The competition between autocracy and democracy is the defining challenge of the 21st century, a challenge that will be played out in part through the control of the digital and physical infrastructure that increasingly binds the world together.
US President Joe Biden rallied the world’s leading democracies to this cause at the Group of Seven (G7) summit last month. The G7 countries, comprising the main free economies and free societies of the world, proclaimed that in seeking to meet the global demand for infrastructure, among many other goals, their efforts will be guided by shared democratic values. For China, the flagship of an alternative and illiberal model, investment in infrastructure has another purpose: increase China’s global economic lever for its political gain. To prevail in this competition, advance their values and develop essential digital and physical infrastructure, the world’s leading democracies should embrace the principle of “trusted connectivity”.
Through my recent work at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with American allies and partners on the development of digital and physical infrastructure to counter Chinese efforts in these areas, I have been able to appreciate the huge latent demand for trust in such an infrastructure. The right answer to this trend is a concept I call trusted connectivity. I have discussed this framework with officials from the United States and allied countries, including the Estonian government, which adopted trusted connectivity as the theme of the September conference. Tallinn Digital Summit.
Part of the impetus for this response is the export by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of its autocratic model through digital and physical infrastructure under the banner of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Digital Silk Road. At home, the CCP’s stated political goals and self-delegated legal authorities allow it to use networks and digital technologies to keep its citizens under constant surveillance, as demonstrated by China’s coercive digital authoritarianism against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, coupled with extensive surveillance and the use of social credit scores for its citizens. Concerns, reinforced by Chinese laws, that China could force its global companies to monitor customers and share their user data with the Chinese government have led to a number of nations, from Australia to Romania to the United States, to shut the door on Huawei, China’s main telecommunications provider. These concerns have also prompted calls for a more in-depth review of all connectivity projects, ports at public services– and technologies provided by President Xi Jinping and other autocrats.
The concept of trusted connectivity offers a democratic alternative to what China offers, an alternative that can help build public confidence in digital and physical infrastructure and technology. “Technology” refers to the broad application of science to the practical purposes of human life. “Connectivity” encompasses the various forms of digital and physical infrastructure connecting the world. “Trust” in this case refers to trust not only in the connectivity and technology working as advertised, but also in the political and legal systems that inform and govern their operations. Democracies operate on the trust of their citizens. When the leaders lose it, they are eliminated. Trusted connectivity stems from political and legal systems committed to individual rights and dignity, as well as free and open societies and markets, as opposed to autocratic systems and state capitalism or mercantilism.
The term brings together two important strands – trust and connectivity – that already define the democratic response to meet the global demand for infrastructure. Europe’s response to China’s BRI is called the EU-Asia connectivity strategy. Southeast Asian countries are busy implementing the ASEAN Connectivity Master Plan 2025. the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act 2021, adopted by the Senate and awaiting a decision in the House of Representatives, underlines the need for digital technologies and connectivity. Japan, as host of the Group of Twenty (G20) summit in 2019, supported the concept of Free data flow with confidence. Over a hundred nations gathered at the Prague 5G Security Conference in 2019 to use “trusted suppliers” to establish 5G networks. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) boasts a rich body of work underway on confidence in business and the government.
Trusted connectivity provides a valuable organizational framework that can be applied to several worthwhile initiatives aimed at advancing democratic interests and values. These include:
- The Blue Dot Network, launched by the United States, Japan and Australia to highlight, mark and certify quality infrastructure projects and thus take advantage of increased private investment
Bringing these disparate efforts together under the brand of trusted connectivity will require major democracies to develop a common understanding and vocabulary regarding what the term means, what funding mechanisms can look like, and what large projects can deliver results. .
- Shared vocabulary: The US-EU Trade and Technology Council, the Critical and Emerging Technologies Working Group of the Four Countries (US, Japan, India and Australia) and the Tallinn Digital Summit 2021 provide platforms to refine the concept and put it into practice. The OECD can play a constructive role by disseminating a consistent definition and common terminology, principles and standards associated with the term.
- Funding issues: By translating concepts into results, G7 members, Quad countries and other leading democracies should make coordinated and complementary investments through their respective international development finance companies, leveraging private capital. the American Development Finance Corporation, for example, prefers but does not require that American companies be involved in its projects. The billion dollars Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund also offers an informative model of public-private investment in critical infrastructure. Similar flexibility is needed on the part of others.
With these plans spanning the globe and more, the free and open nations of the world are stepping up the race against China to connect the societies of the world. They must deploy the trusted connectivity brand to unite a wide range of initiatives under the core principles of trust and transparency.
Kaush Arha is a non-resident senior researcher at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He served from 2017-2020 as Senior Advisor for Strategic Engagement at the US Agency for International Development, where his responsibilities included work on digital empowerment in emerging markets. This article is part of an Atlantic Council Before Defense project on trusted connectivity supported by the Estonian government.
Thu Jul 1, 2021
The free world against China and its friends: that’s ideology, stupid
As the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 100th anniversary, the United States must accentuate the ideological contrast. For a nation conceived as an idea, the refusal to lead with the force of ideas is not only improper, it is doomed to failure.
Sat, June 12, 2021
A hidden key to the infrastructural ambitions of the G7: Blue Dot Network
Blue Dot Network represents another chapter for US leadership to meet global needs and protect the international system from predatory behavior. With the Biden administration’s mission to rebuild better for the world, it is well positioned to make BDN one of its historic legacies for global good.