There is a complementary coexistence as the US, the EU and China build global digital infrastructure, but more intense competition could follow
Major countries are now rolling out digital development strategies and plans for international cooperation and are becoming deeply involved in the competition and cooperation in global digital governance. The United States and the European Union, as major global economies, have played critical roles in various aspects of global digital governance, including data, digital technology, and digital taxation, starting with the close collaboration with the Build Back Better World, or B3W initiative, in 2021.
The large-scale and systematic investments and development of digital infrastructure in the US and the EU began during the Donald Trump administration. After Joe Biden took office, he made efforts to restore transatlantic alliance relations. The digital infrastructure in the US and the EU has gradually evolved into a new phase featuring coordinated development and exclusive competition. In May, Washington and Brussels discussed digital infrastructure cooperation at the fourth ministerial meeting of the US-EU Trade and Technology Council. They decided to enhance cooperation in 6G technology and transatlantic submarine cable connectivity, pledging continuous efforts to coordinate and support the development of reliable digital infrastructure in third countries.
The global digital infrastructure cooperation between the US and the EU involves the construction of digital infrastructure, including fiber broadband, wireless communication networks and security detection, among other information infrastructure. It also includes the digital upgrade of traditional infrastructure, leading to the development of hybrid digital infrastructure.In terms of resource investment, US-EU digital infrastructure cooperation is built upon mechanized financing channels that are increasingly mature and diverse. Since Biden took office, the US and the EU have further refined mechanisms to support global digital infrastructure investments. These included mobilizing and integrating public and private capital from the G7's Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, and adjusting the public-private fund ratio in the digital infrastructure sector to create more mature and diverse mechanisms of financing and cooperation.Regarding implementation methods, the US and the EU increasingly emphasize values-based governance, transparency and the formulation of high-standard digital rules and digital infrastructure cooperation. The Biden administration has given greater emphasis to "values-based diplomacy", aiming to establish the US' democratic values as a hallmark and feature of high-standard global digital infrastructure. It also attempts to make these values the foundation and bridge for transatlantic digital infrastructure cooperation.In terms of pathways forward, the digital infrastructure cooperation between the US and the EU target low- and middle-income countries globally, with a focus on the "Indo-Pacific" region and countries. Since the start of the Biden administration, the US-EU digital infrastructure has expanded beyond traditional regional concerns during the Trump era to include investments in middle- and low-income countries in the "Indo-Pacific", Latin America and Africa, with the "Indo-Pacific" region being a focal point for their cooperation.With the accelerated growth of the global digital economy, the digital divide deepens, and the digital infrastructure gap in middle- and low-income developing countries is on the rise. It is increasingly necessary to strengthen international digital governance cooperation and digital infrastructure investment. Digital governance has become one of the critical issues affecting transatlantic relations. The unique characteristics of digital infrastructure, the consensuses shared by the US and the EU in the sector, their technological strengths, integrated funding, and the need to contain China in this field further expand the room for bilateral cooperation and enable the two sides to pursue coordinated development in global digital infrastructure.In particular, US-EU digital infrastructure cooperation is influenced and driven by the adjustment of their strategic thinking toward alliances and their China strategies. On the one hand, the US and the EU have increasingly aligned their strategic orientation in competition with China in recent years. Since the inauguration of the incumbent European Commission, the EU's stance toward China has gradually shifted toward prioritizing competition, reinforcing confrontation, while also taking into account cooperation.During Biden's tenure, the US reaffirmed strategic competition with China in its global strategy. In October 2022, the US released a new version of its National Security Strategy, continuing to position China as a strategic competitor and aiming to "outcompete" China in the critical decade ahead. Against this backdrop, the NATO Summit in July indicated a growing convergence of US and European perceptions over the competition with China.On the other hand, both the US and the EU aim to revitalize the transatlantic alliance and strengthen their competitive position against China by enhancing joint efforts and competitiveness in cross-regional cooperation. This lays the strategic foundation for their digital infrastructure cooperation in the "Indo-Pacific" region. In December 2020, the EU took the lead in proposing a new EU-US Agenda for global change. Through the joint statement "Toward a Renewed Transatlantic Partnership" issued at the EU-US Summit in June of the following year, the US and the EU officially signaled the restoration and reshaping of a new phase of the transatlantic alliance. In September 2021, the EU adopted the "Indo-Pacific Strategy", emphasizing the development of a "free and open 'Indo-Pacific'" based on rules and increasing bilateral cooperation in various areas, including economic and trade cooperation, green development, maritime governance, connectivity, security, defense and digital governance. This strategy aims to enhance the promotion of EU digital and environmental governance rules in the "Indo-Pacific" region and seek global leadership in these fields.The development of digital infrastructure by the US and the EU in the "Indo-Pacific" region will have an impact on China and the world at large.In recent years, China's Digital Silk Road has gradually overcome challenges in digital divide, cybersecurity, strategic mutual trust and financial support. China has not only achieved fruitful results in digital infrastructure construction and cooperation, but also continuously improved technical standards and procedural norms in digital infrastructure projects.In the future, it is expected that there will be more intense competition in terms of funding sources, high-end technology research and development, and formulation of standards and rules. Additionally, the transatlantic global digital infrastructure cooperation has, to some extent, shifted the attitudes and methods of the competition between the US and EU in global digital governance. This not only complicates the competition between the US and the EU, but also affects the digital governance approaches and contributions of other major countries, forming a complex competitive landscape for global digital governance leadership.Therefore, China should fully understand and grasp the overall framework of the global digital infrastructure cooperation between the US and the EU, and explore and formulate targeted methods and pathways to address the challenges posed by the US-EU digital infrastructure drive and to strengthen global digital infrastructure cooperation. China, led by a vision for building a community with a shared future for mankind, should promote the healthy and sustainable development of global digital infrastructure, with a focus on providing Chinese wisdom and Chinese solutions for infrastructure development in low- and middle-income countries.Sun Chenghao is a fellow and head of US-EU program at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University. Wang Yinuo is a research assistant at the Center for European Studies at China Foreign Affairs University. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.