Over the next year, international relations will experience “massive reconfiguration as technology uproots the established order”, according to a geopolitical futurist.
"This has truly been the transition year from this traditional world of geopolitics governed by oil to one governed by technology," Abishur Prakash told The National.
The founder and chief executive at the Center for Innovating the Future, based in Toronto, works with publicly-traded companies, start-ups and governments to identify how technology is redefining geopolitics and what risks and opportunities are emerging.
This is the company’s assessment of seven risks to global geopolitics coming in 2021.
New global flash points will emerge because of the use of artificial intelligence and robotics by militaries.
“There is now a veil of uncertainty over what could happen in the world as a result of militaries’ becoming dependent on robotic warfare,” Mr Prakash said.
He pointed to the November 27 killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist. Iran has given contradictory details of Fakhrizadeh's death in an ambush on his car on a highway near the capital Tehran, but a senior Revolutionary Guards commander has said the killing was carried out remotely using artificial intelligence and a robotic machinegun controlled by a satellite.
“That is a radical shift from what anybody expected to happen in terms of these kinds of events,” Mr Prakash said. And he believes it was not a one-off.
“If you look now with what China and Russia are doing with drone swarms and the US with Gremlin drones – which can work autonomously then be picked up by a large aircraft – this means that increasingly, AI and robotics will be making decisions to exacerbate existing hot spots or create new ones.
“For now, military tech is still expensive and still controlled by governments developing them. But that will eventually change.”
Data borders and tech governance
Governments will establish new zones and public policies to make data sovereign. In other words, information gathered online by companies will be subject to the laws of the country in which it is collected or processed, and remain within its borders.
This can already be seen in India’s pursuit of data localisation laws, first proposed within a year of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election, or in the EU’s proposed policy aimed at creating a single market for data.
“There has been a permanent shift in democracies around the world saying, we are not going to allow you – Alphabet, Facebook, whomever – to hold the data on your own. You will need to share it,” Mr Prakash said.
Now the fight is on between Big Tech and governments.
“This is really a fight over who has a right to govern society. At its core, the only solution is that Big Tech and governments have to figure out how to coexist with one another.”
Separate from new laws dictated by borders, CIF is predicting tech-based institutions and alliances will continue to form to set the next global rules.
The UK’s group of 10 democracies to build an alternative to Huawei’s 5G hardware, known as the D10 and which includes India, Australia, South Korea, France, Canada, Germany, Japan, Italy and the US, is an example of one such alliance.
These new groups are also poised to disrupt the relevance of older existing institutions like the G7.
The risk of “total division” is emerging “over whose rules should be followed and therefore who is the leader”.
“China and Russia are being left out in the cold because the West doesn’t necessarily want them involved,” he said.
Space wild west
CIF predicts nations will break rules in space to establish dominance there.
The Outer Space Treaty, ratified by the UN in 1967, is an “outdated piece of legislation” that has left the world vulnerable to nations “laying their claim” beyond Earth's atmosphere.
“The geopolitical risk is about laying claim to territory and angering rivals,” Mr Prakash said.
China’s space station, on track to be complete by 2022, will be a key shift “as the West realises that an area they once dominated is now beyond their control”.
This will lead to the proliferation of more national space forces from the likes of the EU, India and Russia, as well as the continued expansion of private space enterprises like SpaceX.
Japan is a country to watch.
Its plans to develop an orbiting solar farm and beam electricity back to Japan would mean it is no longer an energy importer – which has massive implications for its economy, Mr Prakash said.
Meanwhile, Japanese start-up Ispace is pursuing business opportunities on the Moon. The venture made headlines in 2017 for its plans to slap up billboards on the lunar surface for paying customers.
Ispace aims to become the first private venture to reach the Moon, with its first landing mission planned in 2022, according to Japanese news service Nikkei.
Tighter controls on artificial intelligence and the fight over 5G right now “is largely the result of governments being late on the trigger”, according to Mr Prakash.
They will try not to be late again and this has huge implications for newer fields of computer science like quantum computing and augmented reality, which he predicted will reach mainstream commercial viability in the next year.
“Now that governments have woken up, they will be awake to the next 5G and the next AI.”
The risk of stifling innovation in this next wave of technology “is incredibly high because there is no existing playbook to use”, he said. “With billions invested in these technologies, companies stand to lose a lot if geopolitics get in the way.”
The roll-out of 5G is causing new groups to emerge. These are coalitions that are representing new foreign policy manifestos of nations, according to CIF, and picking sides over 5G has much broader consequences for foreign policy than leaders realise.
The Trump administration’s Clean Network Programme is focused on pushing out Chinese technology and has got both nations and telcos alike to sign on. Participants include the UK, Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden, Latvia and Denmark, as well as France's Orange and Jio in India.
“If you’re Sweden and you’re signing on, you may not realise it but your foreign policy will undergo a massive transformation. You can’t pick and choose” whether to align with the US but still cater to China, Mr Prakash said.
CIF predicts ethnicity will increasingly determine where tech talent can go.
"This affects every nation on Earth and this is a global risk," Mr Prakash said.
"Every nation today has aspirations to be a tech-based power. The economic design of countries is increasingly revolving, especially in a post-pandemic recovery, around AI, blockchain and robotics. As nations seek to become tech powers, there is now a talent war."
At the same time, geopolitics and the example of China's primacy in 5G "is creating new paranoia within the minds of countries".
"The US knows that China will challenge its power through technology. China knows that the only way to challenge American power is through technology. This clash between two countries, one who has ruled the world and one who has ambitions to rule the world, are at the core of this."
Consumer markets will be weaponised to gain access to chips.
"This year has been a transitional year to 'next geopolitics' and nowhere can that be better seen than the actions over chips," Mr Prakash said.
This year the Trump administration has blocked Chinese companies from the US chip market and restricted exports by American businesses to China.
"From Beijing’s point of view, it is under siege," Mr Prakash said. "No one seems to be diverging from what the US wants."
This curtails China's ambitions for growth drivers like developing autonomous weapons and advanced manufacturing technology, he added, and will force the country's hand.
"We believe China is going to take a radical action in 2021 and one form that will take is it could tell a large US tech company that depends on the Chinese market that it will ban it from accessing its chips. This has tremendous geopolitical implications and destroys any idea of the US and China coming together again."