Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, quantum computing, and biosciences are conferring new forms of power and influence upon nations. This interplay between rapid technological change and shifting balances of power is creating a new era of “technopolitics” with profound implications for international relations and the global political economy.
At the heart of this technopolitical transformation is the role of information technology and data. As machines become more intelligent and interconnected through 5G networks, the speed and complexity of how information is created, shared and contested is accelerating dramatically. Nations with the most sophisticated technologies to harness big data and social media networks for trade, finance, surveillance, cyber operations, propaganda and military capabilities will gain economic and strategic advantages.
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China’s rapid advancement in digital technologies along with its massive data harvesting on Chinese citizens and foreign targets presents a major challenge to the U.S.-led global order. With the world’s largest population generating huge troves of data to train A.I. systems, allied with an authoritarian political structure that subordinates privacy concerns to state interests, China is developing unparalleled technological capacities, as seen in its emerging social credit scoring system powered by facial recognition and other surveillance tools.
As 5G networks expand globally, frontline geopolitical domains like Taiwan become laboratories for how China could potentially use real-time data flows from “smart cities” for political coercion. Chinese firms like Huawei aggressively compete for 5G contracts worldwide, raising security concerns about built-in access points for Chinese intelligence services, which China denies. Still, signs of a “Splinternet” divide between Western and Chinese digital ecosystems are emerging.
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The militarization of A.I. also carries risks. Lethal autonomous weapons that select and fire on targets absent human control are nearing deployment by major powers. AI-powered cyberattacks targeting critical infrastructure or sowing disinformation could lead to destabilizing gray zone conflicts. There are still few global governance mechanisms to build norms around responsible use and ethics.
Quantum computing is another wild card. When scaled, it could allow nations to break any conventional cryptography. The race for “quantum advantage” could upend expectations around data security and privacy. Both China and the U.S. see quantum mastery as a core interest, investing billions alongside tech firms like Google.
Within nations, the fusing of governance and technology raises dilemmas about state power versus individual rights. Mass surveillance powered by facial recognition, predictive policing through big data, algorithmic justice systems, and genetic editing all require careful oversight to prevent abusive overreach. Technological masterplans like China’s social credit system also highlight tensions between state development goals and privacy.
Geopolitically, technology is empowering rising states like India, Turkey, Iran and Indonesia, allowing them to exercise “digital sovereignty” including Internet censorship, trade barriers for tech companies, and domestic data control. This fragmentation presents challenges for U.S. firms reliant on global internet services. The resulting alignments create new complexities for traditional alliance structures like NATO.
International relations is entering a new era driven by multidimensional competition — not just militarily, but technologically, economically, and ideologically. The degree that democratic and authoritarian-led jurisdictions collaborate or decouple across these dimensions will impact global stability. For global governance to keep pace, new forums are urgently needed to build cooperative norms around emerging technologies. Otherwise, the world risks technological conflicts and divides that could prove highly destabilising.