Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Apr 28, 2022
Democracy, Technology, Geopolitics

This article is part of the series — Raisina Files 2022.

Technology is at the heart of contemporary geopolitics, shaping global alignments and defining the contours of global engagements. Frontier technologies, in particular, are inducing a rapid Fourth Industrial Revolution led by emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), blockchain, and 5G. The economic potential of frontier technologies has been assessed as transformational in its impact on states globally. States are looking to an integrated scheme of frontier technologies where advancements in one sector could lead to breakthroughs in another. Among such leading technologies, 5G is expected to touch US$13 trillion in global economic value and create 22 million jobs by 2035, and AI is expected to add over US$15 trillion to the global economy by the year 2030.<1> Countries from Europe and Asia—led by China and the United States—have all scrambled to invest heavily in frontier technologies, expecting the decisively strategic impact these technologies will have on geopolitics in the future as well as on the characteristics of nation states. Technology is driving both international cooperation and competition. Tech-based partnerships seem to be gaining a precedent in international politics, as seen from the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposed “D-10” (a coalition of ten democracies to create an alternative supply chain of 5G and other emerging technologies).<2> This is in consonance with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) countries’ agreement in March 2021 along with a follow up meeting in September the same year to explore cooperation on 5G deployment and diversification of equipment suppliers, in close cooperation with the private sector and industry.<3> A similar proposal is of the “T-12” group of techno-democracies (democracies with top technology sectors and advanced economies).<4> Technology is also dominating influential multilateral and regional settings like the Group of 20 and the Quad, which are taking steps to foster cooperation on emerging technologies. These developments make it clear the dominant role played by technology.

Fragmentation of the World Order

Digital technology has indeed benefitted humanity. However, with technological advancement come also the harms. The technological spaces we live in are now spaces of contestations and conflicts. Technology is also driving intense international competition and fragmenting the world order as seen in the conceptualisation of our digital spaces—reflected by the competing visions for global digital order, differing norms, and divergent standards and protocols.<5> The COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated the trends of global order fragmentation. The disruptions induced by the pandemic in the global order has caused a new digital normal which is often in dissonance with the old digital regimes. With this transformation has come the need for revisiting global norms and protocols in the areas of emerging technologies to provide momentum to the benefits and reduce risks that come with it. States—including the leading democracy of the world, the US—have shown the tendency to look inwards. Increasingly, nations have imposed state controls on trade through regulations, export controls, entities lists, and localisation to get access to critical technologies themselves. These steps often give rise to export monopolies and destabilise trade and international order, atop existing global trade balance. The geopolitical competition shaping in the world with regards to production, control of resources, and supply of semiconductors and rare earth material are the leading examples of tech-induced geopolitical rivalry that may well be transforming the global order. Today, countries are eager to exploit each other’s dependence on technology and use it to settle their geopolitical rivalries. Cyberspace, for instance—which knew no boundaries and promised to bring the world together—is now increasingly an arena of competition and conflict. Moreover, mounting cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and services pose challenges to national resilience while also redefining offence-defence balance and escalation.

