In this paper, Sangbae Kim analyzes a new trend in the competition between the US and China in cyberspace by using a framework comprising three-dimensional competition of technology, standards, and charm. Kim's paper is based on the notion that cyberspace is an emerging sphere for US-China power competition as China rises as a global leader in the digital realm with remarkable growth in science and technology. In this new arena, a power game is underway to secure capabilities and resources in technology and data, dominate standards in related sectors, and establish universal norms.
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In exploring the current US-China competition, this paper highlights the new issues of information technology—in a broader sense, knowledge, culture, and communication. These issues are recognized as the new sources of power in the information age, or so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, and are now opening a new horizon of world politics beyond the traditional power politics based on military and economic resources (Schwab 2016). More specifically, these issues belong to a leading sector which is both growing faster than any other part of the world economy and driving the growth of other sectors. This new sector has enjoyed recent rapid expansion through the medium of cyberspace. Cyberspace has been understood intrinsically as the space of technologies and industries, but has been recently transformed into a complex space that includes online and offline activities with socio-political implications. Understanding this, this paper pays attention to US-China competition in cyberspace as an emerging leading sector.
This paper comprises two main parts. In the first part, adopting network theories, it outlines a theoretical framework for platform competition and emerging power politics between two great powers, and interprets the competition as “inter-network politics” between two network states—the United States and China. In the second part, applying the framework of three-dimensional platform competition, this paper analyzes U.S-China competition in cyberspace in coping with the “inter-network politics” of cyberspace. This paper concludes with a brief summary of the main argument, and presents further research concerns.
US-China Technological Competition in Cyberspace
The key issue in emerging power politics is the technological competition between the United States and China in the wave of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The success or failure of each country in the sectors of semiconductors, smartphones, supercomputers, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, e-commerce and FinTech will determine the future of global hegemony. In these sectors, product productivity and technology innovation are the keys to competition at the first threshold. Technological innovation in such sectors as network equipment, servers, and sensors, which are composed of infrastructure environments interconnecting individual devices, are also critical to this competition. In addition to wired and wireless internet, recent innovations in technologies related to IoT are drawing attention. In this regard, the future of the United States and China might be dominated by the CEOs of the digital economy and industry rather than by political leaders.
US-China Standard Competition in Cyberspace
Recent competition in IT has been different from past competition to produce cheap and high-quality semiconductors, high performance software and computers, and fast, accessible Internet. In other words, it goes beyond competition in which a company or country acquires resources and builds manufacturing capability and innovations. Of course, there is no denying the importance of having enough capital and advanced technology in winning this competition. However, as the environment of complex networks and media converge in cyberspace competition, it is very important to dominate standards in related sectors. From this point of view, standard competition is “platform competition” to create a new stage and play a new game, rather than a game to win on the established stage. Recently, based on the enormous power of Chinese consumers, Chinese companies have been challenging US companies in this field of platform competition.
US-China Charm Competition in Cyberspace
In the most comprehensive sense, US-China competition in cyberspace is a competition of charm, which could also be called a competition over “soft power” (Nye 2004). This charm competition goes beyond taking control of markets and policies to establish persuasive and agreed-upon universal norms. For example, unlike hardware-based manufacturing sectors, the success or failure of the cultural industry and Internet businesses depends on who can produce more emotionally compelling content and desirable services. Producing attractive content and services is only half the battle- diffusion and communication are also important. The extent to which the policies, institutions and culture of a certain country are able to embrace the content and services provided also plays a critical role. In this regard, the charm competition means establishing norms that include universal values and an accessible world view. As in the case of technical standards and institutional models, the United States has thus far dominated the realm of charm diffusion and norm setting, and China’s challenge in the future will be reaching this domain.
Indeed, the recent competition between the United States and China in cyberspace has developed into a multi-dimensional competition over industry, trade, security, military, privacy, law and institutions, and international norms. Faced with such complexity generated by the rise of the emerging power game, South Korea must take systematic measures to implement necessary policies and rearrange existing institutions. South Korea must also seek out strategic roles in the US-China competition. In searching for such strategic roles, as this paper recommends, South Korea should consider its structural position and take actions for security and prosperity as a middle power. Indeed, this situation is likely to provide South Korea with a golden opportunity to engage in middle power diplomacy, especially in cyberspace. However, we also have to keep in mind that the structural conditions produced by US-China competition may pose a threatening challenge to South Korea, whose geopolitical fate is to be located between two super powers.
Sangbae Kim is a professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Seoul National University. His major research interests are in the areas of information, communication, and networks in international relations. His publications include Virtual Spears and Network Shields: World Politics of Cyber Security and South Korea (Hanulmplus 2018, in Korean), International Relations of Arachne: Challenge of the Network Theory of World Politics (Hanul Academy 2014, in Korean), and Information Revolution and Power Transformation: A Perspective of Network Politics (Hanul Academy, 2010, in Korean). Kim has a Ph.D. in political science from Indiana University, Bloomington.