Against the backdrop of the European Union’s new Global Gateway initiative to generate €300bn in infrastructure investment around the world, Friends of Europe’s online debate on 9 December 2021 looked at the importance of international technological collaboration in an age of increased geopolitical rivalry.
“Trade, competition, access to markets have become geopolitical, an aspect of the lack of trust between regions and continents and it’s also become a huge issue for diplomacy,” said Dharmendra Kanani, Chief Spokesperson and Director for Asia, Peace, Security and Defence, and Digital at Friends of Europe, who moderated the event.
“How can we exchange – in a peaceful, democratic way – our access to markets, but also access to opportunities?” he asked at the start of the debate. “How do we close the digital divide and improve social mobility for those communities who are furthest away from opportunities and markets and jobs and livelihoods?”
The online debate formed part of Friends of Europe’s Europe-China Dialogue, which sits within a broader framework of Europe-Asia dialogues looking at areas of convergence and divergence in fields such as trade and investment, connectivity, health and biodiversity.
Reflecting the geopolitical tensions around international trade, digital innovation and global influence, the media framed Global Gateway, launched on 1 December 2021, as a rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
That was unfortunate said Maaike Okano-Heijmans, Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute. “This is really a pro-Europe initiative, it’s not anti-anybody, although it does offer a different proposition to what China might be offering.”
For Okano-Heijmans, Global Gateway represents an attempt by the EU to reconfigure its role in the world in response to the fast-changing international landscape.
“We see not just the COVID change and the digital push, of course, but also a clash of capitalism, we also see the geopolitical powershifts […] the fourth industrial revolution, digitalisation, the green transition, all of that, Europe has to respond,” she said. “It is responding to a changing world.”
Although the rise of China is an important part of that changing landscape, and Asia will be a major focus for the EU, Okano-Heijmans pointed out that the Gateway plan has a much broader sweep, reaching out to Africa and Latin America.
The Global Gateway includes a relabelling of some ongoing efforts, she explained, but the project also represents a change in mindset for the EU, breaking down silos among institutions and member states and bringing in development banks and more financial firepower. It also reflects a new foreign and economic policy focus, putting digital at the heart of international strategy with high-powered support.
“There have been a lot of changes, now we see a new level of energy and commitment at the very highest level, that is important,” Okano-Heijmans said. “If I visit Brussels, I see now more willingness for the EU institutions, all the representatives there, to really work together.”
Despite that commitment, some questioned if the EU had got the communications strategy right on Global Gateway in order to bring citizens on board.
“I’m afraid we again failed to communicate properly the initiative with European citizens,” stressed Tomáš Petříček, Senior Non-residential Fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, former Czech Minister for Foreign Affairs and 2020-2021 European Young Leader (EYL40). “We need to have a good understanding of what we are doing among our population.”
Okano-Heijmans noted that appetite in Asia and other continents to listen to and work with Europe on digital, particularly in areas such as data privacy, digital identify, cybersecurity and regulation, where the EU is already a ‘global superpower’.
“There’s actually a great interest in those countries in listening to European proposals or alternatives or propositions,” she said.
That theme was taken forward by Cyn-Young Park, Director of the Regional Cooperation and Integration Division in the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
She pointed to Asia’s huge digital potential which has been underscored by the rapid take-up of online opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It has been very noticeable that the digital transformation really picked up during the pandemic in Asia-Pacific,” she said. Pre-pandemic, the continent’s internet penetration rate was around 50% but it has since risen to 65%, almost comparable with the global average, Park noted. At the same time, spending on digital services in South-East Asia has seen an almost 50% increase since 2019.
“The pandemic somehow unlocked the large potential of people using the digital technologies for their economic activities and also business opportunities,” Park said, speaking via video stream from Manilla. “This pandemic made it almost imperative to get connected with this digital technology.”
That fast growth means that Asia offers great opportunities for technological investment and cooperation with Europe. “It still remains a […] strong potential area, we still have greater scope to grow and develop. That means there are greater potential gains if Europe and Asia collaborate and create a digital single market,” Park said.
She pointed to three key elements where progress is needed to unlock that potential and, possibly, lay the foundations for a digital single market across the regions: fundamental infrastructure; interoperability across systems based on harmonised standards; and greater collaboration on data privacy and cybersecurity.