Democracies and Technology

Democracies of the world today confront two significant tech challenges: Authoritarian regimes’ determined pursuit for tech supremacy and the perils of the ‘Big Tech.’ For sure, technology has benefitted democracies by giving them tools to reach out to their citizens and improve governance, but on the other hand, it has also complicated their security environment. In this, the ‘Big Tech’—social media platforms and tech titans—has played a critical role. Today’s world relies on the Big Tech to provide us the spaces for communication. However, Big Tech often demonstrates no accountability to the national jurisdictions under which they operate. Instead, the Big Tech companies have revealed its American, Western, or Chinese roots, prompting some to construe their behaviour as foreign interference in democratic polities. Dr. Samir Saran and Shashank Mattoo have observed that “operating outside rules and regulations prescribed by sovereign constitutions, social media platforms now exercise a worrying level of influence without accountability.”<6> Consequently, these double standards of the Big Tech challenge national sovereignty and destabilise the foundations of democracy. The evolution of digital technologies has redefined the concept of digital sovereignty—largely understood as the ability of states to sustain a digital ecosystem by using homegrown technologies and cutting technological dependencies on other countries.<7> The concept of sovereignty—as opposed to democracy—harps on the more restrictive characteristics of the nation-state. Resultantly, the extension of some of the conceptual elements of sovereignty to the digital domain and its interest-based interpretations by autocratic states like China, has led to the evolution of new models of digital sovereignty. Today, the US and China are representative of two alternative models of digital sovereignty. In 2017, China passed its National Intelligence Law which made it mandatory for its companies to share information with its intelligence agencies. Importantly, this law had both domestic and international implications. The latter violated digital sovereignties of the countries in which Chinese tech companies operated.<8> China has not only emerged as an alternative model of digital sovereignty but has also inverted the principles of democracy through the manner in which technology has been used in that country. The competitive technological mix between the two countries that emerged around the US’ attempt to bar Huawei from next generation telecommunications network has had a clear geopolitical ramification. Big Tech has also been complicit in disseminating misinformation and propaganda—as seen in India’s case—where social media platforms have repeatedly clashed with the government to take down certain offensive content.<9> As such, one of the most consequential impacts that Big Tech could have on future democracies may be the rupturing of the interconnectedness that democratic states have established between them. States have reoriented their position to impose additional restrictions on Big Tech companies to suit their national interests. Worldwide, there have been efforts to rein in the ‘Big Tech.’ Nigeria banned Twitter in June 2021<10>; India has implemented the ‘Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules’<11>; while Australia has enforced its News Media Bargaining Code.<12> It is clear that if democracies perceive dangers from the Big Tech, they will step in to regulate it, even if it leads to confrontation.<13> The era of states giving kid gloves treatment to the Big Tech’s monoploy is over.<14> While an unruptured spectrum of communication and its transnational nature signifies a stable order, Big Tech companies have often been embroiled in politicisation of its power and influence, and its resultant impact on domestic politics of states. In a future tech-driven order, ownership and control of Big Tech companies are seen as factors that will shape the geopolitics of influence.<15>

Tech Race Between Democracies and Dictatorships

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused economic strains and distracted many democracies from their strategic objectives. Moreover, despite their vibrant technological bases and thriving innovation eco-systems, democracies now confront a stark reality: They no longer enjoy a lead in many digital technologies.<16> Digital technologies are no longer advancing democratic values, the manner in which they were perceived to be at the beginning of the digital revolution two decades ago.<17> On the contrary, authoritarian regimes have bolstered their collaboration and marched ahead. The US-China tech competition has shown that other democracies are not immune from this race. Increasingly, the pursuit of technologies has become a zero-sum game. As a result, authoritarian regimes are attaining competitive advantage in digital technologies and thereby, reconfiguring the power balance between them and the democracies.<18> Authoritarian regimes are using their technological proficiency to extend their repression. Scholars Alina Polyakova and Chris Meserole describe this as ‘digital authoritarianism’—the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations.<19> For instance, the Chinese Communist Party has leveraged the services of its domestic technology giants like Alibaba, SenseTime, and Megvii for targeted facial recognition, AI, big data, and genetic testing against the Uyghur ethnic minority in Xinjiang.<20> China’s systematic harnessing of emerging tech and its deployment for repression has defined its approach—one that is deeply soaked in ‘techno-nationalism’.<21> As Hilary McGeachy notes, “For Beijing, efforts to increase activity and effectiveness in international standards organisations are beginning to bear fruit, notably, in the development of 5G network standards, a trend that is likely to continue in…AI…and Internet of Things (IoT).”<22> Authoritarian regimes have also used tech to spread disinformation and promote their propaganda. They have also used technologies to breach democratic systems. For instance, China’s surging geopolitical and tech influence along with penetrating cyber capabilities have enabled it to interfere in other states’ political systems. This weaponisation of tech has direct implications for democracies and their functioning.

