The multi-front geopolitical tussle between the United States and China has surfaced more forcefully with the Biden Administration seeking to confront Beijing in the technological theater. In a not-so-surprising move, the US House of Representatives, the lower chamber of parliament, overwhelmingly passed a bill on March 14 that may eventually lead to the banning of the Chinese social media application TikTok. ‘The Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act’ is yet to take the form of law as it still awaits Senate approval and the president’s endorsement. President Joe Biden has already given a nod to sign once the bill comes to his table. However, the bill’s fate is uncertain as the Senate remains non-committal so far.

The bill seeks ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to sell its shares within six months or face a ban in the United States. TikTok is a powerful social media site with over a billion users worldwide and 170 million in the United States alone. The US government fears that the Chinese government may use TikTok as a tool for disinformation and data stealing of its users. The Biden administration, enacting the ‘No TikTok on Government Devices Act’ in 2022, has already prohibited the use of TikTok on federal government-owned devices. Now it seeks to ban it entirely. The US decision comes in the aftermath of several European and Asian countries, including India, restricting the Chinese social media site. Interestingly, the social media site is banned within China itself despite Chinese shares in ByteDance. China has tightly regulated the internet and blocked other social websites like Gmail, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. In a way, the latest move is retaliation to Chinese restrictions on American social media sites.

The geopolitical battle in the world has constantly changed its nature, forms, and fronts. Military power was the key in the 19th century, while the economy emerged as another important front in geopolitical warfare in the 20th century. Similarly, the players in international power politics have changed. Europe was the epicenter of international power in the 19th century, with Britain as the leader. Europe used to decide the fate of the world. Britain, Germany, France, and some other European countries were the powers to reckon with, whereas countries in other continents figured little in the global political scene. The entire world, including the American continents, was colonized by European powers, of which Britain’s share was the largest. In the 19th century, the British Empire colonized over a quarter of the earth’s surface. Those were the days when Britain would dictate, whereas the rest of the world would take notes.

The first and second World Wars exhausted European powers both militarily and economically. Their main source of power was the colonies worldwide. After the Second World War, national liberation movements swept across the world, and colonized countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America attained independence. The United States then emerged as the superpower since the mid-20th century, while the communist Soviet Union also rose to superpower status, marking the rise of the bipolar world. In the bipolar world, the United States led the liberal and democratic pole, while the Soviet Union declared itself as the leader of the communist bloc. However, the bipolar world crumbled in 1991 with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which Vladimir Putin calls the ‘biggest geopolitical tragedy of the century’.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, a unipolar world order returned in which the United States came to be the sole superpower and global rule setter. The present global institutions and rules were set by the US-led Western world.

Prior to the Second World War, military power was the sole geopolitical instrument to control the world. Halford Mackinder’s heartland theory ruled the roost, as powers often sought to control the heartland through military might, focusing on ground forces. Then came the Sea Power theory in which Alfred Mahan prophesized that control of the sea is essential to control the world, laying emphasis on naval power. Nicholas Spykman advocates the Rimland theory that proposed to control the littoral areas for which the Navy plays a crucial role. All three theories laid emphasis on hard power.

Joseph Nye coined the term ‘soft power,’ which means the power other than hard power that also plays an important role in shaping power structure and geopolitical order. Since the 1980s, the economic and financial sector rose so strongly and swiftly that it proved to be an instrumental soft power in global power politics. A strong and powerful armed force and armaments alone do not sustain domination and control unless the military was backed by a strong economy. The Soviet Union collapsed not because it had an inferior military and weaponry, but because its economy could not sustain the military establishment. Thus the Soviet Union collapsed like a house of cards. In the new global power struggle, China rose as an economic powerhouse to be the second-largest economy only next to the US. According to the World Economic League Table published in December 2022 by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, China is poised to emerge as the largest economic power, superseding the United States by 2036. With the rise in economic capability, China’s confidence has soared, and it is trying to build multiple capabilities, including military and technology, to counter the United States. With higher spending in technological innovation, China is making efforts to compete with and contain the United States in the technological front globally to prove its superiority. Thus, technology has emerged as the key geopolitical soft power and instrument for which both the US and China are competing.

The recent US move on TikTok is just a symptom of the worsening relations between the existing superpower and the emerging superpower. The real disease will depend on future turns of events in the technological battle between the United States and China. As the saying goes, ‘Once bitten twice shy,’ the United States is extra sensitive after the Chinese balloon issue and China’s continued efforts of technological decoupling from the West. China is already pushing its agendas to influence the world through the Belt and Road Initiative Global Security Initiative (GSI) and Digital Silk Road initiative. It is not only the United States, but the European Union too, seems to be sensitive to China’s aggressive technological politics and is working out to ensure European technological sovereignty while partnering with the United States and India.

China still lags behind the US in economic power, military might, and technological innovation, but Beijing is neck and neck. Cognizant of the growing threat from the prospective rival, the United States is making efforts in maintaining its superiority in all fronts including technology and containing the adversaries. The bill seeking a ban on TikTok came with this motive, although its passage in the Senate is not certain. The bill has already stirred debate on the issue of freedom of expression, but the question about data security has gained more prominence. As the world enters the era of the fifth industrial revolution or the era of artificial intelligence, technology is being weaponized by big powers in strategic and geopolitical contestation in which privacy, personal data, and information are being compromised. At a time when technology has broken physical borders, fake information, disinformation, and stealing of personal data are the most pressing problems the technological politics has posed to humanity at large. Against this background, the US and China are fighting technological warfare, whereas individuals across the world will be caught in the crossfire.