Privacy is a particularly important field as Asians awake to the dangers of data abuse. “In Asia, the privacy law is relatively weak compared to Europe or the US,” she said. “Asians are calling for much greater cybersecurity and data protection […] this is the one area where we need greater cooperation with the US and Europe, the more-established systems.”
International cooperation must seek to make digital more inclusive as well as safer, speakers agreed. “Digitalisation and access to digital markets need to be inclusive,” Omar García of CARE International, wrote on the event chat line. “Women, people on the move and in vulnerable situations run the risk of being left behind, hence inequalities becoming bigger.”
Global Gateway should promote inclusiveness by taking a grassroots approach that puts people first, said Violeta Bulc, Curator of Ecocivilisation and former European Commissioner for Transport. “Global [G]ateway – to make it work needs activities from bottom-up and top-down […] people will make it happen not structure,” she wrote.
Such a bottom-up approach should also feed into the creation of a global framework for digital governance, Bulc added. “The digital world is a wild west, there is no global governance,” she cautioned. “Good governance and regulation is absolutely necessary and that is what we are lacking on a global scale.”
Lawyer Francis Snyder, joining the debate from southern France, agreed on the need for multiple stakeholders to be brought into the drafting of regulations. “We need an idea of hybridity, some combination of state and regional laws, with what we call soft-law rules, like rules of conduct,” he said.
Speaking from an industry standpoint, Philip Herd, Director of Communications at Huawei, Brussels, recognised the importance of global governance for the technology sector, but cautioned that political interference is holding back innovation and international cooperation.
“We totally accept and advocate a global governance and global-standards mechanism, and a common approach to all the areas we’ve discussed: privacy, cybersecurity, connectivity,” he said. “All this needs a global approach, but there seems to be a lot of disjointed initiatives across the whole of the world […] getting in in the way.”
Chinese technology giant Huawei has had its access to a number of markets, including the United States, restricted amid cybersecurity and surveillance allegations. The company has also faced intellectual property and human-rights accusations. Herd said politically based restrictions are holding back innovation and progress.
“Politics tends to get in the way of some of the things that need to get done,” Herd said.
“Innovation is key here. If industry is allowed to get on with it, there is cooperation. The problem is, I think, when political initiatives or politicians get involved.”
Without political hindrance, he said, the industry would be able to make a greater contribution to fighting climate change and inequality, as well as closing digital gaps based on economic status, age, gender and the rural-urban divide.
Herd expressed particular concern about politics disrupting supply chains and market access. “We’re getting into a situation now where market access is becoming a political football,” he lamented. “That isn’t good for anybody.”
Amid such complaints, Yuting Gu, of the German development agency GIZ, said the EU and China should work more closely together on digital innovation. “We need cooperation and we need connectivity between the EU and China, for the new or innovative digital business models,” she said.
Taking the debate beyond Europe and Asia, Samir Abdelkrim, Founder of EMERGING Valley, Member of the Digital Strategy Group of the Africa-Europe Foundation and 2020-2021 European Young Leader (EYL40), highlighted Africa’s fast-emerging digital capacity.
The pandemic has served as a catalyst for Africans seeking solutions to challenges thrown up by COVID-19, from monitoring the spread of the virus to countering fake news which has fuelled vaccine scepticism.
“With COVID-19, Africa has shown, through technology, once again the power of digital innovation,” he said, pointing to several collaborative initiatives across the continent.
“Many of them developed innovative solutions dedicated to COVID-19, to inform, fight fake news,” Abdelkrim explained. “It’s huge, fake news and disinformation about the vaccine, about the virus, so African digital solutions were used to re-inform, provide the right information, reassure citizens […] and allow the right diagnosis.”
Working together to expand connectivity and boost cooperation, Africa, Europe and the Mediterranean could reinforce digital sovereignty and create a digital shared future.
As an example, he pointed a Polish company working strategically with African governments to boost cybersecurity.
To go further, Abdelkrim recommended the African Union-EU summit scheduled for February 2022, to set up a funding instrument to support common goals in priority areas such as connectivity, e-health and e-education.
Former EU Commissioner Bulc also highlighted Africa’s growing tech strength.
“Incredible things are emerging from Africa,” she wrote on the chatline. “We have been running together with friends from African countries […] a series of events, start-up gatherings […] I have a great respect for what they can do with a very little investments but with a great heart and community engagement.”