Forging Collaboration Between Democracies

While there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to the impact of emerging technologies on future global order—among certainties—only a collaborative approach among the democracies will be tenable to get us past these challenges. Democracies will need to lead the way to mitigate the pernicious effect of technology. They must identify technologies that will bind them together in their struggle against the authoritarian regimes. If democracies are serious about preserving their values, they need to shed their reluctance and status quoist approach. Instead, they need to be bold and ambitious in their collaborative vision—they need to share more data, develop common standards, and focus on innovation while equipping fellow democracies to tackle the tech challenges better. While multilaterals do what they can do best to operate in this polarised global order, democracies need to forge a ‘coalition of the like-minded and willing’ to take forward their technological collaboration—democracies that fundamentally share concerns on privacy, surveillance, and disinformation. More importantly, western democracies—howsoever preeminent their technological lead is—will have to cede space to other democracies to ensure that the evolving coalition is inclusive and benefits every stakeholder. Proposals such as the D-10, Digital Stability Board, and Techno-democracies do indicate the path ahead. With technology set to have a transformational impact on polities, it makes sense for the governments to step in and mitigate its impact and even regulate them. The COVID-19 pandemic—even with its debilitating impact—provided countries with opportunity to address existing challenges and prepare for future ones by leveraging technology. The use of technology by China to fight the pandemic provides both positive and negative lessons for democracies. Specifically, China made use of positioning technologies to track patients, and impose lockdowns and other restrictions. For many authoritarian regimes, the pandemic proved to be an opportunity to hone the use and applicability of restrictive technologies. The continued use of such technologies remains a looming concern for the international democratic community. Some democracies have scrambled to pre-empt these threats. For instance, the ‘Build Back Better’ approach to better health security—by the Quad democracies—commits to prepare better for the next pandemic and towards building a resilient Indo-Pacific. Cooperative programmes within the Quad such as the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines and Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System require serious technological commitments by all democratic members countries to address common challenges.


