China’s drive for dominance combines timeless ambitions with 21st-century methods. Look no further than Beijing’s growing quest for spheres of influence. Like countless great powers before it, China aims to shape and control its surroundings. It aspires to create geopolitical domains in which its interests are protected and its prerogatives heeded.
Yet Beijing is doing so, in part, through a digital-age approach to strategic rivalry, one that is forcing its rivals to rethink what spheres of influence are and how best to contest them.
“Sphere of influence” refers to a zone in which a large country can exercise authority over smaller actors and hold its great-power competitors at bay. Since antiquity, ambitious powers have sought spheres of influence for four basic reasons: protection (as a strategic buffer against rivals); projection (as a secure base from which to exert global influence); profit (as a way of extracting resources, accessing markets and harnessing smaller economies to its own); and prestige (as a symbol of status vis-à-vis lesser powers and major powers alike).
Yet the particular characteristics of those spheres have varied.
In the 19th century, for example, Britain enjoyed its so-called informal empire in South America, wielding influence primarily through its financial primacy and the over-the-horizon threat of the Royal Navy. After World War II, the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe with a far heavier hand. It remade governments in its Communist image, while using police-state methods and the Red Army to enforce geopolitical discipline on countries within its grasp.
After the Cold War, it seemed that spheres of influence had disappeared, because there was only one superpower — the U.S. — and it was determined to deny such privileges to any competitor.
“We will not — will not — recognize any nation having a sphere of influence,” then-Vice President Joe Biden declared in 2009. Yet China, evidently, has other ideas. Its geopolitical project features some methods that students of past rivalries would find familiar, and others that are more novel.
In East Asia and elsewhere around its immediate periphery, China is aiming for a fairly traditional sphere of influence. It has created trade and investment relationships meant to make the region’s economies ever more Beijing-centric and ever more vulnerable to Chinese economic coercion. It is using its growing military power to pressure, and perhaps eventually conquer, Taiwan, to press expansive claims in the South China Sea, and to force countries throughout the Indo-Pacific to hesitate before incurring Beijing’s displeasure.
By attenuating relationships between the U.S. and its allies and friends, these measures are meant to push Washington out of the region just as Washington once pushed its European rivals out of the Caribbean. And China is increasingly using political influence campaigns, aid directed to corrupt officials, and other quiet interventions to twist the region’s politics in its favor. Chinese military officials may deny that the country will ever “seek any sphere of influence.” In reality, China is following a path well-trod by its great-power predecessors.
Yet Beijing is simultaneously bringing the spheres-of-influence game into the 21st century, by seeking a larger domain defined less by geography than technology.
Consider some ways in which Beijing is building technological relationships that will enmesh countries across Eurasia and beyond: Chinese firms constructing the fiber optic cables and data centers that make up the physical backbone of the internet; a Digital Silk Road project putting Chinese companies at the heart of advanced telecommunications networks throughout the developing world; a global proliferation of Chinese surveillance technologies; and the advent of a Chinese digital currency meant to serve as a medium of exchange along the Belt and Road Initiative,.
This is China’s emerging sphere of technological influence, meant to provide geopolitical leverage via technological centrality rather than physical domination.
If the boundaries of this sphere are relatively loose and evolving, the strategic implications are momentous. The construction of digital infrastructure — by firms such as Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp. that are legally bound to cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party — yields great economic influence and a potential for espionage. The provision of high-tech surveillance gear will link Beijing more closely to autocrats it helps maintain in power.
The creation of new markets for Chinese technology, and new sources of data for its algorithms, will help power innovation in artificial intelligence and other fields. And China’s growing technological influence will help it line up friendly, or simply dependent, states behind it on issues from internet governance to leadership of key international organizations.
Some experts have hypothesized that the internet itself could increasingly become a Chinese sphere of influence. Others predict that the world will split into rival technological blocks reminiscent of the Cold War’s East-West divide.
The Biden administration thus confronts a mix of old and new geopolitical challenges. Countering them will require investments in familiar geopolitical instruments, such as enhanced military power in the Western Pacific, as well as newer tools of statecraft, like multilateral campaigns to preserve democratic internet standards or offer affordable digital infrastructure to developing countries. Time, unfortunately, is growing short: America’s window to arrest an eroding regional balance and an emerging Chinese techno-imperium may remain open only for a few years.
The U.S. has long been hostile to authoritarian spheres of influence, for fear that conceding them would leave it locked out of critical areas and give ruthless competitors greater power on the global stage. That basic interest hasn’t changed in the age of Chinese revisionism, even if the nature of those spheres — and the blend of policies needed to deny them — has.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Tobin Harshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org