The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for a digital transition and the enhancement of existing infrastructures. Vulnerabilities were exposed as systems suffered from various bugs and cyberattacks, while mis- and disinformation threatened digital aspirations worldwide. China’s ambition for technological self-reliance now matches the EU’s digital sovereignty efforts and raises questions on the possible extent of cooperation in the digital sphere. Across Asia, masterplans for digital connectivity include traditional sectors, such as education, but also e-commerce; in this context, Europe’s own connectivity plans, particularly for ASEAN, can dovetail to bring about wider Asia-Europe connectivity. In the post-COVID-19 recovery, technology’s role extends further, to all sectors of life and industry—from automation in agriculture to digital health systems and communication in the finance sector. The new markets for technology around the world seem endless, and are already growing – but competition within these new markets is fierce. In an era of domestic priorities and with ever-increasing demand for fast and secure networks, how can Europe and Asia collaborate to lead the way in technological advances, and ensure safe, free and open digital spaces?
This discussion is part of our Europe-China Dialogue, which sits within a broader framework of Europe – Asia dialogues, a series that looks at the areas of convergence and divergence between Europe and Asia as a whole, on structural and thematic issues of economics – trade and investment, connectivity, health, and biodiversity amongst others.
- Technology and innovation: views from East and West
- Connectivity: views from East and West
- High-quality connectivity for a post-COVID world
- EU-Asia digital cooperation: investments for recovery and resilience
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- In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated and heightened the societal impact of disruptive technologies?
- How can the EU ensure that its digital connectivity agenda in the development cooperation field remains a tool for open and inclusive connectivity? What role does coordination with like-minded partners play in this regard?
- What are the prospects for increased EU-China cooperation to foster a trust-based, comprehensive digital connectivity strategy for the benefit of both China and the EU but also third countries?
Founder EMERGING Valley & Member of the Digital Strategy Group of the Africa Europe Foundation and 2020-2021 European Young Leader (EYL40)
Director of Communications at Huawei, Brussels
Senior Research Fellow at Clingendael Institute
Director of the Regional Cooperation and Integration Division in the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department of the Asian Development Bank (ADB)
Samir Abdelkrim is not only a French entrepreneur but also an author and a tech reporter. Passionate about all things digital, he founded EMERGING Valley as an international summit on African innovation to connect tech start-ups with investors, thinkers and decision-makers across continents. He also leads StartupBRICS, a company that provides insights on entrepreneurship in emerging economies. Abdelkrim is a former chronicler on African tech entrepreneurs for Le Monde and has also featured in the Huffington Post, Le Point and Les Echos. His book, “Startup Lions”, chronicles his experience travelling the African continent in search of the most interesting and innovative tech start-ups. With French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative “Summit of the Two Shores of the Mediterranean”, Abdelkrim was amongst 10 selected to make proposals to relaunch European and Mediterranean cooperation.
Philip Herd heads the team that is responsible for the EU-wide communications, public relations and strategy of Huawei, one of the world’s leading providers of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure and smart devices. Prior to joining Huawei, Herd worked at BBC News for more than decade. As the former domestic and foreign news editor, he covered major events including the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay across the United Kingdom, the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, Hurricane Irma in Florida and the terrorist attacks in Paris, Munich and Barcelona.
Maaike Okano-Heijmans leads Clingendael’s projects on geopolitics, great powers and global governance for the Dutch Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense. Her main research interests are in digital connectivity and the geopolitics of high-tech in EU-Asia relations, with a special focus on China, Japan and the Indo-Pacific. A key question underlying much of her work is how the fourth industrial revolution shapes international relations and what this means for the EU and its member states. Recent projects concern digital development cooperation, the geopolitics of fintech, China’s Digital Silk Road and Europe’s Digital Decade. With over 15 years of experience in policy-oriented research, Okano-Heijmans is also a Visiting Lecturer at Leiden University.
Cyn-Young Park manages a team of economists at ADB to examine economic and policy issues related to regional cooperation and integration (RCI) and develop supporting strategies and approaches. She has been a main author and contributor of the bank’s major publications, including its flagship ‘Asian Development Outlook’. Park has participated in various global and regional forums, such as the G20 Development Working Group, ASEAN, ASEAN+3, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). Previously an economist at the OECD, Park has also lectured extensively and published works in peer-reviewed academic journals about the Asian economy and financial markets.
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