These are the key technologies the EU wants to safeguard from China

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In the latest round of geopolitical tech chess, the European Commission today published a list of critical technologies to keep safe from geopolitical rivals, in an effort to bolster the bloc’s own economic (and not only) security. 

The document, prepared by the Commission’s digital, defence, and trade chiefs in consultation with the member states, will serve as the basis for an outgoing investment and export control tool. 

The list consists of 10 technologies, with applications ranging from potential human rights violations to military robots, quantum supremacy, genetic modification, and interstellar travel. The Commission reportedly considers four to be particularly dangerous, should they fall into the wrong hands. These are: 

  • Advanced semiconductor technologies (microelectronics, photonics, high-frequency chips, semiconductor manufacturing equipment).
  • Artificial intelligence technologies (high-performance computing, cloud and edge computing, data analytics, computer vision, language processing, object recognition).
  • Quantum technologies (quantum computing, quantum cryptography, quantum communications, quantum sensing and radar).
  • Biotechnologies (techniques of genetic modification, new genomic techniques, gene-drive, synthetic biology).

The remaining six technologies are advanced connectivity and navigation; advanced sensing technologies; space and propulsion technologies; energy technologies (including fusion and hydrogen); robotics and autonomous systems; advanced materials manufacturing and recycling. 

The bloc’s industry chief, Thierry Breton, stated that Europe was “adapting to the new geopolitical realities, putting an end to the era of naivety and acting as a real geopolitical #power.” Make of that use of a hashtag what you will. 

Today we are de-risking our economy by identifying 10 areas of #CriticalTechnologies⤵️

A major step for our #resilience.

Europe is adapting to the new geopolitical realities, putting an end to the era of naivety & acting as a real geopolitical #power.

— Thierry Breton (@ThierryBreton) October 3, 2023

While China is not explicitly referred to in the document, sources familiar with the matter told Politico that it was “like the EU’s Voldemort. The country that cannot be named.”

The new era of soft power tech

Ever since the beginning of civilisation, technology has defined geopolitics. Think marauders rumbling over Ancient Egypt in chariots made possible by the invention of the wheel, or, much closer in time, the principle of mutual assured destruction (MAD).

With globalised supply chains and the rise of digitalisation, it is not as simple as one actor has the tech while the other doesn’t, and thus gains the upper hand. Never before has the intersection of geopolitics and technology been so intricate. 

The battle for semiconductors that power so much of not only our day-to-day existence but also military technology around the world will only intensify as AI requires more and more powerful chips. In addition, the last few years have seen a growing number of cyberattacks on government agencies and service providers, while some authorities turn to digital technology to surveil their own people. 

Digital sovereignty and “de-risking” of economic policies have risen high on the political agenda, along with mitigating rising geopolitical technological threats — without disturbing sensitive supply chains.

One way of doing this is through export controls. In August, US President Joe Biden unveiled an executive order banning new investments in Chinese tech sectors related to artificial intelligence and quantum computing. This was merely the latest move in a tech trade back-and-forth spanning several months, with China restricting exports of two key semiconductor minerals in July on grounds of ”‘national security.”

Both the EU and the US have been busy trying to shore up domestic semiconductor and chipmaking capabilities. Germany in particular has been eager to throw substantial amounts of cash at the problem. However, it still might not solve one of the most immediate key issues for either — a lack of highly skilled engineering talent. Still, they are looking ahead and playing the semiconductor long game. 

Relationship with Beijing characterised by low levels of trust

While neither the EU nor the US is likely to establish independence, doing as best one can now might well turn out to be prudent. The global chip industry is very much dependent on one company — Taiwan’s TSMC. It produces close to 60% of the world’s computer chips, and about 90% of the most advanced ones. 

Taiwan is under increasing geopolitical pressure from China. For instance, its imposing mainland neighbour has been performing military exercises simulating a blockade of the island state, and President Xi has openly declared it is his generation’s obligation to seek reunification. 

While tensions in the South China Sea are undoubtedly rising, it need not even come to military confrontation for the West to lose access to TSMC’s mega fabs. Look at the political developments in Hong Kong over the past few years — it might only take the “election” of a Beijing-friendly government in Taiwan. 

In the words of Commission Vice President Věra Jourová when commenting on the EU’s forthcoming landmark AI Act, “We see this as setting the standards for the democratic world but China is not part of this because in the world of technologies we are more rivals than partners.”

Jourová further added that there was a “low level of trust” between Beijing and the remainder of the G7 countries set to meet in Kyoto next week to discuss the evolution of AI technology. Indeed, it seems the age of tech trade diplomacy has only just begun. Hopefully, the inevitable conflicts on the road ahead can be solved by just that — diplomacy.