Mark Warner has a message for Europe and America’s other democratic allies: We need to work together to beat China on tech.
The U.S. senator, who chairs the chamber’s intelligence committee, said Washington must join forces with like-minded countries to set the rules for everything from artificial intelligence to how microchips are manufactured. If not, democracies could cede vital ground to Beijing, which he said is trying to cement its claim over the digital world.
“This is the defining economic issue of our time,” he told the Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic tech newsletter. “There needs to be a sense of urgency. The European Union is a superpower. But if you have a coalition of the willing, that’s what’s needed to speed up the West’s response to China.”
Warner’s words come as the United States wants to rebuild its international relationships after four years of strain under Donald Trump’s administration. So far, that push from Joe Biden’s White House has focused on non-tech issues like climate change and COVID-19 — a recognition that Washington is juggling a long list of priorities.
Still, the EU similarly wants to forge close ties with the U.S. on tech issues, including the creation of a transatlantic council to come up with joint positions on digital trade issues like limits on the types of technology that can be exported from both regions to authoritarian countries like China. Brussels is also looking to set a joint agenda on artificial intelligence rules, although work on both of those projects has barely begun.
Warner welcomed such efforts, though he said it was important to set broader goals and get political buy-in from Western leaders because whoever controlled emerging forms of technology would have a head start when the global economy rebounds after the pandemic. He has proposed legislation to create a division within the U.S. State Department to build democratic alliances around digital policymaking, as well as to set aside $5 billion for joint tech research projects between the U.S. and other Western countries.
“If you push this too far down the agenda, it won’t get the attention is deserves,” he said. “If China sets the rules for AI, it undermines all our democracies.”
Sights on Beijing (and Brussels)
The Senator stressed his battle was not with the Chinese people, but with the country’s government. That mirrors similar language from the Trump administration, which took a hard line with Beijing on next generation telecom equipment, known as 5G, where China is ahead of its Western counterparts.
Huawei, the country’s 5G giant, has become the world’s largest provider of such equipment. But it has seen some countries across Europe and beyond pull back from using its technology over national security concerns under Trump. The company says it does not share data with the Chinese government.
“Trump was directionally right on China. But the execution was dreadfully wrong,” said Warner. “If Americans had started in a smarter way on Huawei, it could have happened much sooner.”
Despite Washington’s renewed willingness to work with allies to curb Beijing’s rise, infighting between Western democracies — many of which are competing with each other on emerging technologies — remains a significant barrier when creating a united front against China.
The EU, whose strategy toward Beijing remains unclear, has outlined wide-ranging plans to invest billions in microchips, electric car batteries and artificial intelligence to push the 27-country bloc back onto the global stage as a competitor with both the U.S. and China. Those plans have already raised hackles with the U.S. that they could breach global trade rules. That may set off tit-for-tat retaliatory tariffs, particularly around semiconductors, as national governments vie for dominance amid a global microchip shortage.
European capitals also are divided on how to approach China. Some, like Germany, want to strengthen trading ties with Beijing while fending its companies’ efforts to buy local firms. Others, like France, favor a more top-down approach that will see EU governments creating national champions to compete head-on with Eastern rivals.
Working together, and apart
Two national European policymakers told POLITICO that the last four years under Trump had shown many on the other side of the Atlantic they could no longer rely on the U.S., and that they viewed Washington as much as an industrial rival as Beijing. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Warner acknowledged that competition between democracies would continue even amid efforts to set Western-style rules for emerging technologies. He added that his goal was not to pick industrial champions to take on the Chinese. Instead, he said the world’s democracies should set joint digital objectives to combat the billions of dollars that Beijing was already investing in its homegrown industries.
“There is no Western company that can compete with the Chinese economic model,” he said. “In the 21st century, as competition revolves around technology, there will be tech-based alliances. Countries that come together around 5G may be different than those who come together on AI.”
That message may not go down well in parts of Europe where politicians are already seeking to push a “technological sovereignty” agenda that seeks to build the bloc’s homegrown tech industry, often at the expense of the U.S. Other democracies like Japan and Australia, too, have shown reluctance to fall in line with Washington’s lead on digital policymaking aimed at China.
Major sticking points — including ongoing arguments from Europe’s highest court that Washington does not fully protect EU citizens’ data right when their information is shipped across the Atlantic — must still be hammered out before a Western digital alliance can be built on the future of technology.
“The top line argument is good,” said Warner, in reference to how democracies must build closer ties on digital rules. “The ability to execute is a fully valid question.”