The geopolitics of the next few decades is likely to be shaped by the technological competition between two axes of power—China on one hand and a US-led coalition on the other. In this, both US’ trans-Atlantic partners in Europe and its Indo-Pacific partners like Australia, India, South Korea, and Japan could play decisive roles. The emergent geopolitics would also likely shape economics and politics in equal measure and lead to strategic re-assessments. In particular, China’s high-tech innovation and advancements in areas like AI, Big Data, 5G, nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, IoT, and quantum computing have the potential to realign the balance of power and balance of influence in a future global order. These technological advancements by China form part of its revolution in high-tech sectors that it seeks through its “Made in China 2025” programme, geared towards achieving an advanced industrial base, a smooth supply chain, and integrated by better coordination between the two. For other industrial nations reliant on the existing mechanisms of industrial manufacturing and supply chain—led by the US—China’s call for a tech-overhaul is not just a wake-up call but also a destabilising factor that has a threat potential. In the Indo-Pacific, this realisation among nations is already strengthening cooperation. The Indo-Pacific strategy of the Biden administration lays down a plan for an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) that seeks to promote elevated trade standards, governance of the digital economy, bolster security and resilience of supply-chains, usher investments in transparent, high-standards infrastructure, and build digital connectivity.<23> The IPEF seeks to bind regional democracies with a common arc of purpose and leverages technology to do that. From a geopolitical perspective, it intends to present a counter strategic framework to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Quad is leading a cooperative agenda among the Indo-Pacific democracies on emerging technologies. In March 2021, the Quad leaders agreed to establish a Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group to facilitate cooperation to ensure that technology standards are governed by shared interests and values.<24> The Quad’s focus on emerging technologies underscores the inevitability of reliance on technologies to shape future democratic order, maintain common rules of engagement and operation, and create a stable global order. Frontier technologies have underscored the importance of integration of various sectors of an economy under an overarching framework of technology—extending from availing resources to exports through supply chains. For democracies of the future, internally this has signalled a call for increasing alignment between various sectors in future economies like health, climate change, and trade; and externally, it has meant aligning their production bases with external supply chains as well as preventing disruptions in supply chains. Both these efforts are themselves integrated and could thrive under cooperative democratic efforts between states. Leveraging of technology could be the single most important factor in effecting this order but also re-shaping the geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific by countries on two sides of the power axes in the region. The pandemic has rewritten the rules of competition in many sectors. As nations emerge strongly—picking up on the post-pandemic momentum—there will be a reordering of global politics and economics. While variations among nations on their economic and military capabilities may have been reordered due to the pandemic, their future course will be defined by their adaptability to technologies—both extant and emerging. More importantly, the level of technological integration of various sectors of economies will be the key to driving the overall growth. Amidst this scramble, one of the biggest bets of international order will depend on how rapidly and extensively the reliance of the global defence sector on technology will grow. As the Ukraine-Russia war has shown, wars have neither become obsolete nor have their dependence on technology. If anything, the scope of technology in wars has only grown.  Technological upper hand can quickly change the course of wars, give accurate information, or bolster defence against a much larger enemy. In the post-Ukraine crisis, the Eurasian continent, as perhaps elsewhere, smaller countries will look to enhance their bets on bigger enemies through a technological build up. The current Eurasian crisis may very well drive a weaponisation of technology like never before.
<1> Ariel Kastner, “7 views on how technology will shape geopolitics,” World Economic Forum. <2> Lucy Fisher, “Downing Street plans new 5G club of democracies,The Times, May 29, 2020. <3> Fact Sheet: Quad Leaders’ Summit, The White House. <4> Jared Cohen and Richard Fontaine, “Uniting the Techno-Democracies: How to Build Digital Cooperation,” Foreign Affairs 99, no. 6, (2020): 112-122. <5> Ryan Hass, Patricia M. Kim, Emilie Kimball, Jesscia Brandt, David Dollar, Cameron F. Kerry, Aaron Klein, Joshua P. Meltzer, Chris Meserole, Amy J. Nelson, Pavneet Singh, Melanie W. Sisson, Thomas Wright, “U.S.-China technology competition,” Brookings. <6> Samir Saran and Shashank Mattoo, “Big Tech vs. Red Tech: The Diminishing of Democracy in the Digital Age,” Observer Research Foundation, February 15, 2022. <7> Ciaran Martin, “Geopolitics and Digital Sovereignty,” in Perspectives on Digital Humanism, ed. Hannes Werthner, Erich Prem, Edward A. Lee and Carlo Ghezzi (Springer, Cham, 2021), 227–231. <8> Geeta Mohan, “How China’s Intelligence Law of 2017 authorises global tech giants for espionage,India Today, July 27, 2020. <9> Sameer Patil, “Big Tech: The phony knight of democracy,” Observer research Foundation, February 18, 2022. <10> Danielle Paquette, “Nigeria suspends Twitter after the social media platform freezes president’s account,” The Washington Post, June 4, 2021. <11> Government of India, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, (New Delhi: Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, 2021). <12>News media bargaining code,” Australian Communications and Media Authority, Australian Government. <13> Kastner, “7 views on how technology will shape Geopolitics”. <14> Tim Wu, The Curse of Bigness: How Corporate Giants Came to Rule the World (UK: Atlantic Books, 2020). <15> Kastner, “7 views on how technology will shape Geopolitics”. <16> Sameer Patil, Inserting India into U.S. – Israel Defence Technology Cooperation, Mumbai, Gateway House, 2021. <17> Marie Lamensch, “Authoritarianism Has Been Reinvented for the Digital Age,” Centre for International Governance Innovation, July 9, 2021. <18> Alina Polyakova and Chris Meserole, Exporting digital authoritarianism: The Russian and Chinese Models, August 2019, Brookings. <19> Alina Polyakova and Chris Meserole, “Exporting digital authoritarianism: The Russian and Chinese Models”. <20> IPVM Team, “Alibaba Uyghur Recognition as a Service,IPVM, December 16, 2020. <21> Efekan Bilgin and Alphonse Loh comment on “Techno-nationalism: China’s bid for global technological leadership,” LSE Blog, comment posted on September 28, 2021. <22> Hilary McGeachy, US-China Technology Competition: Impacting a Rules-Based Order, 2019, United States Studies Centre. <23> The White House, Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States, (Washington DC: The White House, 2022). <24>Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group,” Australian Government.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Sameer Patil

Sameer Patil

Dr Sameer Patil is Senior Fellow, Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology and Deputy Director, ORF Mumbai. His work focuses on the intersection of technology ...

Read More +
Vivek Mishra

Vivek Mishra

Vivek Mishra is a Fellow with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. His research interests include America in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific regions, particularly ...

Read More +