are starting to edge upward.
Sunak took office in October, replacing Liz Truss, who stepped down within weeks of becoming prime minister after her tax-cutting budget plans caused turmoil on financial markets.
Johnson, once considered a secret weapon with voters, is now a liability, said Robert Hayward, a polling expert and Conservative member of the House of Lords.
“He is a serious negative for most people,” Hayward said. “Boris’s polling is far worse than is the case for Rishi (Sunak).”
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Drought caused 43,000 ‘excess deaths’ in Somalia last year, half of them young children | Global development
A new report released by the Somalian government suggests that far more children died in the country last year due to the ongoing drought than previously realised.
The study estimates that there were 43,000 excess deaths in 2022 in Somalia due to the deepening drought compared with similar droughts in 2017 and 2018.
Half of the deaths are likely to have been children under five. Up to 34,000 further deaths have been forecast for the first six months of this year.
Released on Monday by Somalia’s federal health ministry together with Unicef and the World Health Organization, the report was compiled by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Imperial College London, who looked at retrospective estimates of mortality across Somalia from January to December 2022.
Accurate statistics are difficult to compile from a population spread across remote areas, and with about three million people displaced from their homes. The highest death rates are thought to be in the regions of south-central Somalia, including Bay, Bakool and Banadir, that are the worst hit by drought.
Somalia’s health minister, Dr Ali Hadji Adam Abubakar, found cause for optimism that famine had so far been averted.
“We continue to be concerned about the level and scale of the public health impact of this deepening and protracted food crisis in Somalia,” he said.
“At the same time, we are optimistic that if we can sustain our ongoing and scaled-up health and nutrition actions, and humanitarian response to save lives and protect the health of our vulnerable, we can push back the risk of famine for ever.”
If this did not happen, he said, “the vulnerable and marginalised will pay the price of this crisis with their lives.”
“We therefore urge all our partners and donors to continue to support the health sector in building a resilient health system that works for everyone and not for the few,” said Abubakar.
For the first time, a prediction model was developed from the study. A forecast from January to June 2023 estimates that 135 people a day might also die due to the crisis, with total deaths projected at being between 18,100 and 34,200 during this period.
The estimates suggest the crisis in Somalia is far from over and is already more severe than the 2017-18 drought.
Wafaa Saeed, Unicef’s representative in Somalia, said he was saddened by the grim picture of the drought’s impact on families, but added: “We know there could have been many more deaths had humanitarian assistance not been scaled up to reach affected communities.
“We must continue to save lives by preventing and treating malnutrition, providing safe and clean water, improving access to lifesaving health services, immunising children against deadly diseases such as measles, and providing critical protection services.”
There have now been six consecutive failed rainy seasons in the climate crisis-induced drought, which coincides with global food price rises, intensified insecurity in some regions, and the aftermath of the pandemic.
The study is the first in a planned series and was funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
War crimes committed on all sides in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict, U.S. says | International
The Biden administration announced Monday that it has determined all sides in the brutal conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The move carries no immediate U.S. policy implications but lends weight to calls for such allegations to be prosecuted.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the determination less than a week after he returned from a visit to Ethiopia during which he met with Ethiopian government and Tigrayan officials as well as victims of the conflict, but said little about the U.S. view of prospects for accountability.
His determination covers members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean national armies as well as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and forces aligned with the Amhara region. Blinken said those responsible for atrocities must be held accountable.
He said after “careful review of the law and facts” he had determined that members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces and Amhara forces committed war crimes during the conflict in northern Ethiopia.
Members of the Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces also committed crimes against humanity, “including murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and persecution,” Blinken said. “Members of the Amhara forces also committed the crime against humanity of deportation or forcible transfer and committed ethnic cleansing in western Tigray.”
Blinken announced the determination as he rolled out the State Department’s annual global human rights reports, which cover 2022 and also called out Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar and Nicaragua for abuses.
“I condemn the unspeakable violence against civilians and destruction that occurred in northern Ethiopia,” he said. “Recognizing the atrocities committed by all parties is an essential step to achieving a sustainable peace.Those most responsible for atrocities, including those in positions of command, must be held accountable.”
The formal determination is more measured than his assertion early in the two-year conflict that “ethnic cleansing” was taking place in parts of Tigray.
Last year, a United Nations commission of inquiry said it had turned up evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Ethiopian government forces, Tigray forces and Eritrea’s military. But the commission also said Ethiopian forces had resorted to “starvation of civilians” as a tool of war and that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were found to be responsible for “sexual slavery” — while Tigray forces were not.
The conflict, which ended with a peace deal in November, killed an estimated half-million civilians in Tigray alone, according to Ghent University researchers, a death toll echoed by U.S. officials.
Blinken called on all sides to respect the agreement and follow through on pledges “to implement an inclusive and comprehensive transitional justice process.”
He said Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, which took power after the U.S. withdrawal from the country two years ago, “relentlessly discriminates against and represses women and girls” and has taken action that threatens humanitarian assistance to all Afghans.
On China, Blinken said Beijing continues abuses, including genocide and crimes against humanity, against Uyghur Muslims in it western Xinjiang area. It also continues the repression of Tibetans and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, along with mainland Chinese citizens who have tried to exercise basic freedoms.
In Myanmar, also known as Burma, Blinken said human rights “have further eroded,” and in Nicaragua, he said “the authoritarian government continues to detain political prisoners and hold them in appalling prison conditions.”
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