Picture: 123RF/RA2 STUDIO
Picture: 123RF/RA2 STUDIO

Back in the US autumn of 2016, both the Republican and Democratic candidates for the US presidency came out against the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), an enormous trade deal that would have tied together economies comprising roughly 40% of global GDP. US President Donald Trump would go on to withdraw the US from TPP in his very first week in office. The “America First” era had officially begun.

Two-and-a-half years into the post-American world order, Washington continues to confound traditional US allies. Europeans suddenly find themselves branded as “currency manipulators”; security ties with Japan are being openly questioned. All the while, the US-China trade war continues to progress in fits and starts, weighing on global economic growth. But while the trade war captures international headlines, there’s another battle brewing between Beijing and Washington, one with greater potential for global disruption — a technological cold war.

China has spent years building itself into a technology superpower, one unaligned with the interests of the US or its global allies. The trade war has forced this schism out into the open, and suddenly the world is facing a global internet about to be split in two, one Western and one Chinese. The Western version will largely be run by private corporations with varying degrees of government regulation; the Chinese version will be run by Beijing, full-stop.

Given this reality, the best hope for the West — and Western-led multilateralism in the “America First” era — is the creation of a digital version of TPP; one that will allow the US, Europe and Japan play to their individual tech strengths and help the world chart a digital way forward.

It won’t be easy, particularly at a time when the US shows little interest in a global leadership role. It’s this lack of interest that has led to a broad deterioration in Western-led multilateral agreements, norms and institutions. But when it comes to technology, there’s a global choice, and to win the US needs its allies. 

The US will, of course, have to play a critical role, as the brightest and most innovative tech minds (to say nothing of the tech companies that employ them) are primarily based there. But that’s only one piece of the equation. Given the size of its market, the capacity of its bureaucrats, and its proactive approach to technological oversight, Europe is a regulatory superpower —that much has been established with the successful rollout of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the rush of companies to fall in line lest they lose access to one of the world’s largest consumer markets.

Japan, meanwhile, has proven itself as the advanced industrial market most interested in rolling out robotics, artificial intelligence and new technologies for its own (rapidly ageing) population, effectively making it a living laboratory for the world’s most cutting-edge technologies. Put those three strengths together, give them a framework for co-operation, and you have laid the groundwork for a digital TPP.

The threat of an alternative Chinese internet and infrastructure— and the ability of Beijing to use its economic muscle to export its vision of digital privacy in the 21st century to other countries— is the impetus for establishing a digital TPP, but the goal is not just to compete with China’s vision of the digital future. By establishing a digital TPP framework that governs internet use among the West’s largest economies, the aim is to give China an incentive to reform itself so it can access a marketplace of billions more, much like WTO membership nudged China and the West closer together.

That outcome is far from guaranteed. But even if China never signs on to a digital TPP, it is a project that is sorely needed these days in the West — both to co-ordinate Western strategy against China’s rising technological threat, and to prove that multilateralism can survive in a post-US world order.

It’s important for the West to prove to China that it’s still a unified force to be reckoned with; it’s even more important for the West to prove that to itself. 

• Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism