A China-US accord on AI? US should unclench its fist first
Published: Aug 31, 2023 09:24 PM


Following Huawei's 5G chokepoint breakthrough, Baidu, another Chinese tech giant, announced on Thursday its ChatGPT-like Ernie bot was now open to the public. China's artificial intelligence (AI) industry is currently experiencing a development boom. However, the Chinese are well aware that the US leads the way in the field. Nevertheless in US public opinion, arguments like "why China has an edge on artificial intelligence" are bubbling. 

A simple Google search using keywords like "AI," "China," and "US" would yield terms such as "AI race" and "tech war." Apparently, AI has already become a new battlefield between China and the US. As early as 2018, US media began hyping the idea of "China's Artificial Intelligence Revolution: a Sputnik Moment for the West?"

AI, a core driving force in the new wave of technological revolution and industrial transformation, has the potential to propel social productivity to new heights. Despite starting relatively late, Chinese AI development has achieved significant milestones in recent years, making it a notable contributor in both research and application in the AI field. In 2021, Stanford University's AI Index, which assesses AI advancements worldwide, ranks China among the top three countries for global AI vibrancy. One year later, McKinsey predicted that AI could add some $600 billion to China's economy by 2030.

It goes without saying that the US won't sit idle. Its reactions are so predictable, as in recent years, almost all high-tech products exported from China to developed countries have faced hindrance due to so-called security concerns. Huawei and ZTE have long been blacklisted by the US due to perceived "unacceptable risks" to US national security. DJI drones have been accused of collecting sensitive information that can be accessed by Beijing. British ministers said that Chinese electric cars imported by the UK to help hit net zero targets will enable Beijing to spy on British citizens … The excuses are getting increasingly laughable, but they all reflect an ideological factor. 

China's AI industry has confronted similar treatment. On July 13, 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hinted that China's application of AI technology application "could threaten human rights," stressing that "whenever rules and norms that affect American lives are being debated and decided, American diplomats … will be leading the charge."

In other words, Blinken was saying that the US has to maintain absolute shaping power and discourse power over the international system and ideology, refusing to accept any country that might be able to challenge the rules set by Washington - this is all about US hegemony.

The competition has raised concerns. Peter Bittner, a lecturer from University of California, Berkeley, wrote an article earlier this month, stating that the lack of standardized AI norms could see countries indulging in covert AI activities, fostering suspicion and increasing the chances of preemptive actions based on misinterpreted intentions. Moreover, the strategic and tactical advantages that AI can offer to military operations are enormous. An uncontrolled AI arms race won't merely be a bilateral issue, but a global one. Therefore, Bittner said a China-US accord on AI is imperative.

This proposal is well-intentioned and necessary. Currently, there is no truly effective framework to support global collaboration in AI governance, which is essential for the healthy development and application of the AI industry. 

However, when it comes to a bilateral AI accord between China and the US, it needs to be incorporated into a more systematic and comprehensive strategy. It cannot be separated from the big picture of China-US ties. The establishment of an AI accord requires mutual trust, and the US must demonstrate sincerity. It must not take advantage of China's restraint and goodwill to harm China's core interests, for instance, asymmetrically restricting China in the field of AI while continuously challenging China's red lines on the Taiwan question will not be allowed, Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University, told the Global Times.

After all, the US has a track record of being fond of blabbering on "rules" and "norms" while simultaneously stirring up troubles across the world. 

China is prepared for both cooperation and struggle. Huawei's comeback in the 5G industry serves as a lesson to the US - containment won't bring China's high-tech capabilities to its knees, but will only make it stronger. China has been prepared for cutthroat competition in any field. China and the US can fully cooperate in the AI industry and utilize the technology for the benefit of their people and human development, on the simple premise that "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."