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Preventing digital trench warfare between the EU and China

Digital geopolitics is taking center stage in EU-China relations. What conflicts might be relevant in the next 15 years? Annegret Bendiek, Nadine Godehardt, Jürgen Neyer, and David Schulze present four scenarios.

Point of View, 26.03.2019 Research Areas

Digital geopolitics is taking center stage in EU-China relations. What conflicts might be relevant in the next 15 years? Annegret Bendiek, Nadine Godehardt, Jürgen Neyer, and David Schulze present four scenarios.

Digital transformation fundamentally and often abruptly changes the framework conditions for political action. The ability to innovate disruptively, for example by changing the basic rules of the game, is thus gaining in importance. In this context, states must build up their technical knowledge and strengthen the field of artificial intelligence. The control of global production networks and central nodes, the mobilization of private expertise, and the involvement of civil society actors are becoming central components of international politics and geopolitical rivalries.

Against this background, digital geopolitics is of central importance, especially for EU-China relations. Which conflicts could dominate here in the next 15 years? What scenarios must we be particularly attentive to, and what challenges can we prepare for today? How the situation develops depends on two factors: On the one hand, the degree of transnational interoperability between social and technical systems (fragmentation vs. integration), and on the other hand, the sustainability of digital ecosystems (vulnerability vs. resilience). The following four scenarios unfold along these axes.


Cyber Peace

In the least confrontational future scenario, the political, economic, and technological integration between the EU and China has made significant progress; joint institutions such as a Sino-European Council on Cybersecurity and agreements such as the Shenzhen Agreement with financing possibilities for the joint development of cyber-security technologies are building confidence on both sides in the long term. However, due to the high degree of technological innovation, Beijing and Brussels remain in productive competition over whose standards, regulatory practices, or regulations will continue to control the common economic space in the future. The starting point for this positive development in EU-China relations was a series of cyber-attacks on digital household systems, public transport, and the operating software of medical devices, which directly affected many people around the world. As a result, governments in Europe as well as the Communist Party in China came under pressure to find common solutions that ensure lasting cohesion in their respective societies. A mutual understanding and willingness to learn have enabled a cyber peace.


Collapse of Digital Commons

As in the first scenario, the “collapse of digital commons” scenario assumes a high degree of technical and economic integration; however, this world is characterized by vulnerable digital and social systems. State, terrorist, and criminal cyber-attacks are daily occurrences. The lifespans and benefits of digital products have been severely restricted. Economically, China and Europe benefit from highly integrated markets and production chains, but the tense security situation is causing political and social upheavals that are putting the stability of Europe’s societies to the test. Common goods such as peace, social justice, and democracy are no longer a priority of political action, with devastating consequences for poverty and fundamental rights such as privacy. The result is political radicalization in Europe, coupled with open hostility toward China.


Cold War 4.0

The scenario “Cold War 4.0” describes a similar development. In a world where national societies have become highly vulnerable to cyber-attacks, governments’ attempts to seal themselves off behind high digital walls have failed. Mistrust is omnipresent, trade and production have shrunk to a national protectionist framework, and international arms control no longer plays a role. The “Block of Independent States” (BIS), the successor organization to the European Union, is totally dependent on US and Chinese suppliers for hardware and software development. European data and security guidelines were passed, but they were not further implemented by leading companies.


Digital Trench Warfare

The most plausible scenario, however, seems to be “digital trench warfare.” Here, global socio-technical fragmentation meets high levels of social and technological resilience. In this world, three blocks around the United States, China, and Europe hide behind impenetrable digital barriers. They compete globally for increasingly scarce resources and wage proxy wars in third countries. In this world, the Internet as we know it has disappeared. It is replaced by incompatible state cyberspaces. National digital research agendas are accelerating the divergence of systems. It is a poorer but very secure world in the respective blocks. States dominate the economy because every aspect of technology is tightly regulated. A sharp decline in commercial, cultural, and scientific exchanges is the result. In this scenario, digital transformation does not lead to a better world of unhindered communication and transnational socialization, but rather to new conflicts and nationalisms.

The gloomy world painted by three of these four scenarios is troubling. It seems likely that diplomacy is failing in the task of achieving sustainable cooperation between China and Europe and undermining mutual trust in digital transformation. Germany and Europe would be well advised to upgrade the bilateral cyber dialogue with China between heads of state and heads of government in terms of personnel and to equip it with substantive and technical competences. Only serious cyber diplomacy can make it possible to overcome conflicts cooperatively in the first place and provide global commons such as a free, open, and secure Internet.


Dr. Annegret Bendiek is Senior Associate in the EU/Europe Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Dr. Nadine Godehardt is Deputy Head of the Asia Research Division at SWP, and David Schulze is Research Assistant in the Asia Research Division at SWP. Prof. Dr. Jürgen Neyer is Professor of European and International Politics at the European University Viadrina and Vice President for International Relations.



Embedded Vimeo Video





At the invitation of the SWP and the European University Viadrina, around 30 experts from Europe and China – under the guidance of the Deloitte Center for the Long View – attended a joint workshop on the future of EU-China relations in the field of digital geopolitics over the next 15 years and developed these four possible scenarios. The Center for the Long View brings to this process the methodological expertise of scenario analysis, which is demonstrated in the video.