How Big Tech factors into the US-China geopolitical competition
On Oct. 6, the House Judiciary Committee issued a report calling for new antitrust regulations to rein in Big Tech. This report comes after a 15-month antitrust probe into technology firms Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook — and with it, findings that the tech giants all hold monopoly power.
Congress is making the wrong call — not because of what was in the House report, but because of what was not: These 450 pages, the antitrust probe, and the national conversation about Big Tech writ large ignore the strategic context. They assume that the U.S. system sits in a vacuum; that the alternative to Big Tech is small, or smaller, tech.
It is not. The alternative to U.S. Big Tech is China’s Big Tech.
In fact, Big Tech is the closest thing that the United States has to a strategic response to China’s asymmetric, global offensive; to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) quest for international information dominance, its digital authoritarianism and its tech-fueled, military-civil fusion strategy.
Beijing has diagnosed that advances in information technology are bringing about a new global order: A new set of networks, standards and platforms that will define global exchange of goods, ideas and people. The CCP wants to set those standards, build those platforms and oversee those networks. China seeks commercial, informational and military ends, all of them fused into a comprehensive vision of national power — and international control. “Whoever controls the flow of resources, markets and money,” wrote retired People’s Liberation Army commander Wang Xiangsui in 2017, “is hegemon of the world.”
This is not an abstract threat. Beijing’s global architecture is well established. In 2019, Beijing successfully promulgated 83 standards through the International Standards Organization (ISO), addressing everything from aviation and shipping to petrochemicals. The Beijing-backed Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO) has signed agreements with over 30 national governments. Alibaba’s AliPay has 1.3 billion users. WeChat reportedly has been installed on over 100 million devices outside China from the Google Play store alone. TikTok has a similar profile in the U.S., with projections of over 100 million users; the ByteDance-owned video sharing app exceeds 2 billion downloads globally.
These are not compartmentalized commercial players. They contribute to a platform geopolitics that propels a new form of coercive power. The potential of this information strategy is evident in China’s National Transportation Logistics Platform, known as LOGINK internationally — though LOGINK itself is only one example of Beijing’s larger platform geopolitics.
Governed by China’s Ministry of Transportation, LOGINK might be thought of as a “super app” for international logistics. It docks into international information systems and infrastructures — including 14 of the world’s 20 largest ports — aggregating their data into what it describes as a “one-stop window.” LOGINK collects data on logistics, storage, transportation, packing, loading and unloading, processing and distribution. LOGINK provides users with access to that information, as well as logistics software, communication portals, supply chain coordination, transportation monitoring and other services built on its data foundation.
International logistics information and systems are, at present, siloed and fragmented. Users flock to LOGINK for the same reason they do to Facebook or Gmail: Because it provides a valuable service. Except that this platform is controlled by an authoritarian government. LOGINK explicitly supports the CCP’s international strategy.
Beijing intends to develop the foundational platform of modern logistics and exchange. If it succeeds, China will claim superior information on the movement of goods and operations of infrastructure, internationally. That information promises commercial rewards. It also promises military benefit.
And today’s information technology systems do not just provide access to information. As the debate over Big Tech acknowledges, modern platforms also grant the ability to shape information and incentives. On the LOGINK platform, Chinese applications and vendors might be the most prominently promoted and highest rated, à la “Amazon’s Choice,” regardless of quality. Supply chains or shipping routes incorporating Chinese players might be recommended, whether or not they are the most efficient. The integration with customs agencies that LOGINK oversees might, for some actors, overlook transport of controlled or illicit goods.
The reverse also holds. Information access might stall for a country that, say, recognizes Taiwan. A port shipping necessary rare earth elements to the United States or Japan might go offline amid geopolitical tensions.
Beijing is promoting LOGINK as an international standard for information logistics. Through partnerships with other countries, international organizations and corporate players, including China’s Big Tech, Beijing has ensured that LOGINK almost certainly will be endorsed as such.
LOGINK constitutes and example of Beijing’s strategic threat. Beijing’s platform geopolitics extends more broadly and through other networks, standards and platforms. Like LOGINK, these tend to succeed because they fill market demand for aggregated information, with the imprimatur of government legitimacy and scale. That scale is effectively unrivaled, thanks to integration with China’s otherwise opaque and protected market.
The U.S. Navy cannot defend against this large-scale, fused military and civilian, informational threat. Nor can a slew of small and medium-sized tech companies competing among themselves for slices of the pie. But Big Tech companies can.
There is a great power contest under way to define international architecture, though the U.S. may not have recognized it. This contest will decide global ideology, economics and security. The contest will be decided by scale. We might not like Big Tech, but we need it. This is a contest for the whole pie.
Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic are senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) with a focus on China policy, and the co-founders of Horizon Advisory, a consulting firm focused on the implications of China’s competitive approach to geopolitics.